Monday, January 30, 2012

The Mind of the Community

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At a recent WSAE meeting I was asked to explain what we meant in our white paper on Innovation for Associations when we referred to the "mind of community." Had I had a copy of the white paper with me, I could have quoted from it directly.

All organizations serve a community in one form or another and innovative organizations have developed mechanisms that provide a keen understanding of what’s on their community’s mind. In the most successful cases, it went beyond an awareness of a constituent’s needs. These innovation processes were imbued with a true sense of how the constituents thought—what they wanted, what they didn’t want, and how they would react in predictable and unpredictable circumstances. The methods for attaining this understanding varied, but the knowledge, once attained, was used throughout the innovation process to serve as a constant guide for successful decision‐making.

The added emphasis is mine, not the white paper's. I tried to capture the essence of this idea in my half-formed and stumbling verbal response at the WSAE meeting (and probably failed), and it's been tumbling around in my brain ever since.

But it did help me remember an old blog post from Dan Pallotta, a post in which he derided philanthropic organizations for focusing too much on what their donors said they wanted.

There are two kinds of people in the humanitarian sector. Those obsessed with giving donors what they say they want and those committed to giving donors something more magnificent than anything they ever dreamed they wanted. The latter are in short supply.

To respond, Boy Scout-like, to what donors say they want, and to dedicate the whole of your organization to telling them what they want to hear, is at best professionally lazy and at worst a wholesale dereliction of duty. Donors lead busy lives. They cannot and should not be expected to have the same level of sophistication about giving questions as those of us who have made philanthropy our careers. Most donors don't know what they really want because they haven't had time to think about it. Those of us who lead philanthropy and humanitarian organizations have a duty to share our expertise with them and to do it in a way that engages them. We have a duty to lead, not to follow. Imagine if your dentist let your teeth rot because she didn't want to tell you that you needed a root canal because she knew it wasn't what you wanted to hear.

And that helped me realize that what Pallotta is saying about one kind of philanthropic organization is equally true for one kind of association. In many cases those associations are extremely well-oiled machines, with tremendous capacities for doing functional things like plan conferences and publish newsletters, but few of them have built any capacity for understanding what the industries and professions they represent need to succeed and thrive in the future.

If anyone in such an organization does, it's usually the CEO. They are the one in the board meeting, hearing directly from the volunteer leaders, and frequently not about what they want in the short term but instead about their vision of the future and the broad strategies needed to create it.

But the meeting planner or the newsletter publisher? Well, they don't have that kind of access, and they almost never develop that kind of understanding. Their only tool is asking the general member what they want, often in the form of an online survey, and they’re stuck catching members when they’re drinking their morning coffee and scanning their Twitter feeds. Like Pallotta says, the members are busy, and any information they offer is tossed off of the top of their heads.

At least in a well-constructed board meeting, the focus is on the future and long-term success. People are correctly oriented in their thinking and the daily distractions have been eliminated. And the social time that often accompanies them gives another opportunity to interact with board members in yet another capacity, all of it separated from direct queries about what one thinks should be done.

All of these activities, I believe, help build a deeper understanding of the mind of your community. And if yours in the kind of organization where only the CEO has this kind of experience, then the question to ask is how can the same kind of opportunities be created for everyone on the staff? Some may think that's the wrong question, that the appropriate focus should be on the CEO and how they communicate that understanding throughout the organization. But I think that's a fool's errand. Understanding the mind of any community isn't something you can learn from someone else. The only way to do so is to become part of the community itself.

For organizations struggling with this, I would ask them to look at the wall that likely exists between their members and their staff. If such a wall is there, if the organization is rigidly structured so that the only interaction staff and members have is in the context of service delivery, then I say tear that wall down. If you want your staff to better anticipate the needs of your members, to understand how your members' community will react in predictable and unpredictable situations, you need to make them part of it.


  1. "The only way to do is to become part of the community itself."

    There's the really powerful strategic question for an association's leadership to explore regularly: how can we become more a part of, and connected to. the community itself in order to better serve its present needs and lead it to the most desirable futures?

  2. Exactly, Jeffrey. It's a question I've been wrestling with more and more. In my case, it's the separation between staff and members that hampers our ability to anticipate their needs. We need to find ways to frame ourselves as one community not two.