Monday, February 18, 2013

Don't Talk to the Members

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I had an animated conversation with colleagues over dinner last night, during which we discussed why some association staff people consciously avoid contact with their own members.

Perhaps you know some of these people. Call a member? Oh, I can't do that. They're busy. I shouldn't disturb them. Maybe I'll just send another email.

Why do some people act this way? In my experience, it usually boils down to some combination of three things:

1. Servant mentality. We're here to serve our members. It's a common refrain in many associations. Often, it's a healthy perspective, keeping the organization focused on the needs of its core constituency. But sometimes it is taken to an unhealthy extreme, moving beyond a service mentality and into the territory of outright servitude. We can argue all day about where the line between service and servant is, but if you believe you're not permitted to speak unless spoken to, I would suggest that you've drawn the line in the wrong place. You can't provide service if you never leave the servants quarters.

2. Pride. Our association has a reputation for exceptional service and program delivery. And that reputation must be maintained. If we were to call our members and ask them about what we should do, they may start questioning our competency. I have to say, this one puzzles me the most, although I can't deny its existence. I've heard these words spoken out loud, and I've seen the heads nod around the table. And I think the pride from which they spring is a real and often richly deserved emotion. Many associations do have a positive reputation to maintain. But often, I think these words are really a mask for another emotion, one even more primal than pride.

3. Fear. What are these people afraid of? I think it is admitting how little they actually know about the industry or profession they represent. As much as we like to obscure it, the staff and the members of an association often live in two different worlds. And whereas I would celebrate those different perspectives as one of the core symbiotic strengths of the association model, others see in it a weakness they would rather not reveal, fearing that it will be perceived as a weakness in themselves. But pretending you know things you don't, or avoiding situations that may call on you to confess your ignorance is no way to either serve your members or maintain your association's reputation for quality.

This is what underlies your staff people's reluctance to engage their members. As a leader, you have to confront all three of them head-on.

This post written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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