Member Engagement — Does Your Association Do It? (1153 words)

Ed Rigsbee, top speaker on Membership Growth

The ROI of Membership

They are called the disenfranchised! Within a trade association or professional society’s membership; the disenfranchised are also referred to as the grumblers, the fringe, the disconnected, the malcontent, and the contrarians.

Warning: this article is bullet-hole riddled with clichés; however that was my disposition the day of writing. Nonetheless, this article is absolutely worth the read for all association and society paid staff and volunteer leaders.

In my professional association, many have classified me as one of the above. However about 10 years ago I did something about it and formed a community within the association that draws about 20% of the attendees to my annual event which is held in conjunction with the association’s convention. Now many of the association’s members also considered to be in my same disenfranchised category receive heightened value in their convention experience through my event. However, most associations do not have an “Ed” doing something for the outcast members. This is now the time for me to break my arm patting myself on the back.

Let’s talk about your association or society. How do you reel in the self-exiled members before they quit your organization? Below I have listed a few of the questions that I ask of boards of directors when facilitating strategic board planning retreats. Regardless of your position; paid staff or volunteer leader, asking the questions below at your next board meeting will cause an honest discussion around the topic of member engagement.

1. Do you know what really matters to the disconnected and have you attempted to deliver what they want?

Let’s face it, how can you deliver value, at any level, to a person if you have no idea as to what they consider to be valuable? I can’t tell you how many “happy sheet” surveys I’ve completed that asked the wrong questions; I believe for fear of hearing what people really think. What’s a happy sheet? A questionnaire that is written in such a way to elicit only one answer—yep, everything’s wonderful. As you know, when the ostrich’s head is in a hole, its rear is quite exposed—not the intended result. You can only improve the right things at the right time when you know what urgently needs to be fixed.

2. Are the disenfranchised members really grumbling contrarians or do they simply want different kinds of value—value that is not as easily delivered?

What do you do when you’ve picked all the low laying fruit—go away, or get a ladder? For many in association or society leadership, going the course is always the safe direction. However, to grow your organization, you must consider the needs of those that fall to the wake of the mainstream.

You are either green and growing or ripe and rotting. Many mature associations have had to merge with others that are involved in their industry. First, perhaps there shouldn’t have been multiple associations. But, I’m quite sure the genesis of the newer organization was out of discontentment from particular segments of the original organization’s membership. A new organization was formed and some time later dissolved, or the original organization met its demise. At the end of the day, to keep members engaged in an organization, they must receive value. The value might be that of, being valued or that of other more tangible issues—regardless, the value must be received.

3. Do you allow your organization’s Past President Good Ol’ Boys’ Club to be the organization’s puppet master?

Let me count the ways I’ve seen this, and let’s be clear on what really is, a puppet master. For this article, I define the puppet master as the person or persons behind the scene that pull the strings controlling the puppets. Am I calling your elected board members and paid staff puppets? I’ll just say this, if the shoe fits…

I realize this discussion will anger the good ol’ boys, but shouldn’t the elected board, in concert with the paid staff, run the organization? The insidiousness of this puppet master dynamic is that for many who want to make a difference, they would just as soon not make waves. And, for the single blade of grass, or member, that does try to rise above, the puppet master acts as a lawn mower and chops that blade, or member, down to the level of the rest. So why go through the trouble? Let the puppet masters pull the strings.

4. Are your board members continually seeking to deliver more perceived value to the organization’s members?

Wow, you mean improve? Sorry for being so cynical, it is just that I have worked with so many associations that are riddled with volunteer leaders that want the privileges and stature of a board member position but are unwilling to accept the same responsibility and perform their duties in a timely manner. Also I have seen plenty of paid staffers that are on cruise control, enjoying the comfortable ride. To continually deliver more member value means to get off cruise control and take some risks.

5. Why are you being so resistant to change?

What is it about this particular sacred cow that makes it so untouchable? This is the touchy question that gets many “doers and risk takers” chopped down to size and most aggravates the good ol’ boy puppet masters. Want an example? Try discontinuing your golf tournament—never you, mind that it has lost money the last five years in a row! Damn it! We’re not giving up the event! Now that’s settled!

The hard question for many trade associations or professional societies is this, are we trying to serve the members or are we trying to perpetuate the association’s legacy (the past president’s good ol’ boy club)? As a writer and professional speaker, I live in a glass house and will admit to being part of the good ol’ boys’ club in organizations of which I have once been a member. Fortunately, I realized when it was time for me to leave—I was just too stubborn to change.

An analogy I’ll draw; back in the days when I taught mostly sales training. I would tell a sales manager that they would have to fire that star sales person that left a wake of excrement behind and demoralized the rest of the sales force with his or her behavior. While they were the top sales person, they greatly damaged the sales department and the organization by their unacceptable behavior—that was being accepted. As such, this greatly flawed top performer became a heavily weighted ball and chain to the department and organization rather than a stabilizing anchor. At some point the sales manager was going to have to let go—in my opinion—the sooner the better. This opens a door for the rest of the organization to improve. It’s just hard to let go of what is comfortable—no matter the damage that’s being done.

Yes, the larger your membership, the better your organization can serve your industry. Might it make good sense to give up one member if you get ten in return?

The key to safeguarding your organization’s future…is to research, embrace, and maximize…your member ROI.