Monday, May 2, 2016

Paradoxes in Association Management

Last week I tweeted this post by Amanda Kaiser of the Smooth the Path blog. In it, she wonders which members association staff should pay the most attention to: those most or those least actively engaged in the association's activities. She makes points on both sides of the argument, but eventually comes down on the side of those most engaged.

It is okay to welcome everyone. But it is better to serve only some. The best ones, the most forward-thinking ones, the most engaged members. These members are the professionals who will help us make our industry or profession better.

In my tweet, I called it one of the paradoxes of association management, meaning that inherently inclusive organizations needed to embrace a certain level of exclusivity in order to be successful.

It got me thinking about other possible paradoxes of association management--counterintuitive practices that we must embrace if we want to be successful. One I've already written about (although I didn't call it a paradox at the time) is the idea that committees shouldn’t report to the Board, but to the staff executive.

Here I'm talking about "program" committees, those formed to help the association conduct its programs. "Governance" committees, those formed to help the Board fulfill its governance functions, should always report to the Board. But a committee whose job is to execute programs risks undermining the operational effectiveness of the organization (and the authority of the staff executive) by reporting to the Board.

What are some other paradoxes of association management?

Success comes when staff learns the language of members, not when members learn the language of staff?

Strategic agendas must create strategic boards before strategic boards can create strategic agendas?

Organizational alignment flows more easily from decentralized decision-making than command-and-control bureaucracy?

Each one of those might be fodder for a future blog post, but I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Stranger by Albert Camus

Who is the stranger of this novel’s title?

Turning toward the dock, he pointed a finger at me, and went on in the same strain. I really couldn’t understand why he harped on this point so much. Of course, I had to own that he was right; I didn’t feel much regret for what I’d done. Still, to my mind he overdid it, and I’d have liked to have a chance of explaining to him, in a quite friendly, almost affectionate way, that I have never been able really to regret anything in all my life. I’ve always been far too much absorbed in the present moment, or the immediate future, to think back.

We are. Or more precisely, it is our past selves who are the strangers to our present selves, absorbed as they are, like Camus’s protagonist, in their present moments and immediate futures.

There are clues to this interpretation scattered throughout the text. Early on, we see it in the behavior of others observed by the protagonist.

Twice a day, at eleven and six, the old fellow takes his dog for a walk, and for eight years that walk has never varied. You can see them in the rue de Lyon, the dog pulling his master along as hard as he can, till finally the old chap misses a step and nearly falls. Then he beats his dog and calls it names. The dog cowers and lags behind, and it’s his master’s turn to drag him along. Presently the dog forgets, starts tugging at the leash again, gets another hiding and more abuse. Then they halt on the pavement, the pair of them, and glare at each other; the dog with terror and the man with hatred in his eyes. Every time they’re out, this happens. When the dog wants to stop at a lamppost, the old boy won’t let him, and drags him on, and the wretched spaniel leaves behind him a trail of little drops. But, if he does it in the room, it means another hiding.

Our absorption in the present prevents us, like the old fellow and his dog, from seeing the repeated patterns of behavior that make up the bulk of our existence. When pulled too quickly forward, when stressed, we react the same way, every time, almost as if programmed, oblivious to the recklessness shown by our past selves, by the strangers whose behavior we might otherwise find farcical and objectionable.

Like characters in a novel, any novel, we are archetypes.

“I’m not one who looks for trouble,” he explained, “only I’m a bit short-tempered. That fellow said to me, challenging-like, ‘Come down off that streetcar, if you’re a man.’ I says, ‘You keep quiet, I ain’t done nothing to you.’ Then he said I hadn’t any guts. Well, that settled it. I got down off the streetcar and I said to him, ‘You better keep your mouth shut, or I’ll shut it for you.’ ‘I’d like to see you try!’ says he. Then I gave him one across the face, and laid him out good and proper. After a bit I started to help him get up, but all he did was to kick at me from where I lay. So I gave him one with my knee and a couple more swipes. He was bleeding like a pig when I’d done with him. I asked him if he’d had enough, and he said, ‘Yes.’

We act and react in predictable ways, ways that are destructive to ourselves and to our well-being, but ways we are unable to change no matter how often we repeat them.

