The Association Cycle

Associations, more than any other type of organization I’ve seen, are defined by their annual cycle.

Volunteers and board members turn over every year. Many organizations have a new president or chairman every year. Annual meetings happen, well, annually! Membership renewal is typically on an annual basis. Awards are given out each year. Periodicals come out periodically.

This cyclical nature is a tremendous strength that also brings some challenges.

The strength is that associations have significant momentum stored up in the flywheel of their annual cycle. This energy creates significant barriers to competitive challenges and provides a sustainable source of income. People have been predicting the end of associations since I started working with them almost 20 years ago. Still here! Still valuable!

That annual cycle momentum has a lot to do with association staying power.

The challenge is that the default action of any association is to repeat the process over again, often precisely like it was the year before. Do nothing and you do the same. Status quo is the much easier path for associations, more than other types of organizations. This can result in a gradual decline since the world around us is constantly changing and failure to adapt will erode performance over time.

Implementing association strategy successfully requires being fully cognizant of the organization’s annual cycle and using it as a primary implementation method. Annual cycles should be modified each year to create outcomes that contribute to your strategic goals. This can involve pruning or adding items to your cycle but more often it requires modifying what you already do to create different results.

Own the cycle or it will own you.

Lessons from Start-ups

Fred Wilson, an investor and partner in many technology start-up companies, recently posted some key themes from successful start-ups he has been involved with. These came from a talk he gave to an MBA class recently. I pulled out a few of the items below, follow the link for them all: A VC: MBA Tuesday.

– There is a very high correlation between lean startup approach and the top performing companies in our two funds.

– Lean startup methology is great, but it is really a lean startup culture you want.

– Lean startup is a machine, garbage in will give you garbage out.

Lean in the context of NPOs and associations means you don’t throw large teams, budget, or formal volunteer committees at the challenge as you start up. Being starved for resources forces you to focus on only those actions that will move you toward your goal rather than building process for the sake of process. My good friend, Seth Kahan, wrote extensively about this in his book, Getting Change Right.

More from Fred:

– Early in a startup, product decisions should be hunch driven. Later on, product decisions should be data driven.

– Hunches come from being a power user of the products in your category and from having a long standing obsession about the problem you are solving.

– Domain expertise to the point of obsession is highly correlated with the most successful entrepeneurs in our portfolio.

Associations have a huge advantage in this arena: our most active members are the most obsessed about their field or industry in the world! The trick is to work with them to inform and energize the start-up project rather than saddle both them and you with an unwieldy process that stifles precisely the creativity you need to be successful.

– Monetization should be native and improve the experience for users.

If you expect the new product, service or outcome to pay for itself in the future then it should have revenue built into it from the get-go. If not, you’re unlikely to add it in successfully later. This doesn’t mean it’s profitable from day one. But a product or experience with a revenue component built in from the start doesn’t have to be reinvented to add it in later and it trains your customers or users to pay for it over time.

Old Members Are The Future!

Deirdre Reid wrote a post this week about dealing with a dearth of young leaders in associations. I’m going to take a good crack at the idea we have to increase the percentage of young people in our organizations and I wanted to give Deirdre credit for kicking off this idea when I read her post.

By 2050 over 25% of the population in the U.S. will be 60 years or older according to government projections. 1 in 4! That’s compared to about 18% today. Given overall population growth, that represents more than 50 million new people 60 years or older in 2050 compared to now.

Old people are the future.

A lot of associations complain about how old their membership is. Given the way demographics are going, we better get used to it!

I also wonder how many of the 50 and 60 year old members of today were active leaders of their association 30 years ago. I’d wager a beer that it’s a very low percentage for many organizations. Our personal activities are driven by the professional and life stages in which we are immersed. Perhaps we are being too hard on ourselves about not having a lot of youth involved in the organization. Perhaps they just truly don’t care or we aren’t in the business of providing the value they are looking for at this point in their lives. Or there simply aren’t enough of them!

It is always worthwhile to take a step back and give our assumptions a few solid kicks and see which of them fall over and which stand up to scrutiny. Maybe you should be trying to get more ‘old’ members engaged rather than tilting at the young member windmill.

Two Opportunities to Hear Me Speak in May

I have two public presentations this month that I want to share with you. One is a luncheon keynote and the other a free webinar.

I am the luncheon keynote for the Association Foundation Group’s 8th National Conference on May 20th in Washington DC. My speech is titled “Accelerating Engagement Online and Beyond” which just so happens to be the same as my cover story article for this month’s Associations Now magazine.

I am also presenting a webinar with Real Magnet titled, Communicating for Impact: Simple Techniques for Breakthrough Improvement. This free webinar focuses on how simple planning, testing and measurement of results can lead to dramatic breakthroughs with your electronic communication. I’ll be featuring several real world cases and examples along with my best tips for creating results with e-mail. The webinar is on May 25th at 2 p.m. Eastern.

I hope you’ll join us at one or both of the events!

