Monday, April 29, 2013

Transactional vs. Aspirational Membership

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How do you think about the relationship between your members and your association?

Is it transactional? Do you deliver high quality services direct to the member at a value equal to or higher than what the member pays in dues or fees?

Or is it aspirational? Do you create communities of change around aspirational goals that can only succeed through collective action?

It's actually a trick question. Successful associations don't approach this as an either-or proposition, because failure waits at both ends of the continuum.

Associations weighted too heavily towards the “transactional” side risk losing in the inevitable competition against more nimble for-profits providing the same services. Associations weighted too heavily towards the “aspirational” side risk losing all but the most passionate members.

To be successful, you must find a way to balance these two concepts. You must provide valuable services while bringing members together to achieve something larger than those services.

It isn't easy. But understanding that you're trying to do both gives you an advantage over those who don't. Use that advantage wisely.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Google Reader is shutting down on July 1, 2013. If you read this blog through Google Reader, please find another way of accessing the feed after July 1. Or, subscribe via email by using the link in the right sidebar. Thank you!

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

Monday, April 22, 2013

We Can Only See the Destination By Moving Towards It

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These words came out of my mouth in a conversation with one of my staff people yesterday. Our association is venturing into a new area of activity--something we all know is necessary, but for which few of us have any natural aptitude. Understandably, everyone is looking to me for direction, for a clear picture of where we are going.

"We can only see the destination by moving towards it," I said, by which I meant several key things.

We're all in this together. This is a team project. What we're doing will change the very nature of our association and how we define value for our stakeholders. It doesn't live solely within one functional area--and none of us have enough expertise to shepherd the rest of us through it. We need everyone in the organization to be a part of what's going on.

We're co-creating the future. The future is undefined--and that's a good thing, not bad. It means we have more, not less, control over what's going to happen and how we're going to benefit from it. We must progress, yes, but we can progress at a pace that we define, and the measures of our success will be mutually determined, not handed down from above.

We need to interact with the environment to understand what can and should be done. Given the current state of our knowledge, creating a detailed and long-term plan of action is both unrealistic and counterproductive. For each step we take forward, we must stop and reassess our assumptions and understanding of the emerging world around us before taking the next one. We are not moving on a well-traveled highway between two cities we've known all our lives. We're making our way across a marshy swamp in a dense fog. When we move forward onto one dry rock, we have to pause and look around before stepping on the next one.

This is not the way we're used to operating. I get that. But if we're going to create something new--and get to a place we've never visited before and for which we have no directions--we need to find a new way of doing things. And we can only find that way, not by standing still and predicting what we must do, but by moving towards it with openness and courage.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Google Reader is shutting down on July 1, 2013. If you read this blog through Google Reader, please find another way of accessing the feed after July 1. Or, subscribe via email by using the link in the right sidebar. Thank you!

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

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King

This is one of King’s shorter works. Only 264 pages in the paperback I read. Unfortunately, it takes King 100 pages to figure out whose story he’s telling.

Trisha rebuckled the pack’s flap before she could weaken, then wrapped her arms around it again. Now that she wasn’t thirsty anymore, what should she imagine? And she knew, just like that. She imagined Tom Gordon was in the clearing with her, that he was standing right over there by the stream. Tom Gordon in his home uniform; it was so white it almost glowed in the moonlight. Not really guarding her because he was just pretend…but sort of guarding her. Why not? It was her make-believe, after all.

Trisha is a nine-year-old girl who has gotten lost in the woods, and has been listening to a Red Sox baseball game on her Walkman to keep her from being too frightened. Tom Gordon is a closing pitcher for the Red Sox, and her favorite player.

What was that in the woods? she asked him.

She’s been seeing things in the woods—scary things; and is uncertain if they are real or just in her imagination.

Don’t know, Tom replied. He sounded indifferent. Of course he could afford to sound indifferent, couldn’t he? The real Tom Gordon was two hundred miles away in Boston, and by now probably asleep behind a locked door.

“How do you do it?” she asked, sleepy again now, so sleepy she wasn’t aware that she was speaking out loud. “What’s the secret?”

Secret of what?

“Of closing,” Trisha said, her eyes closing.

She thought he would say believing in God—didn’t he point to the sky every time he was successful, after all?—or believing in himself, or maybe trying your best (that was the motto of Trisha’s soccer coach: “Try your best, forget the rest”), but Number 36 said none of those things as he stood by the little stream.

You have to try to get ahead of the first hitter, was what he said. You have to challenge him with that first pitch, throw a strike he can’t hit. He comes to the plate thinking, I’m better than this guy. You have to take that idea away from him, and it’s best not to wait. It’s best to do it right away. Establishing that it’s you who’s better, that’s the secret of closing.

This comes on page 103, and it is both the moral of the story, and the first time I believe that Trisha is actually a nine-year-old girl.

Up to that point, you see, King doesn’t treat her like any nine-year-old girl I ever heard of. Or maybe he tries to, but her inner voice and the voice of the narrator are so intertwined and can’t tell them apart.