And when the more sensitive among this realize this, as Camus’s protagonist does, we draw the wrong conclusion, thinking that this slavery to the strangers within our past means not only that our paths forward are unalterable, but that our own conscious choices have no power to affect the trajectory of our lives.

The sun glinted on Raymond’s revolver as he handed it to me. But nobody made a move yet; it was just as if everything had closed in on us so that we couldn’t stir. We could only watch each other, never lowering our eyes; the whole world seemed to have come to a standstill on this little strip of sand between the sunlight and the sea, the twofold silence of the reed and stream. And just then it crossed my mind that one might fire, or not fire--and it would come to absolutely the same thing.

Except, of course, that our actions do matter, just as the protagonist’s decision to fire matters, obviously, even to him in the waning echoes of the gunshots.

Then everything began to reel before my eyes, a fiery gust came from the sea, while the sky cracked in two, from end to end, and a great sheet of flame poured down through the rift. Every nerve in my body was a steel spring, and my grip closed on the revolver. The trigger gave, and the smooth underbelly of the butt jogged my palm. And so, with that crisp, whipcrack sound, it all began. I shook off my sweat and the clinging veil of light. I knew I’d shattered the balance of the day, the spacious calm of this beach on which I had been happy. But I fired four shots more into the inert body, on which they left no visible trace. And each successive shot was another loud, fateful rap on the door of my undoing.

Moments of clarity like this punctuate our lives, so profound that they seem to change the world around us, removing, as Camus called it, our clinging veils of light. But whether they happen to us in the real world, or to fictional characters in a novel’s climactic scene, they are always short-lived, and we inevitably find ourselves separated from them, from the dramatic actions and the strangers that performed them. Like the protagonist, we become imprisoned, he in an actual jail, and us in the complacency of our commonness.

I waited for the daily walk in the courtyard or a visit from my lawyer. As for the rest of the time, I managed quite well, really. I’ve often thought that had I been compelled to live in the trunk of a dead tree, with nothing to do but gaze up at the patch of sky just overhead, I’d have got used to it by degrees. I’d have learned to watch for the passing of birds or drifting clouds, as I had come to watch for my lawyer’s odd neckties, or, in another world, to wait patiently till Sunday for a spell of love-making with Marie. Well, here, anyhow, I wasn’t penned in a hollow tree trunk. There were others in the world worse off than I. I remembered it had been one of Mother’s pet ideas--she was always voicing it--that in the long run one gets used to anything.

Indeed we do. Camus makes the other characters in his short novel view our protagonist as an inhuman monster, someone “wholly without a moral sense.” And this, I know from Wikipedia is reportedly the initial idea from which the novel was spawned.

But I think Camus is doing something more complicated here. The protagonist is not an Other, a Grendel, a monster that lives outside our human family. The novel certainly can be read that way, but it has much more revelatory power if it is read another way. The protagonist is, in fact, an Everyman, a Walter Mitty, a sympathetic doppleganger who resembles us perhaps far more than we would care to admit.

And when that doppleganger is pushed to the breaking point, when his death is brought close to the centrality of his awareness (in the novel it is the arrival of a priest offering absolution before the protagonist’s execution), he reacts in the way any of us would react. In anger, in frustration, and in terror of the seeming fatalism of it all.

Then, I don’t know how it was, but something seemed to break inside me, and I started yelling at the top of my voice. I hurled insults at him, I told him not to waste his rotten prayers on me; it was better to burn than to disappear. I’d taken him by the neckband of his cassock, and, in a sort of ecstasy of joy and rage, I poured out on him all the thoughts that had been simmering in my brain.

Hark, now. Here comes the seething truth Camus is saying lies beneath everything we think we understand about our lives.

He seemed so cocksure, you see. And yet none of his certainties was worth one strand of a woman’s hair. Living as he did, like a corpse, he couldn’t even be sure of being alive. It might look as if my hands were empty. Actually, I was sure of myself, sure about everything, far surer than he; sure of my present life and of the death that was coming. That, no doubt, was all I had; but at least that certainty was something I could get my teeth into--just as it had got its teeth into me. I’d been right, I was still right, I was always right. I’d passed my life in a certain way, and I might have passed it in a different way, if I’d felt like it. I’d acted thus, and I hadn’t acted otherwise; I hadn’t done x, whereas I had done y or z. And what did that mean? That, all the time, I’d been waiting for this present moment, for that dawn, tomorrow’s or another’s day’s, which was to justify me. Nothing, nothing had the least importance, and I knew quite well why. He, too, knew why. From the dark horizon of my future a sort of slow, persistent breeze had been blowing toward me, all my life long, from the years that were to come.

