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Reinvent What You Do, Not Who You Are

I have no idea what I'm supposed to do. I only know what I can do.

Good News for Association Education from Generation X

The first generation to expect lifelong learning is here - and your association should be taking advantage of it!

Membership IS The Value of Membership

Members aren't customers. Rinse. Repeat.

Decision Weasels

Got a decision weasel in your midst? Learn how to spot 'em.

The END of Associations

The only thing that will ensure associations become irrelevant is the constant questioning about whether they are or not.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Are Associations Ready to REALLY Help Youth Worldwide?

So, most of you regular readers know I have been interested in generational issues for a while now and I've been working with the NextGen group at ASAE. When it comes to Generation Y, Millennials (and now Generation Z or whatever we decide to call them :D) the media tends to have its narrative pretty well set. It's either, "Look out, we're doooooomed #Coachella," or "These entitled upstarts are ruining office productivity with the cell phones and the chatting and the Googleglass...bah humbug....." This cultural narrative is not at all helpful in terms of actually understanding issues faced by younger members. Generational temperament and culture has validity, but needs to be looked at on balance with the overall science of human development and hierarchies of physiological and psychological needs.

In our association community there still seems to be some confusion about what younger members need. In one sense, they need what we've already got - they just want to consume it differently. In another sense, we seem to be missing a few important points about key issues they are struggling with. At some point our continued floundering with these "whippersnappers" is going to lead to a crisis of confidence on their part and they are going to take matters into their own hands.

It's long past time for us to get serious about engagement. There is an e-book on the (maybe imminent) horizon coming from ASAE and the NextGen '13 group that tackles some issues head on (so hold onto your hats for that, I'll let you know when it drops). Here is another way to potentially build a framework around what associations can do to help global youth proactively deal with the issues they are facing.

According to this article from Fast Company, "The Countries Where Youth are Doing the Best and the Worst" the first Global Youth Wellbeing Index  is an attempt to look at six key areas of life and provide baseline measurements as to how these youngun's are faring.  The United States ranks sixth on this list (ahem). Maybe we should be developing specific policy initiatives as a community to see what we can do to move the needle on these six categories.  It's not enough to talk about making a difference, eventually we will need to set about putting programs in place to ensure we do.

Citizen Participation: Actual participation in democratic processes is considered one indicator of the overall well being of any individual. In the United States we have struggled with voter apathy for a number of years (there are reasons for that but that's for another post). With the exception of the youth turnout during the 2008 and 2012 elections, we have seen little sign that the situation is destined to dramatically change without some major changes on the part of the establishment. Associations need to look at how they can encourage youth to learn how to play an active, participatory role in governance of all types.

Economic Opportunity: Becoming a productive member of society also requires a decent level of access to economic opportunities.  However, globally youth unemployment continues to rage. As of March 2014, unemployment rates in the United States for youth aged 20-24 hovered around 12%. In some countries, youth unemployment is hovering around 25% and even higher.  Associations need to take a closer look at how the jobs market is working both here in the United States and internationally and better prepare individuals to enter the workforce.

Education: Ensuring younger members gain access to meaningful, measurable, high quality education, specifically geared towards helping them succeed is critical.  Education also needs to be affordable. There is some truth in the idea that individuals should "follow their bliss" and seek out education that appeals to them.  However, a more cogent strategy in a "noisy" world is laying down a specific path for people to follow to ensure they acquire the skills they need in the order in which they need to attain them and that we have mechanisms in place for them to clearly demonstrate their achievements. And again - (say it again) - AFFORDABLE!!!!

Health: There will be those who believe concerns about members health is not the job of the association, yet I disagree.  Teaching younger members about mind-body balance, ensuring we have access to healthy snacks and opportunities to rejuvenate during conferences and events and not making our volunteers burn the candles at both ends is part of health and wellness. We need to set a better example. It seems that most of our "high-energy" volunteers also are "high-energy" at their day jobs. We need to create volunteer expectations that don't put our best, most involved folks at risk of heightened stress and perhaps burnout.