Announcing a new blog from David Gammel:

I am very pleased to announce a new blog I am writing for those who embrace entrepreneurship in the pursuit of goals that matter: Orgpreneur.

The first few posts include:

Why You Must Make a Buck to Make a Difference
Why Entrepreneurship Matters to NPOs
Why You Must Put the Hairy Baby on the Table (one of my favorite stories from early in my career)

I hope you’ll check it out and subscribe!

2010 Snowpocalypse Operations Survey Results

Wes Trochlil and I have posted the initial summary of results from the 2010 Snowpocalypse Operations Survey. You can follow the prior link to the document on Slideshare or view it below.

Some of the most interesting things I noted were:

  • Organizations with extensive staff telecommuting in place prior to the storms did the best at maintaining operations even if the physical offices were closed;
  • The above didn’t help much if electricity were out at staff homes or they had children or other obligations to take care of due to mass closures;
  • Respondent organizations did very well overall despite some of the most challenging weather conditions in decades.

We will release more detailed analysis in the next few weeks.

We encourage you to share these results with your colleagues and peers. Use this data to start a conversation about how your organization did and where you can make changes to better prepare for the next emergency.

Snowpocalypse Operations Survey

Wes Trochlil and I are fielding a survey, The Snowpocalypse Operations Survey, to assess how the repeated snow storms over the past couple of weeks impacted your operations, in particular how you think it impacted your external facing services. Our goal is determine the impact and assess what organizations successfully did to maintain or minimize disruption to their members, customers and others.

All respondents will receive a summary of the results from us and access to a later white paper. Complete the survey here and please feel free to share with colleagues at other organizations.

The short survey should take no more than a few minutes to complete.


Work with Your Board of Directors to Formulate Online Strategy: Free Teleconference

The snow must go on! And the show will too. If you would like to attend a free teleconference from David Gammel on how to formulate web strategy effectively with boards of directors and other leaders, sign up now! This session was originally in the line up for ASAE’s Technology Conference, which has been canceled due to an impending ice age in the Nation’s Capital.

Online and On Mission: Work with Your Board of Directors to Formulate Online Strategy

Your organization’s website makes substantial and tangible contributions to the mission of your organization, and your board of directors is a crucial participant in developing a Web strategy that achieves breakthrough results. Identify key questions you must answer when creating your Web strategy, and walk away with proven methods to formulate and launch your strategy with the full engagement of your top leaders.

Presented by C. David Gammel, CAE. Author of Online and On Mission: Practical Web Strategy for Breakthrough Results.

The call will be held at 10:15 a.m. EST on Friday, February 12, 2010. You will receive an e-mail with connection instructions before the call.

You must follow this link and complete the form to receive the conference call instructions. Register now!

Expand Engagement Before and After Membership

As a follow-up to my definition of member engagement for associations, I’d like to discuss the idea of broadening your engagement strategy beyond membership.

If you accept that engagement occurs when someone invests time or money with the organization in exchange for value, you can then consider opportunities to do so before becoming a member as well as after. In fact, membership could be just another station along an engagement progression path, rather than the ultimate destination.

Examples of pre-membership engagement could include:

  • Viewing content on your website, blog, twitter account, etc.;
  • Paying attention to a PSA or press coverage;
  • Sharing content from your website or other publication;
  • Buying a product;
  • Attending a conference or event;
  • Applying for a job via a career center.

Examples of post-membership engagement could include all of the above, plus:

  • Writing or speaking;
  • Volunteering for a committee or task force;
  • Serving in a leadership role;
  • Awarded Fellowship or other achievement status;
  • Spending significant money on sponsorship, advertising, exhibit space, etc.

The important concept here from a strategy perspective is to plot out what lower value engagement activities and options will feed into higher levels and how you can progress people through them.

Imagine professional baseball without the minor leagues. Moving from high school to pro teams for all players (not just the rare exceptional talents) would be very hard to do well from both the player and team points-of-view. The minors provide an important talent channel for the majors. While I’m not suggesting you develop a minor league association, you do need to consider how people will progress through your organization as their relationship with you matures.

Organizations with an efficient flow from low to high value engagement will tend to be healthier from both revenue and mission fulfillment perspectives.

Definition of Member Engagement for Associations

The term ‘member engagement’ is often bandied about in the association world. More of it is considered better yet we rarely state what that actually means. I thought I would put a stake in the ground with my definition of it in the work I do with clients.

Member engagement is the result of a member investing time and/or money with the association in exchange for value. The more of these precious resources they invest, the more engaged they are.

A member who speaks at a lot of conferences and writes many articles for association publications is highly engaged.

A member who invests hundreds of thousands of dollars in sponsorship money is also highly engaged, even if they do absolutely nothing else.

Engagement is about value. The value for the person doing the engaging as well as the value of that engagement for the association.

Healthy associations create more engagement opportunities in areas that create strategic value for the organization. Having a surfeit of articles to publish is nice but doesn’t really matter if the budget has been in the red for the last three years.

Create engagement where it matters.