This may sound like the fatalism I described earlier, the despair that comes with consciousness that nothing one choose to do matters, that the path has already been determined and that the entirety of one’s task is described by the practice of walking it. But it isn’t. There is something deeper and more primal going on here. For note, the protagonist is not depressed over his seeming lack of choices. Quite the reverse. He is positively manic.

And on its way that breeze had leveled out all the ideas that people tried to foise on me in the equally unreal years I then was living through. What difference could they make to me, the deaths of others, or a mother’s love, or his God; or the way a man decides to live, the fate he thinks he chooses, since one and the same fate was bound to “choose” not only me but thousands of millions of privileged people who, like him, called themselves my brothers. Surely, surely he must see that?

No, he doesn’t. The protagonist sees it, and now the reader, and no one else. That’s where the mania comes from. The present and painful reality of it all, and how oblivious, how much of a stranger, the rest of the world seems to be to it.

Every man alive was privileged; there was only one class of men, the privileged class. All alike would be condemned to die one day; his turn, too, would come like the others’. And what difference could it make if, after being charged with murder, he were executed because he didn’t weep at his mother’s funeral, since it all came to the same thing in the end? The same thing for Salamano’s wife and for Salamano’s dog. That little robot woman was as “guilty” as the girl from Paris who had married Masson, or as Marie, who wanted me to marry her. What did it matter if Raymond was as much my pal as Celeste, who was a far worthier man? What did it matter if at this very moment Marie was kissing a new boy friend? As a condemned man himself, couldn’t he grasp what I meant by that dark wind blowing from my future?

I have avoided discussing the novel’s characters or its plot with careful intent. The Stranger is not a novel that turns on characters or plot. It turns, rather, on ideas, indeed, the one powerful idea of our own death that we must all come to terms with if we ever hope to transcend it, to act in opposition to the patterns of thought and behavior that keeps us a stranger to ourselves. Even though that realization only makes us a stranger to the rest of humankind. As the protagonist muses in the novel’s closing lines…

It was as if that great rush of anger had washed me clean, emptied me of hope, and, gazing up at the dark sky spangled with its signs and stars, for the first time, the first, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe. To feel it so like myself, indeed, so brotherly, made me realize that I’d been happy, and that I was happy still. For all to be accomplished, for me to feel less lonely, all that remained to hope was that on the day of my execution there should be a huge crowd of spectators and that they should greet me with howls of execration.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, April 25, 2016

Blogging and Systems Level Thinking

Why do I blog? I get this question a lot. It usually, by definition, comes from someone who knows I blog, and who has probably read a post or two. They usually know I'm busy, with obligations both personal and professional, and sometimes the question comes from a place of wonder. How do I find the time? Sometimes they recognize the risk, having read enough to know that many of my posts are me thinking out loud, sometimes about subjects or people I should really keep to myself. Then the question comes from a place of fear. Why would anyone wish to expose themselves that way?

But whatever the source as the question, it always makes me stop and think. Why do I blog? I'm usually able to come up with a number of answers (it allows me to practice my communication skills, it builds my brand, it connects me to people I wouldn't otherwise meet), but after writing last week's post on an association CEO sometimes having to set the Terms of Engagement, a new answer to this common question suddenly occurred to me.

Blogging forces me to think at a systems level.

Even though many of my posts are about the professional challenges I face as the staff executive of a trade association, I have come to generally stay away from the specifics of any situation. Individuals are rarely mentioned, and I often avoid discussing any specific programs or objectives my association may have. These are rules I have self-imposed to minimize the risks of embarrassing someone in my network or of boring my readers. Too much detail about people and programs the reader doesn't know would be unproductive, I think, for both the reader and the blogger.

Which puts me immediately into a systems mindset. When something challenging is going on in my association, if I want to think about it and dissect it on my blog, the restriction against individual people and programs forces me to take a step back. What is really driving the issue at hand? Look past the people and the program. What are the underlying circumstances and assumptions that are bringing the difficulty about?