Information and Technology: Digital natives, blah blah...we've heard this one a thousand times. Well, yes you have but what about our responsibility to collectively fight to ensure open access to the Internet for younger members and the generations coming after them? We have a duty to not only up our curating game but also to take an active role in policy that affects information and technology here in the United States and internationally. Internet freedom affects us all.

Safety and Security: Again, this one may seem like it doesn't apply to us, but I think we can make an argument that it might. We need to think about how we ensure younger members feel physically and emotionally safe when they engage with their association peers.  This means staying vigilant and actively promoting anti-bullying and anti-harrassment policies. When scheduling conferences and events, certain factors (such as open or concealed carry weapons laws) may need to be taken into consideration when booking locations.

Bottom line is - we have a duty to the next generation to ensure these six areas of life are positively impacted by the membership experiences we provide.  At the very least, we should ensure we aren't doing any harm in these areas. Let's get together and see what we can do about positively impacting the Global Youth Wellbeing Index for the better!

Monday, March 10, 2014

The New Question Associations Should be Asking Every Day

If you feel so empty
So used up, so let down
If you feel so angry
So ripped off, so stepped on
You're not the only one
Refusing to back down
You're not the only one
So get up!.....Riot, Three Days Grace

I just saw this article published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. It details a fundamental shift in the way public colleges and universities are being funded and actually posits that public funds for higher education in some states may move to zero (ZERO) in the coming years. If nothing is done about the current system, income inequality will continue to drive the middle class to the brink of destruction and all the dues we complain about not getting now will disappear for good.

Obviously, I've talked about disruption in the secondary and post-secondary environment for a while now.  Workforce development in the United States is foundering on stormy economic seas and our skills gaps are getting larger and larger. If all you do is think about how to serve your current members you are destined to fall victim to the forces of entropy, erosion and attrition.

More importantly, is what to do with the thousands of young people who feel like they don't have any options, or their options are becoming more limited and fraught with the specter of increased costs for little demonstrable value. There are a lot of people out here who are angry about these conditions, and rightly so.

In my opinion, success today depends on asking new questions. "What is our value proposition?" is a legitimate question, but its an old one. It feels contemporary, but looking back through association literature from the last century, we've actually been hammering on "value" since the early 1900's. In light of changes in our economy and educational system, maybe we need to try a new question. What if we redirected some of our time into asking - "What does it take for an individual to become eligible to pay membership dues?"  There are thousands of hungry high-schoolers, young adults and the long term unemployed out there who need guidance that you may be able to provide. Maybe you have a fantastic gingerbread house, but if you aren't laying down the right kind of breadcrumbs how do you expect future members to actually find you in the middle of the woods?

Serving current members is important, but it's a strategy built around the past and present, not the future. Future strategy includes creating robust student programs and pathways into your industries and professions. You should be using data to get VERY specific about where your industry and professions are seeing shortages, and how you intend to solve those shortages. Without a major shift into that kind of predictive thinking, you will be forever playing catch-up and "selling" to a smaller and smaller audience.

There are a lot of angry, hurting people out here, but if we shift our gaze and start providing solutions for them instead of figuring out ways to feed off of them, we have a better shot of living up to a legacy that we can all be totally stoked about.

Let's not start another membership brochure, let's start a riot!

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Member-holics - First Step to Getting Help is Admitting You Have a Problem

If you can't see the embed here is the link.

So, every time an association ends up on Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert I just slap my forehead.  This time I almost knocked myself off the couch.

Stephen Colbert just did a takedown of the Envelope Manufacturers Association and a spin off PR effort of theirs known as Consumers for Paper Options. Obviously, its a comedy piece and played for effect but I can't let it go.  I don't know the folks at EMA or CPO (and after this, I'm pretty sure I won't get the chance to) but I am sure they are well meaning association professionals who are doing their level best to represent their members interests in the best way they know how. It's what we have all been taught is our job - to serve the members.

However, as an association professional I can tell you I think Stephen Colbert's Envelopefest 2014 is a perfect example of what I'm beginning to think of as "member-holicism."

