Monday, October 15, 2012

Member Engagement Solution #7: Advisory Groups Can Be Tremendous Win-Wins

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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 seventh post in that series. Previous posts include:

#1: Don't Forget the Fun
#2: Recruit with a One-to-One Philosophy
#3: Recognize Volunteer Contributions
#4: Manage Volunteer Transitions
#5: Don't Waste a Volunteer's Time
#6: Provide Structure, But Not Too Much

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

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Member Engagement Solution #7: Advisory Groups Can Be Tremendous Win-Wins

One zero-commitment engagement opportunity that appeals to many members is to serve on an advisory group for a particular association program or function. These are not committees with decision-making authority, but a group of talented and interested volunteers who are willing to respond to questions and provide feedback on possible new directions. The association benefits from the wisdom and engagement of its members, and the members benefit from interacting in a community of like-minded professionals. Additionally, once a habit of engagement has formed around a particular topic, the advisory group forms a ready-made community from which to recruit task force members if a particular volunteer task is identified.

I've just begun experimenting with this technique in the past year. Like a lot of similar associations, mine is experiencing two dynamics that make advisory groups almost an imperative. One, members have less and less time to assume formal volunteer responsibilities. Two, the professional expertise of staff focuses on association management and programs, not on the industry we represent. We need the direct involvement of members and their understanding of their marketplace in order to make smart decisions--not just about strategy but, increasingly, about programs.

An advisory group--as opposed to a formal committee or even an informal task force--achieves several unique objectives.

First, it keeps staff squarely in the driver's seat. When it comes to program management, I think this is essential. Unless the association does not have a professional staff, looking to volunteers to run programs can be a risky proposition. When serving on an advisory group, there generally isn't a question over where the decision is going to be made--and staff are usually better positioned to understand what resources are available for the tasks at hand.

Second, it better educates staff on the industry they serve and the marketplace in which members are trying to succeed. Most staff members need this education. There are some folks who make the transition from a specific industry to the association that serves it, but most do not. With staff schedules as busy as they are, it's often hard to find time to study up on things outside the requirements of our day-to-day activities. By keeping in regular contact with an advisory group, listening to them react to the ideas and challenges you propose, we can get a good education without straying too far away from our direct areas of responsibility.

Third, it breeds loyalty and engagement among members. I believe that most members would like to help out, but success in a formal committee or leadership role can be challenging and elusive. By regularly serving as a sounding board, offering their perspective and expertise, they feel more connected to the association, commit a fairly small amount of time and, if the advice is used to positively shape programs, see a direct impact from their interactions. This, more than anything else, is why I think of advisory groups as win-wins.

What have your experiences with advisory groups been like?


  1. I agree totally! I've worked with advisory committees for a few years now, and I wouldn't start a new program without one. They are a fabulous way to tap into knowledge and expertise and generate ownership and energy.