That's exactly what happened last week, and exactly what has been happening for many weeks in the past. If I can only write about the systems-level challenges my association faces, then writing about my association forces me to look at things on a systems-level.

And this mindset, nurtured by blogging, pays other dividends as well. Because, frankly, if you want to make real change happen in any organization, then you better be thinking about how you're going to address underlying circumstances and assumptions, not just people and programs. A systems-level approach to problem solving is a necessary tool for leaders looking to accomplish big things.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Monday, April 18, 2016

Terms of Engagement

So often in our increasingly inclusive business community, our goals are focused on achieving harmonious and empowered consensus. You want a staff of decision-makers, of professionals capable of finding their own ways of fulfilling your strategy, of service folk ready to react immediately at the site of the customer's difficulty. You're convinced that any structure that requires them to "check with the boss" before acting is one that will fail you far more often than serve you. As a result, as leaders, we spend a lot of time and energy focused on communicating our strategic intent and freeing the people who work for us from the shackles of bureaucracy and procedure.

Except sometimes you have to dictate the terms of engagement. Sometimes, in addition to setting out the strategic objective, you also have make some tactical decisions and tell others that they can only work within the boundaries of those decisions. When you do, it may feel like a betrayal, both to yourself and to the people you have been trying to empower. But, sometimes, it is necessary.


The easiest explanation is often the budget. A certain amount of money is available to pay a certain number of people to do a certain number of tasks. Engaging people in determining what their assigned tasks will be and giving them latitude in how they approach those tasks can make for a happy and empowered staff. But when there are tasks that no one wants to do or, more problematically, that everyone wants to do, you have to make the call. You can't spend the organization's resources and have certain required tasks not get done, or let others flounder because of confusion and disagreements about who's in charge.

But in these situations the challenge for the thoughtful leader often goes much deeper than just the budget. When teams don't organically assemble you have to step in and dictate who will work with who and for what purpose. You have to define the terms of engagement. These discussions will be among the most challenging you have, because when there is disagreement or uncertainty, people will often hear confusion in what you take to be simple clarity. Often, they're not wrong, and neither are you. If teams could naturally assemble, like they appear to do in a beehive, then your intervention wouldn't be necessary in the first place. When you feel the need to step in, therefore, it will naturally be one of those situations in which clarity is already absent.

I've had three experiences like this in the past few weeks, and in each I wish there had been another course of action I could've taken. But there wasn't. I had to step in and make a decision that felt more autocratic than strategic. And I know that the decisions I made were only right in the sense that they settled the matter, and not necessarily to everyone's satisfaction. Things will be this way, not that. You will do this, not that. Success means this, not that.

It's hard. But there are times when not doing it is even worse.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Saturday, April 16, 2016

Papal Sin by Garry Wills

I’m going to assume this book is a bit of an anomaly. An anomaly in terms of its publication date. It’s either that or throw it against the wall.

Indeed, the state of the church is generally so much improved from the past that it might seem to have achieved impeccability after all. The level of scripture scholarship, of liturgical participation, of social concern, of personal holiness, is very high by every comparative measure we can call on. Is it a thing of the past even to think of ecclesiastical sin? One would hesitate to claim that in any case; and there are indications that some things are still not perfect.

That’s from page 2. And when the author, Garry Wills, writes there that the Catholic church is “so much improved,” it’s important to note that he’s talking comparatively about the papal sins of the medieval past.

Happily, those kinds of corruption no longer corrode the papacy. Though there have been financial scandals in the modern papacy (especially that having to do with its involvement in Michele Sindona’s Banco Ambrosiano), the spectacle of individual Popes amassing huge fortunes for themselves and their families is no longer the shame that caused Dante’s disgust. Similarly, Popes no longer have secular kingdoms for which they are willing to murder and torture and conquer, in ways that Acton illumined with the fierce light of his scholarship. Nor do sexual scandals reach as high up or as deep down as when papal bastards ran the church’s bureaucracy. In the tenth century a dissolute teenager could be elected Pope (John XII) because of his family connections and die a decade later in the bed of a married woman.

That is the sinful past that Wills has chosen as his comparison point. And it seems clear that the “still not perfect” things he intelligently sheds light on in his 2000 work, do not, in his opinion, rise to the level of papal sins excoriated by Dante Alighieri and Lord Acton.