I had a conversation earlier this week with a fellow colleague and point blank asked, "Why are associations not at the table when 'broad' conversations are happening? We are at the table when something particular to our own specific industry or profession is involved, but broadly speaking associations as a group seem to be locked out of larger conversations regarding society as a whole." His answer - "People (speaking writ large) don't trust us." The piece from Mr. Colbert exemplifies why.

Don't get me wrong - I understand the value of associations containing collectives of people who advocate for their interests, bring different perspectives to the table, and define what the operating environment looks like for their members to consumers, legislators and regulators.  I get it. And there is nothing wrong with "self-interest" per se. But too many times "self-interest" is where the conversation stops. We rarely get to the "problem solving" stage nor do we have anything to offer beyond "what's good for our members is good for you!"

I did some cursory research this morning on the Consumers for Paper Options website. I believe they have a stellar argument to make about the digital divide in America and how seniors, people who do not have access to broadband or who are in poverty could potentially be locked out of vital government services if a wholesale switch to a paperless system goes through.  Sure, this action could very well adversely affect vulnerable populations.  I'm with ya' on that one.  Great argument and extremely valid. It's a problem and it needs a solution.

But let's be honest.This effort isn't REALLY, primarily about the digital divide. It's not. It's about how we can co-opt a message for our own purposes. All of us have been in the room when one of these conversations have taken place about a spin-off PR effort and it almost always goes like this:

1) Government/consumers/industry cutting down on (____insert product or profession here___) ?
2) Sales will be affected!  Members will struggle!
3) We need a good message here so we don't look like we are worried about sales or our own jobs!
4) I know! Let's set up a consumer group and say we are here to defend consumers rights and protect poor people!  No elected officials want to offend consumers or hurt poor people! (unless you are talking about unemployment, education or health care...but I digress)
5) Cool!  We got the amendment!  Sales are safe!  Put that in the newsletter Barry so we can demonstrate our value to our members!

And that is where the conversation ends.  It begins with self-interest and ends with self-interest with a smattering of "doing good" in the middle. It's the "Twinkie" theory of public relations.

In the meantime, three issues remain up in the air - sustainability, government spending and most importantly - the actual digital divide. Is there a problem to be solved? Yes, there are three! However, balance and nuance is lost in the argument because of - the members. This is why we are member-holics. Our rush to "protect and defend" our members interests cause us to bump up against real problems but only to co-opt the message for a lobbying campaign to meet a narrow purpose, not to actually solve anything.

Por ejemplo, if this group is really concerned about the digital divide - they should be doing something about it.  They should be teaming up to oppose the Comcast/Time Warner merger. They should be coalition partners with telecomm to ensure broadband access is delivered to every community in the United States at low or no cost.  They should support educational efforts to ensure seniors, low income or other populations gain the skills and confidence they need to operate in a new economy and yes, make the eventual switch to electronic. AND they should be looking at other ways envelope manufacturers can evolve their businesses to adapt to new information delivery technologies.  Come up with some crazy ideas for envelopes that can be used more than once, or team up with Jeff Bezos and create the "self-delivering envelope" or SOMETHING more clever than you get an envelope, you get an envelope, everybody gets an envelope!

I'm already hearing the pushback. Well, working on actual broadband delivery is outside of our member scope. We don't have enough resources to engage in a larger effort. Our members are only interested in supporting lobbying efforts that...wait for it....waaaait for them a return on their dues investment. I'm sure you are right. And in that case, maybe you shouldn't position yourselves as the champions of the digital divide and just be honest - we have customers who still need envelopes so back off bucko.

We frequently end up with these ethical issues in associations because of this need to 'serve the members interests' with whatever flavor of the day, fake shell group lobbying effort we can dream up. It is quite possible this group has nothing but the BEST interests of the consumers at heart.  However, they ended up on Colbert because of one thing and one thing only - they look like what we suspect they might be - a lobbying effort set up to shore up sales for a member base in a dying or diminishing industry.  There's a recipe for the future - protect dying technology at all costs because improvements will hurt members instead of supporting improvements that could help us all.

