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July 07, 2005

More on M&M take-away #3

A little while back, Jamie Notter and Chris Bailey asked me to elaborate on my Marketing & Membership Symposium take-away #3, which stated...

Membership organizations that streamline their governance structures run the serious risk of alienating their most loyal members. Streamlining governance in the interest of agility and profit may well pay off in the short term, but the long term effect may sometimes be to the association's detriment by eroding the support of its faithful. Are agility and inclusion mutually exclusive in association management? I'm not convinced that they are. It's certainly more difficult to be BOTH inclusive AND quick (but as I've written before) doing what is easier is very often the less appropriate option.
So here I go elaborating...

In my experience, streamlining is often a euphemism for downsizing. Many association executives -- myself included -- sometimes feel they can get more nimble by ridding themselves of those meddlesome members. You know, the ones who call or email at least once a week with more input or suggestions or ideas? I admit, those folks can be a pain in the neck when I've got work to do. However, I'm increasingly coming to the realization that, as an association executive, THIS is my work. To collaborate with volunteers to help them create the association they, as a group, want for themselves. It is not the simple path, but I'm finding it is the more appropriate path. And ultimately, I'm thinking it may be the more profitable one.

There are numerous theories and concepts being batted around in the association community these days about inclusion and diversity: The Open Source Organization, The Wisdom of Crowds, Customer Evangelists. But I think, by and large, many associations are simply paying lip service to these issues. And worse, I'm arriving at the conclusion that many association executives are deliberately turning their members into customers, because they feel they can run the association faster and better without the inconvenience of member input. Sure, we'll do a survey and a focus group, but we'll either manipulate the outcome by leading our respondents, or we'll interpret the results as we see fit.

In my opinion, three of the contributing factors to this phenomenon are:
1. Transition to a knowledge based organization, as opposed to a market based organization;
2. The desire of association executives to be agile, like entrepreneurial small business owners; and
3. It's easier to take members out of the planning process.

I believe some efficiencies have been gained by, and associations are better off for having implemented some corporate-style management techniques. I would only suggest that association professionals need to be cautious about taking it too far. Many a faithful member could be alienated by eliminating opportunities to be engaged. I've seen it happen in the association I work for now. In the long run, this could lead to fewer purchases, or an exodus of what were once loyal members.

A credo I've been working on with respect to this topic is...
The pendulum has swung too far. Today, associations need to be run less like businesses, and more like associations.
I've been thinking about this a lot recently, and will probably post again on the subject. I'd be interested to hear readers' feedback on this topic.


Chris Bailey said...

Oh boy, I'm sensing a great debate arising here. Thanks for kicking this into gear :)

I disagree with your point about how by turning members into customers, you take their input out of the equation. Any company that decides it unilaterally knows what it's customer wants and needs is deluding itself. The smart companies and assocations know that it all begins with a customer-centric POV that goes beyond simple focus groups and surveys.

What I see as a critical flaw in the traditional association model is how all membership features are product- and service-based. So what's the problem with that? It attempts to squeeze members into ORGANIZATIONALLY-created categories like standard member, retired, student, etc. At a time where value is so important, we need to let our members choose what they need from us not what we want to give them. That gives the different audiences within our memberships a new power and input.

I truly believe that our members now want resolution to their everyday professional challenges. I see associations moving away from a product/service-based mentality to one that's more solutions-based. But the bottom line is delivering value and the associations that cannot deliver value will quickly find their way to irrelevance.

Ben said...

Thanks for chiming in, Chris. For me the critical issue is not so much "input" as it is "engagement". Give me the opportunity to develop the association, and I'll give you my loyalty to the association. People aren't likely to abandon investments of their time and effort. The more opportunities for your membership to contribute the more committed your membership will be. I think this goes back to your recent post on members as citizens.

Chris Bailey said...

Well, that earlier post was more of an example. I'm still not sure that "member as citizen" is going to keep the association model going into the future.

Your concept of loyalty to an association is certainly a major value for you and a personal reason why you belong to the organizations that you do. There are members out there like you who want to be a part of developing the association. However, I also believe there are a sizable chunk of folks out there who don't care to be citizens. Their loyalty lies in something else. It's up to us association professionals to figure out what it is and create an association that is nimble enough to meet the loyalty needs of an array of members.