But don’t they? I mean, think carefully. Is there anything the modern Catholic church, with modern popes at its head, has done that would compare to those tenth century atrocities? What about, say, the systematic physical and sexual abuse of generations of children?

And this is where the anomaly of Wills’s publication date comes into play. In 2000, evidence of sexual abuse committed by priests, even systemic abuse aided and abetted by a Catholic hierarchy, was widespread. Indeed, Wills will go on to document cases of abject horror in his book. But in 2000, John Paul II was pope, and his involvement in the conspiracy, if any, was limited to his appointment of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, the office from which, we would learn later, much of the conspiracy would be coordinated. And, of course, it wouldn’t be until 2005 that Cardinal Ratzinger becomes Pope Benedict XVI.

So forgive me if I see papal sin written all over the church’s sexual abuse of children, even though Wills does not. Wills’s outrage, righteous as is no doubt still is, is rather focused on the more abstract and far-reaching crime of modern popes lying to defend their outdated dogma.

This is what Wills leads off with, showing that church dogma, specifically the dogma of papal infallibility, has painted modern popes into a corner of greater and greater lies. Lies that grow so great that they become institutional, the “structures of deceit” that he chooses as his book’s subtitle.

Here’s what Wills says at the end of one of his early chapters, one that describes the lies the Catholic church told about its involvement in Hitler’s Holocaust.

Such a break is not easily accomplished, not for any institution, and least of all for an institution that claims never to have been wrong, never to have persecuted, never to have inflicted injustice. Given so much to hide, the impulse to keep on hiding becomes imperative, automatic, almost inevitable. The structures of deceit are ever less escapable--the cumulative product of all the past evasions, the disingenuous explainings, outright denials, professions, deferences, pieties, dodges, lapses, and funk. It is thought, no doubt, that to let the truth slip through this intricate outwork, this riddle of baffles and lattices and shutters, would embarrass the church. But to keep on evading the truth is a worse embarrassment, and a crime--an insult to those who have been wronged, and whose wrong will not be recognized. When truth lies blatant on the doorstep, the instinct is to lock oneself in behind the door and never look out. This is nothing less than imprisonment in the dark, done in feigned service to the Light of the World.

This is Wills at his best, diagnosing the problem with both clarity and subtlety. But this is also on page 45 of a 326-page book on the crimes modern Catholic popes, and I have to confess that I was already frustrated that there had so far been no mention of the most appalling sin of them all. And when Wills finally does get to it, devoting the entirety of Chapter 12 to the topic, my frustration only grows.

Why? Three reasons.

1. No one seems to know how bad the problem really is.

How many children’s lives have been destroyed by pedophiles disguising themselves as priestly public servants and by a papal bureaucracy more concerned with its reputation that the supposed souls of its followers? I was hoping Wills would be able to provide some real figures, or at least some authoritative estimates, on how widespread the problem actually is. But that information was maddeningly difficult to drag out of the text. There is some information, but Wills seems almost reluctant to run the resulting calculations. At one point, for example, Wills reports that no diocese, of the 188 in the United States, has been without its pedophilia case. At another, he cites a study that shows a single “regressive pedophile” will have sexual encounters with an average of 265 youngsters in a lifetime. So just doing that simple math results in almost 50,000 children being sexually abused in Catholic institutions in the United States every 20 years or so. But even sadder than that... the uncovering of whole cultures of pedophilia, as in Mount Cashel, the Christian Brothers orphanage in Newfoundland:

Nine Christian brothers, two of whom were lovers, sodomized, whipped, punched, fondled, and degraded at least thirty Mount Cashel boys for more than twenty years. Testimony pointed to a ring of overlapping pedophiles and sado-masochistic homosexuals, including five men, living in town, who had grown up in the orphanage and returned to molest boys.

That last point is not to be missed. According to another study cited by Wills, 93 percent of men serving time in Australian prisons for child molestation were themselves abused as children. Unfortunately, molested children too often grow up to become child molesters. Which leads to my second frustration:

2. It’s a vicious circle, feeding on itself, until all hope is lost.

One of the most poignant things about cases of priests molesting children or youths is that they go, naturally, for their easiest targets--good Catholic families. As the report on a survey of clinicians dealing with child abuse put it: “Religious professionals’ role as unquestioned moral leaders apparently gave them special access to children, much like the access that trusted family members have in incest cases.” Devout Catholic families will be the least suspicious of a priest’s conduct and the most intimidated about challenging the church.