I know it seems like younger members aren't interested in us. I submit it might be because they are a sophisticated generation. Systems thinkers raised in a media age that has taught them the skills to see through the marketing/PR shell game. They don't really want to be a part of a system rooted in the protectionism of the past. It isn't that they don't want to join - maybe it's that they don't always want to join US. Quite frankly, if we are truly interested in our members, we should be brave enough to tell them what they don't want to hear - that sometimes our members' industries or professions are in diminishment and/or decline and they need to take the intervening time during the decline to innovate, retrofit or find something else to do.

Associations can lead the way....or not. But for God's sake do the rest of us fellow association professionals a favor and if you're running a shell campaign put some meat in it. Every time one of us ends up on Colbert, we all look like idiots.

I think we can be better than this.  But only if we admit we are member-holics, put the dues invoice down and seek help.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Book Review - Business Storytelling for Dummies

The wind was a torrent of darkness
Among the gusty trees
The moon was a ghostly galleon
Tossed upon the cloudy seas
The road was a ribbon of moonlight
Over the purple moor
When the highwayman came riding
Riding, riding
The highwayman came riding
Up to the old inn door......The Highwayman, Loreena McKennitt

I love this song adaptation by Loreena McKennitt of the Highwayman.  The music is spectacular, and so is her voice, but it's the story that just holds me in thrall.

I typically don't do book reviews (especially for friends and colleagues) since I am not good at filtering myself and I don't do puff pieces. However, I made an exception for +LoriSilverman and I'm so glad I did.  Her new book, "Business Storytelling for Dummies," written with her friend and colleague Karen Dietz, PhD is really, really good.

For most of our history, our cultural values and stories were passed down through an oral tradition. Humans have an instinctive love of story and our obsession with the modern entertainment industry is clear evidence of that. We write volumes and tell stories every day about our past, our dreams, or things we heard happened to others. We also have tons of apocryphal stories we tell about our associations, why we are here and where we are going. What we aren't as good at, is really crafting a story that can motivate our members to action.

Writing a good story, like any other endeavor, takes effort. It is a craft and deserves study. What humans respond to, and the order in which we respond to it, is the key to not only telling a good story, but ensuring that story embeds itself into the consciousness of the ones we tell it to. This book takes a simple, common-sense approach to storytelling specifically in business settings (and by extension - associations).

What I appreciate about the story approach, vs the "marketing approach" is part of what makes a story a good story is a sense of authenticity. There is a realness you can impart in the body of a story that you cannot impart in any other way. Telling authentic stories takes guts, but it can infuse your mission with a dose of reality, (aka real-world value), like no other technique can. When I boil my personal story down to a sentence - "Blue collar girl in a white collar world," that tells you more about me, my approach and my style than all the text on my website ever could.

I think the most important section of the book is the one that breaks down the specific types of stories you should create, bank and have on hand. Every association has these stories, but do they have them written in a way that can create the most impact and are they easily accessible to industry stakeholders?  The seven story types are:

  • Founding Stories (how did we get here? In associations it usually involves seven or eight disgruntled people and a dining room table :D)
  • What We Stand For Stories (our vision, mission and values)
  • What We Do Stories (what we do for our industries and professions - not JUST our members)
  • Future Stories (where we are taking you since you're along for the ride)
  • Success Stories (awesome stuff we've done because we've stuck together)
  • Overcoming Barriers Stories (we just can't be stopped, no matter what)
  • Memorable Customer Stories (or in our case Members - and can we think of the good ones instead of the ones we usually tell? lol)

So, yeah....kudos to +LoriSilverman  and +Karen Dietz for writing such a great book.  I will be referencing it in the future a lot and I don't know anyone who couldn't benefit from the common sense hints they give about story structure, arc and use in different settings. And for my readers, take some time today and think about the stories you want to tell on behalf of your members and on behalf of yourselves. It's work you will not regret (and it might even inspire you a little - and who couldn't use a little more inspiration? :D).