For-profits understand this market segmentation strategy very well. Associations tend to be way behind in the game.

Ben said...

True, true. In the same way that our society has shifted attitudes towards voting recently, association members can be educated about membership as citizenship. Not all members, but certianly enough to make a difference. And even a small band of member evangelists can produce awesome results. The "customers" will follow them. Engagement may be the only golden handcuffs left to most associations.

Emad Rahim said...

I agree with your statement that "associations today need to stop running like business and more like association.” I just stated an association and the first thing people on the board ask me was “how do you make money.” Not how or what type of services I am going to offer to my members? Nor how will I uphold my mission statement. The bottom line was money. I am all for development plans. I completed the 501 ( c )(3) and coordinated the fundraiser myself, but my mission and providing quality services is my number 1 priority.

I read a couple of Association Management magazines and only notice one article about effective programming and services. I like the goal of the Association Make A Better World program.

Jamie Notter said...

I better understand where you're coming from, thanks. The debate here seems to be pitting more engaged members on one side, against agile and business like on the other. I agree that we need more engaged people, be they customers or members. That sense of ownership creates loyalty that business owners certainly yearn for. The problem, for me, is in the ultimate command and control hierarchy that we take as a given. With one steering wheel, telling more people they can drive is a mistake. Pushing for more engagement I think brings with it a questioning of some of the basic assumptions that drive the structure and processes of today's associations (actually, this probably applies to most organizations). Agility I think can be maintained, but it will require a new kind of leadership and new expectations of people who have been waiting their whole life to be "in charge."

Jeff De Cagna said...

Ben, I've read your post about twenty times and I still can't figure out how I feel about it. I strongly agree with some of your points and I vigorously disagree with others. It's pretty late so I don't have time to go into a detailed response right now, so let me just put out a few quick tidbits to keep the conversation going:

+You seem to equate governance with involvement. I must challenge that notion. I think it is in the best interest of associations to streamline their governance and be as agile as possible in their strategic decision-making. This doesn't mean that they can or should disengage from their members. On the contrary, they really must create new and different opportunities for their stakeholders to engage with the actual work of the association if they are to fully leverage new opportunities.

+As I look back over your post, I've recognized at least a little of what's bothering me about what you wrote. Nowhere do you mention the issue of trust, and that's too bad, because in many ways, it is the crux of the issue we're talking about here. Although I cannot cite data to support this specific point, I think that Robert Putnam's work on the decline in social capital would generally lend credence to the assertion that "the support of [the] faithful" you describe has been eroding for decades for reasons that don't have anything to do with being treated like customers. We have seen a decline in trust and a decline in civic and social engagement, including association participation, and that is partly due to an ongoing decline in trust in our society.

At the same time, association leaders aren't very good at building and sustaining trust either. While you have concerns about the streamlining of governance, I am more worried about governance that remains overbearing, centralized and hierarchical. Elected association leaders and their boards often find it difficult to let go, in part I believe, because they are not capable of trusting members and staff to do the right things on their own. If we want to change the dynamics we're talking about, we're going to have to place a greater emphasis of building and sustaining trust.

+Increasingly, I think the line between member and customer is blurring. Innovation is becoming a highly customer-centric endeavor and in the Web-enabled world, customers hold more power than ever before. Indeed, some "customers" are even more engaged in the work of the companies or organizations that are supposed to serve them, than many association members. If the member/customer is unhappy with what the association is providing or how its staff is managing the relationship, they have options to create and access value that they didn't have as recently as five years ago.

Nevertheless, I agree with you that many associations are missing a golden opportunity to deepen and strengthen the relationships they have with their members. It often just doesn't seem to be a priority for them. Again, the challenge of trust is a contributing factor.

I hope what I've written makes some kind of sense. I'm going to stop here for now. There is a great deal more to be said, and I will try to do that going forward.

Ben said...

Thanks for commenting, everyone. I would submit that involvement is about decision-making (I'm not talking strictly about boards, though) and that members can be engaged at many levels, such as buying a book or listening to a webcast. Basically, involvement is superior to engagement. I would also agree that treating members as customers is not the root of member disegnagement. However, I think reducing the number of opportunities that members have to make decisions about the association's path will not improve the situation. I think we all have thoughts on this issue. I'm looking forward to hearing more.