…when she got to be Pete’s age her face would probably be one great pimple if she didn’t lay off the sweets…

…she now looked back on her panicky plunge through the woods with the mixture of indulgence and embarrassment adults feel when looking back upon the worst of their childhood behavior…

…it had been a crappy day, all right, très crappy…

…her pack, of which she had hardly been aware up until now, began to feel like a large, unstable baby in one of those papoose carriers…

…at last, moving as wearily as a woman of sixty after a hard day’s work (she felt like a woman of sixty after a hard day’s work)…

These are all in the narrator’s voice—in the sense that they are not direct quotations attributed to Trisha or italicized words to depict Trisha’s actual thoughts—but they are all so close to Trisha’s point of view, and, to my way of thinking, so obviously connections and language that an adult mind would employ, that they really prevented me from getting into the story and seeing Trisha as King undoubtedly wanted me to see her—as a frightened nine-year-old girl in a whole lot of trouble. What did I see instead? I saw Stephen King, the aging novelist who has written one too many books that rely on the same narrative arc pretending to be a nine-year-old girl.

Here’s the absolute epitome.

She got moving again. Three quarters of the way down, a bug—a big one, not a minge or a mosquito—flew into her face. It was a wasp, and Trisha batted at it with a cry. Her pack shifted violently to her downhill side, her right foot slipped, and suddenly her balance was gone. She fell, hit the rock slope on her shoulder with a tooth-rattling thud, and began to slide.

“Oh shit on toast!” she cried, and grabbed the ground.

Oh shit on toast? That’s what a nine-year-old girl who’s lost in the woods says when she loses her footing and begins sliding down a rocky hill? Oh shit on toast?

King does sporadically use a technique that helps, putting the thoughts and expressions that more appropriately belong to adults in the echoed voices of adults Trisha knows.

…Of course, if pigs had wings, bacon would fly. Her father said that…

…At least she wasn’t going to die from the stings, or she’d probably be dying already. She had overheard Mom and Mrs. Thomas from across the street talking about someone who was allergic to stings, and Mrs. Thomas had said, “Ten seconds after it gut im, poor ole Frank was swole up like a balloon. If he hadn’t had his little kit with the hyperdermic, I guess he woulda choked to death…”

But he does this far too infrequently to make Trisha’s constant flashes of King’s own vernacular adult wisdom believable. It really was the most distracting part of the first hundred pages.

The second hundred pages are better, and I especially liked the climax, where Trisha confronts and defeats a wild bear—blurred by her disorientation after a few days of hunger and dehydration and King’s typical storytelling tricks—into perhaps a malevolent entity called the God of the Lost, by pitching her Walkman at it in classic Tom Gordon style and bopping it right on the nose. Tom’s lesson—that you have to take the thought that your opponent is better than you away from him as quickly as you can—comes full circle in a nice and fulfilling way.

And in this regard, I realize that Trisha has to be nine years old in order for the story to work. She can’t be anything else. Can you imagine an adult, lost in the woods, conjuring up a projection of his favorite baseball player to be his guardian and pathfinder in a time of desperation?

King never tries to convince us that Tom Gordon is actually with Trisha in the woods. He knows better than anyone that it isn’t really Gordon that’s protecting her. It is Trisha’s child-like sense of hero worship that gives her the courage to push forward and do what she does. And given the themes King has written about so many times before, that is a concept worthy of his narrative gifts.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Google Reader is shutting down on July 1, 2013. If you read this blog through Google Reader, please find another way of accessing the feed after July 1. Or, subscribe via email by using the link in the right sidebar. Thank you!

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

Monday, April 15, 2013

Accessibility vs. High Fidelity

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Read an interesting blog post about the changing nature of music industry. According to the author, after generations of working to make the music being produced more accessible, the industry is changing its focus to deliver the highest quality sound experience possible. The internet and the MP3 player has made music almost universally accessible, and so the market is switching to high fidelity as its primary value proposition.

It got me thinking about some obvious and some not-so-obvious parallels in the association business. Many, if not most associations seem focused on accessibility--getting more prospects to join and getting more members to use more of its services. Growing the membership, increasing attendance at conferences and events, expanding the scope and influence of the association--these are objectives that perennially appear on many of our strategic and action plans.

But I wonder if, like the music industry, high fidelity is increasingly the better model for associations to be following. The internet has affected our industry in many similar ways, not only making our knowledge and intelligence services more accessible, but giving our members access to more information that doesn't necessarily come from our association. The challenge of keeping up with the quantity of information available--and its accessibility--is increasingly difficult.

In this environment, the discriminating member is not necessarily looking for more, they are looking for better. More is easy. More is everywhere. But better is rare and difficult to find. An association that focuses on providing the highest quality experience, even at the expense of more and more accessible services, is going to have a competitive advantage.

And that idea leads me to my most interesting questing. Is it possible to do both? Can your association pursue both accessibility and high fidelity? I tend to think not, that this is fundamentally an either-or proposition, and something that every association leader should think carefully about before committing to a particular course of action.

Unlike the music industry, success for associations can probably still be found down either path, but trying to walk both of them is likely to leave you lost in the woods.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Google Reader is shutting down on July 1, 2013. If you read this blog through Google Reader, please find another way of accessing the feed after July 1. Or, subscribe via email by using the link in the right sidebar. Thank you!