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

CalSAE Association Executives Name 6 Big Trends for 2014

Things are going great...
and they're only gettin' better
I'm doin' all right
Gettin' good grades
The future's so bright
I gotta wear shades......Timbuk 3

I am lucky enough to get to play along with the California Society of Association Executives (CalSAE) IDEAL(TM) learning laboratory.  Recently we sat down and spent five hours digging through 2014 trends, running a context map exercise and coming up with what these awesome association executives think are the top 6 association trends for 2014.  Read on!


This force is driving all aspects of your association’s membership experience, i.e., membership itself, professional development programming, communications, etc.. Associations must boil each experience down into digestible chunks, place those chunks in an easy to understand and access sequence and give members a way to demonstrate they performed/understood/accomplished specific chunks.  Call it Hansel and Gretel association management - leave that bread crumb trail out and your members will be able to find the gingerbread house.

Impatience and Immediate Gratification

The overall impatience of society in general is contributing to a disturbing trend in associations.  In 2014, you can expect to see more interpersonal conflicts among staff members, board members and volunteer leaders.  However, general impatience is also leading to innovations in terms of providing members with experiences that are highly personalized and compressing the time it takes to volunteer with or interact with your association. Micro-volunteering is a “trend within a trend” and is a direct response to this larger societal condition.


People are overwhelmed by change, technological advances and an increasing flood of cultural noise.  A renewed focus on helping members be mindful, peaceful and centered is a way to help combat the stresses of the world and help them feel safe and more secure with themselves and with each other.  Additionally, the intense focus on community has been omnipresent in the association community over the past few years but now there there is an increasing realization that members need to be recognized and honored as individuals as well.  In our zeal to create collaborative experiences, we sometimes overlook providing opportunities for solitude and to create space for introverts to excel in our association structures.


This force is driving several conditions within associations and the educational system itself. The days of simply “picking topics people are interested in,” are rapidly being replaced by an impatient constituency that wants to know what competency they should be developing, how your program gets them there and how their peers will recognize their accomplishment.  A bachelor’s degree doesn’t tell anyone anything about what an individual actually knows and neither do some certification programs.  Chunking, impatience and competence are driving the badging movement in the K-12, post-secondary and workforce development arenas and creating new opportunties for associations.


External and internal localities continue to create disruption for both communities and individuals. Globalization is accelerating with no end in sight, while at the same time individuals are acutely aware of the need to improve their immediate surroundings and circumstances. There is a dynamic tension created between this sense of connection with the larger global community and reacting to global economic and workforce shifts, while at the same time providing members with tools and ideas to use and apply in the direct vicinity of their daily lives.


The last decade was the decade of social and this is the decade of gaming. Far from being a “fad,” game mechanics have been a key social innovation from the beginning of human civilization. Gaming is related to learning, developing trust and social cohesion.  Serious games are being used to explore all manner of complex, wicked problems. Running scenarios are a great way to test out potential solutions before the conditions present themselves allowing for quicker action when they do. Gaming mechanics include keys for membership, professional development, participation and engagement for your members, volunteers and staff alike.

There you have it....6 Big Trends for 2014 in the association community.  Stay tuned for more on these coming soon!  Do you see a big trend that we missed?  If so, please put it in the comments, we'd love to hear from you!

About This Blog

This blog explores my interpretation of association management theory as seen through the lens of popular culture and media.

I am a media child whose Sundays were spent feverishly listening to Casey Kasem "countin' em down" and earnestly promoting my dubious babysitting skills to those neighborhood parents who had MTV. Star Wars was less a "movie" than a watershed event forever hooking me on cinema and is my "Bartlett's" in terms of quotations. Required reading = Rolling Stone.

All of these loves/events/obsessions color how I see the world and how I see my work. I am betting I am not the only Executive Director who was listening to Ratt on the way to the interview (you know who you are, time to get out of the closet!). Yeah, association work is serious work and I've spent two decades immersed in it - but there is life outside of the board meeting so let's play with how they intersect.....Ready? Set? GO!

Brain Munchies!