Monday, August 6, 2012

Member Engagement Solution #2: Recruit with a One-to-One Philosophy

I've mentioned previously that I'm leading another innovation effort for WSAE, something we're calling an Innovation Circle. Ours is focused on member engagement, and you can get an overview of what it is and what we're trying to achieve with it here.

I've previously posted on some of the member engagement issues people in the Circle are wrestling with. Now, I'm sharing a some of the solutions the group is coming forward with--strategies that have been demonstrated to work in at least one association environment. This is the second post in that series. Previous posts include:

#1: Don't Forget the Fun

As always, I encourage you to add your thoughts and comments as we go along.

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Member Engagement Solution #2: Recruit with a One-to-One Philosophy

A personal approach is best when it comes to connecting interested volunteers with the tasks the association needs them to perform. A blanket call for volunteers may play a role in identifying interest, but connections should be personal and tailored to the motivations, expertise and time availability of each person.

This is one of the strategies that I, myself, have had some success with. Here's the story of my association's recent experiment with one-to-one recruiting.

At a recent nominating committee meeting, we realized that the well was beginning to run dry of “qualified” candidates for Board service. Our membership was up, and after the economic downturn people were coming back to our conferences, but fewer and fewer, it seemed, were engaging in the volunteer activities of the association--something traditionally seen as an important precursor to being asked to serve on the Board.

There was some discussion about whether or not to abandon that prerequisite. In effect, to create immediate pathways onto the Board for appropriate candidates expressing interest. Although there was a desire to open access to some fresh faces, because of the role Board members play in shaping the overall strategy of the association it was decided that engaged and effective leadership in another volunteer role in the association needed to remain as a critical prerequisite for Board service. The window of opportunity and engagement at the Board level is so short and so focused that existing Board members saw demonstrating a willingness to commit time and expertise to the association as a critical indicator of the Board’s success.

We did, however, want to make it easier for members to step-up and engage with those volunteer roles. As a result, a year-long experiment in outreach and engagement was launched, led by the staff CEO and Board chair. In a nutshell, the following action steps were followed:

1. Board sets strategic priorities at June retreat. This was an existing part of our operations. The Board traditionally sets the strategic agenda for the new fiscal year (beginning July 1) at their retreat held at the end of June.

2. Staff adjusts programs based on strategic priorities and presents action plan to Executive Committee in August. This has been an evolutionary step to our process more formally codified over the past few years. Since the strategic priorities set by the Board are intentionally broader than any individual program, it becomes the responsibility of the staff, led by the CEO, to adjust the programmatic activity of the association to better align with the Board’s strategic priorities. This provides a mechanism for an annual review of the entire program portfolio. Programs that are aligned are sustained or increased, programs that aren’t aligned are decreased or eliminated, and new programs deemed necessary for alignment are introduced.

3. Staff identifies engagement opportunities and disseminates them widely to the membership in September. This is the beginning of our new experiment. With the action plan in place, volunteer roles necessary to support and execute the plan are identified and disseminated to the membership. Some of the activities are organized under existing association committees, some are included as part of new task forces, and others are structured as short-term advisory roles to help provide industry perspective on developing programs. To the degree possible, expected time commitments and work outcomes are included as part of this communication. Any member expressing interest in any of these opportunities is brought into the relevant program or committee and given the staff support needed to engage.

4. Staff reports engagement connections to Board at October meeting and Board identifies individuals for targeted outreach. A report of the member connections with the new volunteer opportunities is prepared for the Board’s regularly-scheduled meeting in October. A critical component of their discussion of that report is to identify specific individuals that will be targeted for personalized outreach. Initially, this was done primarily based on Board members’ top-of-mind familiarity of members and member companies, connecting ones with the appropriate background and perspective to the volunteer roles deemed most critical. As the process repeats in future years, we anticipated that a complete set of demographic information across the membership can better assist the Board in this important task.

5. CEO and Board Chair reach out to targeted individuals in November and December. The people identified by the Board are contacted individually by either the CEO or the Board chair for the purpose of engaging them in a volunteer role. In our first year, we invited these individuals to a strategy briefing, either held in person at a regularly-scheduled regional meeting or, if they were unable to attend that meeting, held via conference call at a date and time that worked for a majority of participants. The objective of these briefings was to better communicate the association’s broader strategy and to show how volunteer activities are a critical part of its successful execution. No one is specifically asked to engage with a particular volunteer role as part of this briefing. Rather, the broad and general input of the participants is sought as a way of assessing the level of interest individuals have for getting engaged. The Board chair and CEO lead these briefings, with the Board chair focusing on the decision process that underlies the strategic priorities and the CEO focusing on how those priorities are connected to the programs run and developed by the association.

6. CEO follows-up with individual participants and confirms their engagement in a specific program or activity in January and February. This is where the individualized connections occur. After the strategy briefing, the CEO follows-up with each individual participant and seeks to secure their involvement in either the volunteer role suggested for them by the Board or another role better aligned with their professional and personal interests. For any successful connection made, the member is immediately brought into the relevant program or committee and given the staff support needed to engage.

7. Executive Committee reviews status of newly-engaged members in March to inform discussion of future Board candidates. All of the previous steps provide added benefits for both the member and the association, but here is where we bring the process back to the original intention--grooming candidates for service on the Board of Directors. Combining the demographic necessities of the Board's nomination process with an active record of members taking on new and successful volunteer roles in the organization increases and diversifies the candidates available for the selection process.

8. Repeat. This is seen as a key component to the process. By repeating it each year, tweaking it as necessary but remaining committed to its execution from a time and resource perspective, ensures that we will be able to accomplish its three key goals: (1) Increase the awareness among the membership of the association’s on-going strategy and its connection to the programs it delivers; (2) Engage a growing population of members in that strategy identification and program execution process through the use of clearly aligned volunteer roles; and (3) Increase the number of qualified candidates to draw on for service on the Board of Directors.

The practical results of this past year’s experiment have been extremely encouraging. Of the 33 members contacted, 12 participated in the strategy briefing (either in-person or via conference call), and 7 have assumed volunteer roles in the association.

As we reflect on this, several factors seemed clearly important for the experiment’s on-going success. The most significant investment the association made in this process was time--particularly that of the association CEO and Board chair. But their involvement paid tremendous dividends in terms of the attention given our request by contacted members and their willingness to get engaged. The personal engagement of the association’s leaders, reaching out and seeking the involvement of individual members, was cited numerous times as the reason people chose to get engaged.

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