Thursday, January 6, 2011

Why Being Anti-Indispensability is Pro-Membership

You were working as a waitress in a cocktail bar
When I met you
I picked you out, I shook you up, and turned you around
Turned you into someone new
Now five years later on you've got the world at your feet
Success has been so easy for you
But don't forget it's me who put you where you are now
And I can put you back down too
Chorus :
Don't, don't you want me?
You know I can't believe it when I hear that you won't see me
Don't, don't you want me?
You know I don't believe you when you say that you don't need me
You'd better change your mind or we will both be sorry........Human League

Yeah, we all dated that guy (or girl) once.

All right.  Here is my hopefully last entry in this membership discussion started by the now infamous Joe Flowers post, the Acronym post, the Social Fish post and some very, very cool posts from Jamie Notter, Jeffrey Cufaude and Deirdre Reid.

Here's the deal -

Some of us are choosing/have chosen to withdraw and openly discuss reasons for doing so.  Some of us are staying in but want to creatively question every aspect of the current system writ large without being accused of blasphemy. Some of us are looking for answers to questions like, "Have we done all we can do?"  "Are we fully capitalizing on our power as associations?"  "Do old models still work?" "Has the environment changed and how can we adapt?"  "If we lose someone like Joe, what should we be doing differently?"

But some community members chose to participate in the conversation and took a very, didactic, fundamentalist tack. Some responses have been loaded with unspoken subtext that equates rejection of "indispensability " to a rejection of "membership." Also, equating rejection of "membership" to "unintelligent freeloaders." All false equivalents.

Associations are vital. I'm a believer. But is the term "membership" still vital?  As vital as it could be? As vital as it should be? Maybe, maybe not. To me "citizenship" or "community" are both more powerful concepts than membership. In fact, if we are honest with ourselves, community just thrashed membership because Joe can reject membership and can clearly still be involved in the community. I don't ask if someone is an ASAE member, a CalSAE member, a PCMA member or an MPI member before I consider them worthy to be in my social sphere. I don't care what personal choices they decided to make about which association best fits their needs.

We can have a civil debate over those issues and what they mean. I'd actually really like that.  However, the minute someone crosses the line and begins to aggressively crow in over-hormoned, over-hyped language about how "indispensable" association membership is their credibility is lost.

We do all association members an incredible disservice by insisting on our own "indispensability." We cannot engage in a real dialogue meant to explore the perspective of engaged, nonengaged or nonmembers without first admitting they might have a point.  "Indispensability" is neither authentic nor true. It's marketing on steroids.  It's the Kool-aid we drank in a thousand seminars that pre-programmed us with "Top Ten Ways to Sell Membership."

If you aren't in the business of directly providing water, food, shelter and clothing you aren't indispensable either.

Don't believe me? You want to get real? Let's get real. As a mother, I am not indispensable to my own daughter. Why? Because I can die. In a car accident. A chicken situation. A million ways. Will she be sad that I am not around? I would like to think so. But she will go on. I've made plans for others to take care of her. She will have a productive life. She will move beyond me.

If I am not indispensable to my own daughter, why would I EVER think an association, any association, is "indispensable" to anyones career? By using this over the top, slavishly nationalistic language, you will never be able to honestly articulate your value in a way that will resonate as truly authentic and attractive to a large (and growing larger by the day) segment of potential members. Can an association connect a person with other valuable people? Absolutely. Provide tools to make you better at your job? Certainly. Make a significant difference in society and culture? Totally. Curate educational material and opportunities? You bet. Conduct vital research that adds to our understanding of the world around us? Sure. Be the only thing that makes you a "real professional?" You lost me.

Here's some irony for you.  I got an email a few days ago regarding an "ASAE SuperSwap" coming up in Washington DC.  Exciting right? Oddly enough, the title of the email was, "Convincing Members and Prospects They Cannot Succeed Without You."  Only $29! Cheap! Where? At ASAE HQ with NO VIRTUAL OPTION. (Air fare and hotel made my participation a little more than the low-low price of $29.) Thanks for the reminder that I am locked out of those opportunities due to geography. Cannot succeed without you? Can't even get to you. Thanks for reminding me of how inaccessible you can be to folks outside the Beltway.

