Valuing Your Contrarians; How to Harness Their Vigor to Grow Your Association (798 words)

Ed Rigsbee, top speaker on Membership Growth

The ROI of Membership

A recent meetings industry headline stated, “ASAE Adds Diversity Officer.” The article stated, “…the American Society of Association Executives and the Center for Association Leadership announced that a 20-year veteran…has been named director of diversity and inclusion.”

I have a suspicion that finding ways to offer inclusiveness to contrarian association members is not necessarily top-of-the-list for ASAE’s new Diversity Officer. Perhaps it should be? Diversity is a term that should be viewed through several lenses.

Through my work with associations, I have come to believe that few association volunteer leaders or paid staff members realize the value of the contrarian members, which are so easily left behind. Inclusion of contrarians rarely is top-of-mind for association leaders. Generally in association life, the path of least resistance is the road frequently traveled. Too frequently, average and non-demanding are the order of the day. While there is a time and place for conformance, there is also the same for inclusion of the rebellious.

Contrarians tend to be out-of-the-box thinkers, energetic and vigorous—all the qualities needed for innovation and clever leadership. They also step on a lot of toes and ruffle plenty of feathers. Might there be the possibility for some sort of balance in your association?

The Disengaged Contrarian Member

To engage the contrarian, you first must understand what causes him or her to become detached from your organization:

  • Feeling that they, or their opinion, doesn’t matter
  • Feeling that they are being squeezed into conformity like a square peg being shoved into a round hole
  • Feeling that they are being forced to play using an unreasonable or archaic set of rules
  • Believing that those in authority are incompetent or have only a personal agenda in leading or managing the organization
  • Feeling that they are simply tired of the BS

Engaging the Contrarian Member

With the above stated, is there room for some sort of middle ground, for some kind of balance between traditional and untraditional? I believe there is and the key is in the words “feeling” and “believing” which are words of uncertainty and perception.

It’s all about perception—the perception of the disengaged contrarian as to how they are feeling or believing. The simple answer is that with a modicum of effort, association leaders can quite easily engage the contrarians through inclusiveness.

Similar to my work in helping organizations develop strategic alliances, I urge the leaders in these situations to give up on the idea of ruling with an iron fist but rather to collaborate. I stated, collaborate, and not tolerate—there is a difference. By collaborating with a contrarian, you are offering them a seat-at-the-table. And, provided that they truly have a seat, and are not simply placated, they will become engaged and deliver true value.

How the Association Benefits from Contrarian Inclusion

The old saw goes something like this, “You are either growing or dying.” Extinction for associations is a real and present danger. Quite a number of associations have merged over the past decade. While many will explain that it was a complex situation, I believe the honest reason was simply that the merged associations were no longer serving their members at the level they once offered.

Non-profits, the same for for-profit organizations, must continually grow and reinvent themselves to serve their changing markets or constituencies. Contrarians see challenges through different prisms and offer diversified solutions—frequently not considered by traditional thinkers.

Contrarians are energetic and vigorous. If they are passionate about something they will devote their entire being toward their resolve. Including, and collaborating with, contrarians helps them to have an emotional ownership in a campaign or activity—why not harness this for the good of the association?

For leaders of associations that have the ability to be forward thinkers, to explore how something might be achieved, rather than holding tight to beliefs as to why something can not be done—contrarians could be your greatest ally.

Contrarians are generally thrown into a single category of malcontents. While this is far from being accurate, it does take some detective work on the part of association leaders to dissect the contrarian membership into various stakeholder categories. This can only be done when leaders attempt to understand the primary issues various contrarians have with exclusion, perceived or real, by their association.

Honest discourse is the answer to discovering the true issues that cause contrarian disengagement. Then, this is an absolute; an honest effort must be made by the association to shore up the association’s deficiencies in serving its various stakeholder groups.

Which do you think serves the association and its membership better; a diverse pallet of members fully engaged in receiving and giving value to the association and industry or having a number of stakeholders believing they have been left behind?

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