Again and again in these sad stories Wills tells about the actual abuse of children by priests (systemic, not episodic, in my humble opinion), the parents of the abused children remain tragically oblivious to the torture being inflicted on their children because of their faith and belief in the moral superiority of the church and its priests.

And it’s more than just the pedophile priests that know this and use it to their advantage. In one of the most inflammatory passages I have ever read, Wills tells the story of Monsignor Robert Rehkemper, an official in the diocese of Dallas, Texas, who, after avoiding and obfuscating as much as humanly possible in the case of a pedophile priest in his jurisdiction, is finally called to testify in the priest’s criminal prosecution.

...he claimed after the trial that the parents should have seen the signs he had failed to discern. In a tape-recorded interview, he fumed that the suit never should have been brought, that the jury made the wrong decision, that the parents were the negligent ones.

“No one ever says anything about what the role of the parents was in all this. They more properly should have known because they were close to the kids. Parents have the prime responsibility to look after their kids. I don’t want to judge them one way or the other, but it doesn’t appear they were very concerned about their kids."

The unadulterated audacity of such an accusation boggles the mind. Not concerned about their kids? According to the world view they held, the world view that people like Monsignor Rehkemper taught them and benefits from, they had exemplary concern for their kids. They placed their development and their immortal souls in the tender care of people they believed were God’s very agents on earth, the people who, better than any other, could teach them to conduct themselves with the morality purchased by their risen savior.

And my third frustration?

3. The church (and much of society) rarely holds anyone responsible, and when it does, the blame goes entirely to the offending priest.

To be fair to Wills, he does try to correct this. He is a Catholic who is writing out of a desire for the Catholic church to right itself, and he does hold the church, and not just the offending priests, responsible for these crimes. But at the same time, he also completely misses the mark. Given the time he spends on the subject, I’m left with the impression that he believes the requirement for priests to be celibate is more to blame for the culture of pedophilia that exists in the church than they institutional disregard for the welfare of the flock. And that’s frankly nonsense. An oath of celibacy does not turn men into child molesters. As described above, the most reliable way to turn someone into a child molester to to molest them when they themselves are a child. And for those who are molested by a priest, what better place than the modern priesthood is the resulting child molesters to flourish?

In this regard, I worry that Wills is peddling another well-worn apologetic. And that, I think, is finally what drives me the most crazy. Whether the apologetic comes from the predator priests themselves, from tap-dancing church officials, or even from well-intentioned Catholic commentators and critics, it’s time to call them on this double standard.

One can’t claim that the Catholic church is an institution like any other, driven by the same impulses and tendencies to groupthink and self preservation as any other, and at the same time cling to and remind us that the church has and is entitled to moral superiority over the rest of the world. Catholic lay people are holier, the story goes, than unbelievers and believers of other religions, priests are more holy than Catholic lay people, and popes are more holy than priests, the most holy that any person can possibly be here on this fallen earth.

So where, then, given all this moral superiority, is the call for popes to take moral accountability for these acts of atrocity? Don’t distract us by saying that the pedophile priests are victims of an increasingly secular society, or of misguided church policies, or that popes have an obligation to preserve an institution Catholics believe does so much good in the world.

Because there is one thing I know for sure. The abuse of children by these Catholic institutions could end tomorrow if one of our modern popes would stand up, confess to the crimes that have been committed, and pledge that any of all abusers of children would be forever excommunicated from Christ’s family.

To me, the fact that this hasn’t happened, is the most egregious papal sin of them all.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, April 11, 2016

Some Rules Are Meant to Be Broken

I find this post over at Associations Now fascinating. It's about a difference of opinion between the American Library Association and the Wisconsin Library Association over whether or not libraries should charge fees and pursue collection for unreturned library items. The WLA says yes, these are taxpayer-funded resources, and people can't keep them indefinitely. The ALA says no, charging people late fees and sending collection agents after them results in people using the library less, and that's contrary to our mission.

Which side are you on?