Does every opportunity have to be accessible to me personally for me to see value in membership? Of course not. But you must come to grips with the reality that continually sending promotionals to members, talking about things they personally can't do could/might/probably will, over time, actually diminish your overall value in their eyes. It's like a rat stepping on a lever and continually getting a pellet of, "meh."

Does ASAE remind me on a regular basis that approx 14% of my dues is going to support a legislative program that I don't always agree with? Yeah. I don't agree with efforts to fight 990 regs, I think transparency is a good thing. I have to organize outside of ASAE to actively pursue campaign finance reform in opposition to Citizens United and net neutrality because I don't think ASAE is being aggressive enough on either issue. To me, those are vital to association interests. Maybe I do support ASAE's other efforts, that's up to me to decide - not just follow a party line on. But if I have to pursue other means of legislative advocacy that impacts associations because ASAE chooses not to - does that make their legislative program indispensable?  Yes?  Really?  Stop it.

Am I going to drop my ASAE membership? Not necessarily.  I actually believe in supporting our profession. I've had my membership since 2003 or maybe 2004.  The fact that I can't remember exactly how long I've been a member is probably not a good sign. Indispensability would dictate the difference in my career would have been so dramatic I couldn't have possibly forgotten it.

Bottom line - if you want to create meaningful, lasting relationships with members in ANY association you must stop using over-hyped, guilt-inducing language.  Starbucks is not indispensable, but it is clearly a value add that I'm willing to pay for because it promises me good coffee and it delivers.  I can trust it.  That's where the value actually lives - it's in the fact that I can trust the experience to consistently live up to my expectations.

By all means, let's have a conversation but don't revert to "membership 101" and expect us to simply buy it anymore. I agree there may still be merit in a lot of those concepts but we can't even begin that conversation until the "101" folks meet us halfway and admit to themselves that some updating might actually be in order. I wish I hadn't snapped at Tom, after all we are supposed to be good to each other.  But we are also not supposed to punish our peers for looking for a new ways to do things or for refusing to shun someone because they don't want to play in our "defined" sandbox anymore.

I was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar
That much is true
But even then I knew I'd find a much better place
Either with or without you
The five years we have had have been such good times
I still love you
But now I think it's time I lived my life on my own
I guess it's just what I must do

Here's the link to the quintessential video - Human League - Don't You Want Me


  1. Hey Shelly,
    Glad we could help inspire your post here with the Super Swap promotions! It's hardly germane to your core point, but as volunteers we put a lot of time into providing programs in the DC area to help make up for what is otherwise an absence of a local community presence. It's nice living in the Most Self-important City in the world, but we still find that the bread and butter, fundamental interactive programming still tends to help a large number of people. I find time and again in planning programs that being extremely progressive means leaving a lot of other 'association executives' behind who may be new to the role or new to a function or new to a problem. There's a place in the big tent for the 101 programming and some truly progressive thought leadership (although by its very nature, the latter tends to occur 'outside the lines' of a fairly traditional large bureaucracy). Yeah, it's local to us and ASAE staff thwarted our efforts for years to create a listserv just for the locals so you don't have to hear what we're doing. (Although oddly I also subscribe to and enjoy reading about what's going on in Sacramento through CalSAE and hearing about things I'll never personally benefit from)... but it's just about the only game in town for us since MSAE sucks, badly, and VSAE defines its territory from Fredericksburg south. I know what good, pioneering programs look like, and I know forward thinking feels like now and then, but I save most of that for my clients rather than ASAE, which I generally see as a chance to give back and to sometimes prepare for my next real career as a WalMart greeter.. :O)


  2. Kevin -

    Thanks for the great comment! I'm glad volunteers are getting together in local areas and you guys need to keep pushing the envelope. My point was just watch the lingo.

    What I find most interesting in your comment is you mention ASAE has thwarted your efforts to create a local list for years? Wow. Dude. Create one.



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