Association Executive Directors Must be Entrepreneurial (1093 words)

Collaboration is a mindset–some get it instantly, but it often takes people attending several of my seminars for my partnering concepts to sink in–and unfortunately, some never get it.

Helping people to see personal value in changing their paradigm can be a thankless job. Why is it that people cling so dearly to the lifeline of their comfort zone? They do so simply because it is just that–comfortable.

I Joined the National Speakers Association as a professional member in 1988. I have since, regularly presented at association conventions, conferences and other association meetings across North America. In that time I have met some stellar association executives and staff. And, I have had to work with a few that were less than optimal. While I’m sure the same can be said about speakers, nevertheless, this article is about association executives helping to deliver more value to their members.

Recently, I was presenting to a room full of association executive directors on the subject of associations delivering value to their members—an important subject today. Unfortunately, only half of the executive directors registered at the conference even cared attended. That blew me away! Apparently they knew all there was to know about membership retention already? Now there is a telling sign…

While a large number of the attendees were open to exploring methods of delivering high-level member value, still there were several “closed” people in the room. Forcing association executives to look in the mirror and deal with association survival issues was at best, difficult. This, I believe, is part of the reason that today so many associations are experiencing membership decline. Generally, it is easier to blame the problem on industry consolidation or other outside factors over which one has no control.

In the November 2001 issue of Association Management magazine there was an article about why members do not renew. The article stated that American Society of Association Executives’ research revealed the following reasons for association members not renewing:

  • Business closed/merged–12%
  • Change of profession-15%
  • Cannot determine-16%
  • Dues too high-17%
  • Not enough time to use member benefits-7%
  • Services no longer relevant-17%
  • Other-16%

In my opinion, the only “non-value” issue is the business closing or change of profession. All the remaining reasons loudly say, “Not enough perceived value!” Over 73% of the non-renewing members said, “Not enough perceived value.” Why are association executive directors and volunteer leadership not listening?

First, many Executive Directors still prefer to simply be administrators rather than entrepreneurs–that’s a huge problem. A new breed of entrepreneurial association management executives is necessary for today’s associations to survive and prosper. The old glad-handing at the annual meeting is no longer relevant to most members, especially younger members.

During one of my member value presentations to a group of association executive directors, I could not believe how many association executive attendees wanted to argue about insignificant points rather than to focus on the solutions offered, especially when I took them through the actual process of determining the actual association value in real dollars—a process that each executive director should greatly desire to take back to their own association. In an era when association executive directors must be part of the solution in showing value to members, so many still do not get it.

Second, if an association is only willing to pay for a secretary or baby-sitter, then the volunteer leadership should not, and cannot, expect anything more–I have seen this challenge all too often. Volunteer boards of directors also have to get real.  Entrepreneurs, rather than administrators, make things happen, and want to be paid for their skill and results. Baby-sitters, they are not!

Third, change is difficult. Leaving one’s comfort zone is, unfortunately for some, near impossible. These are the hard challenges that face today’s association executive directors. The days of saying, “Volume solves most problems,” are gone. Visitwww.rigsbee.com/associationarticles.htm for more articles on trade association and professional society success.

For association volunteer leadership:

  • Have a long-term strategic and review it yearly. Keep what is valuable and change what is not. Do not shift with the wind, meaning each president or chair must not select a new and different direction at the onset of his or her term.
  • With an executive director, you get that for which you are willing to pay.
  • The board should conduct a Relationship Value Update with its executive director at a minimum, yearly.
  • The board collectively should, at a minimum, each year speak to every member over the telephone asking about the value received the member that year.
  • Be true leaders. Don’t cop-out and say, “I’m just a volunteer, I’m too busy.” If you are too busy to be a leader in your association, why in the world did you accept a leadership role? Could it be ego? Why does your lack of planning have to become a crisis for your executive director? Do not expect your executive director and staff to do it all.

For association executive directors:

  • Rather than focus on job protection, focus on helping the volunteer leadership to deliver the highest level of real value to your association members. What is real value? The value they want. If you are delivering the necessary value, they will want you for life.
  • If you are regimented enough to be a superior administrator and flexible enough to excel as an entrepreneur, you will operate in that “sweet spot” where the two seemingly opposing circles of interest overlap. That where the organizational magic emanates from.
  • Is it your association? Or, does it belong to the members? That can be a much more difficult question than you might think. “Sure,” you say, “It belongs to the members.” And, do your actions say the same thing?
  • Executive directors must be skilled and seasoned politicians, a job I, myself do not do well. Yet, there is a time to collaborate, and there is a time to lead with a firm grip. Knowing which, and when, is the secret.
  • Like the board of directors, the executive director and staff too must yearly communicate with each and every member.

While the above is not a magic solution for the ills of many of today’s associations, the ideas will deliver a greatly improved perception of value from the eyes of your association members. And as I always say in my seminars, “The conversation I have with myself about you is my reality.” The same holds true with your members’ conversation about you…

Edrigsbee

Edrigsbee

Ed Rigsbee is the consummate evangelist for member recruitment and strategic alliance success. He holds the Certified Association Executive (CAE) and Certified Speaking Professional (CSP) accreditation. Ed is the author of The ROI of Membership-Today’s Missing Link for Explosive Growth, PartnerShift, Developing Strategic Alliances, and The Art of Partnering. To his credit, he has over 2,500 articles in print and countless articles electronically published.

Ed is the Founder and CEO of the 501(c)(3) non-profit public charity, Cigar PEG Philanthropy through Fun, and president at Rigsbee Research which conducts qualitative member ROI research and consulting for associations and societies. He has been called “the dynamite that broke up our log jam” by association executives—rarely politically correct and almost always provocative—and from a dozen years as a United States Soccer Federation referee, Ed calls it the way he sees it. Exceptional resources at www.rigsbee.com.
Edrigsbee