I'm squarely with the ALA. The position of the WLA strikes me as an example of the small-minded, rule-following mentality one often encounters in the association world. Perhaps you know what I'm talking about. The meeting planner more concerned with the number of chairs rather than the people sitting in them. The IT professional more concerned with security of the network than the people using it. In the case of the WLA, it sounds like the accountant more concerned with the dollars than the people the dollars are spent on. And one thing they all have in common is that, even when it can be shown that the effect of the rule they treasure is to detract from the mission of the organization, they are eager to use their entrenched power to keep fighting for it.

Put yourself in the shoes of a library Board member. For the sake of the example, I looked up the mission statement of my local public library: "Inspiration starts here - we help people read, learn, and connect." (Nice!) With that objective in mind, would you be more concerned with the library's books or the people reading them?

Unfortunately, the same local library has a strict policy on late fees, that includes sending patrons to collection agencies.

But when presented with evidence that your policy is keeping people from using your library's resources, wouldn't you at least raise of few questions?

What if we stopped charging late fees? What if we adopted a new policy? What if we stamped every resource with a clear and simple message: "This library resource is for the benefit of our entire community. Please return it when you're done with it so others can use it." What would be the effect on our bottom line? On the fulfillment of our mission? Which effect would be greater?

I'm not arguing that the "theft" of library materials would stop with such a policy in place. Undoubtedly, a library with such a policy would still lose some portion of its resources each year, and would have to incur costs to replace them.

And, by extension, I'm not arguing that the abuse of association resources would stop with the adoption of parallel policies in our space.

What I am arguing is that there are often strong voices in our associations who seem more concerned about punishing abusers of association resources than they are about fulfilling the association's mission. And it is important not to let those voices make the decisions about how the abusers will be dealt with.

Some people never return library books. That's a fact. But that doesn't necessarily mean that a library should stop lending to them.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Monday, April 4, 2016

Association Professionals Are Experts

I had an interesting pair of experiences last week. I was attending a technical workshop sponsored by my association and one of our university partners. Our objective was to engage technical and academic professionals in our industry to create and advance a "roadmap," a document describing needed research and development initiatives to improve our industry's products and our profession.

At the social dinner the night before the workshop I met many members of my association I hadn't had the chance to meet before. When talking about our backgrounds, I described how, unlike most of them, I was not an engineer and, prior to coming to my current association, I had had no exposure to our industry and its technology. My bachelor degree is in English Literature, I told them, and I'm an association professional, serving as the deputy executive director of a professional medical specialty society before taking the reins at my current association.

This led to a lot of good-natured ribbing from my engineering colleagues, especially when it was revealed that my previous association had been a group of allergists. It was springtime in Atlanta, after all, and several of the folks around the table (including myself) were suffering from our first taste of seasonal allergies.

"Well, if nothing else, maybe you can provide us with some allergy relief tips during the session tomorrow?" That was typical of the jokes at my expense that were offered (all in good fun). Obviously, I didn't have any technical expertise that could help them achieve the task that has been set for them.

Fast forward to the following day and the workshop itself. After a series of technical presentations on some emerging technologies in our space, we broke into a series of breakouts, one on each of the presented technologies, where a smaller group could deep dive and identify the best leverage points for our roadmap. I was on-hand to facilitate one of these breakouts, which I did with my usual curiosity and directness.

After nearly ten years in my position, I'm still no engineer nor expert, but I've come to understand enough about our industry and its technologies to ask intelligent questions. As an association executive, I've facilitated dozens of sessions like this one, so I was sure not to let any one voice dominate the conversation and listened carefully for areas of true consensus. And, as a communications professional, I'm skilled at composing and organizing content on the fly, so I used my laptop and an LCD projector to present and test the concepts in real-time.

When it was done, I got a round of applause. One of the participants (someone who was joking with me at dinner the night before) told me that he believed me being a non-technical-expert actually helped the process.

"Having you as our facilitator forced us to speak in plain English, not in jargon, to make sure the ideas were being captured correctly. And you pushed us, making us answer questions we hadn't initially considered."

I was humble with the praise he offered me. But inside I knew that being an association professional meant that I was supposed to bring these skills to the table. Because association professionals are experts, not necessarily in the industries or professions they represent, but in the process of organizing and helping those industries or professions advance themselves.

It was a good day, spring allergies notwithstanding.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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