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

Monday, April 8, 2013

Association Turf Battles

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Having just renewed my CAE certification, I thought I'd offer this week's post in the form of a CAE exam question.

A program committee has an idea for program improvement that relates directly to one of the association's special interest groups. The program in question is not something the special interest group has worked on before. To avoid confusion and unnecessary duplication of effort, the association CEO should:

A. Facilitate a conversation between the chair of the committee and the chair of the special interest group, where the program idea and methods for appropriately engaging members of special interest group can be discussed.

B. Communicate with the staff liaison to the program committee and the staff liaison to the special interest group to make sure both understand the program objective.

C. Expect that the staff liaison to the program committee and the staff liaison to the special interest group will fight over whose project it is, and accuse each other of trying to dump more work on the other's plate.

D. All of the above.

The correct answer, unfortunately, is D. 

But why?

Is it because the environment we function is unpredictable, and opportunities for positive change are too often perceived as threats to the status quo?

Is it because everyone's plate is full, and taking on more tasks, especially those that are unfamiliar and not assigned by a direct supervisor, is too horrible to contemplate?

Is it because the CEO hasn't consistently communicated expectations for collaboration and teamwork, and hasn't held people accountable for their previous resistance to these values?

Perhaps "all of the above" is the correct answer here, too.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Google Reader is shutting down on July 1, 2013. If you read this blog through Google Reader, please find another way of accessing the feed after July 1. Or, subscribe via email by using the link in the right sidebar. Thank you!

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

Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Wandering Hill by Larry McMurtry

This is Book 2 of McMurtry’s Berrybender Narratives, the first of which was Sin Killer, which I listened to as an audiobook back in 2006. I liked Sin Killer, mostly because I saw it as a kind of homage to Cooper and his Leatherstocking Tales, seeing more than a little Natty Bumppo in the character of Jim Snow, the Sin Killer.

And there are pieces of that same storyline in The Wandering Hill. Near the beginning, after Jim slaps his wife Tasmin for cursing, we learn more about Jim’s upbringing, and why he is so rigid against sin of any kind.

Jim didn’t answer. He wished Tasmin could just be silent, and not always be spilling words out of her mouth at such a rate. Lengthy talk just made it harder for him [to] hold the simple articles of faith in his mind, the faith that Preacher Cockerell had beaten into him at an early age. Preacher Cockerell never hesitated: he took the horsehide whip to his own wife and children as readily as he took it to Jim. Sin was to be driven out and violence was the way to drive it. Sin was also constant; violence had to be constant too. Preacher Cockerell whipped in the morning, whipped in the noontide, whipped at night; when members of his congregation sent their unruly young to him, he whipped them too. Jim grew up fearing the whip but not doubting the justice. Before the morning meal and the evening, Preacher Cockerell read from the Holy Book, terrible passages about punishment, sin, hell, Lot’s wife, the whore of Babylon, wars and floods and banishment, all the punishments that man deserved because of his sinful nature. Preacher Cockerell even whipped himself, for he had fallen into adultery with the wife of Deacon Sylvester. For such a sin even the whippings had not been enough, so Jehovah sent the lightning bolt that fried Preacher Cockerell and turned him black; the same lightning bolt threw Maundey Cockerell and Jim Snow aside as if they were chaff from the grain. For three days Jim lay unmoving; he seemed to float in red water, though there was no water where he was. Even the Kaw was low that year. Maundey Cockerell lived, but her mind died, destroyed by the heavenly flash. From that time on Jim had felt it was his duty to punish sin, whenever he met it in the violent men of the West, red or white; the Indians feared him because of the ferocity of his attacks. He was particularly feared by the medicine men, because it was the heresy of their spells and potions that angered him most.

Which I was initially intrigued by because, as clichéd as the background may seem to be, it certainly provided a contrasting moral construct than the one Natty pursued in books like The Pathfinder. For the Sin Killer, evidently, moral action is driven by blind dogma and violence, not by any heightened understanding of the natural world and the forces that shape it. Upon reading this, I was excited to see how this moral guidance would play itself out, as Jim Snow and Tasmin Berrybender seemed destined to enact some kind of epic clash between moral understandings of the world they decided to co-inhabit as man and wife.

And then, even more interesting, was the character of Pomp Charbonneau (the historical infant that Sacagawea had birthed and carried with her on the famous expedition of Lewis and Clark, now grown into a young man and fictionalized for this series), who McMurtry seems ready to set in opposition to the hard and judgmental morality of the Sin Killer.

Though glad, of course, that Hugh Glass was alive, Pomp felt no inclination to join in the party. Tasmin, in her annoyance, had stated an awkward truth about him: he was not often lustful, and he had rarely been able to join in the spirit of any group celebration. The English girl stated clearly what he himself had never quite articulated: he stood apart, not hostile or critical of the lusts or greeds of others; his gaze contained no stiff judgments, as her husband the Sin Killer’s fierce look was apt to do. Pomp would have liked to love a woman, feel a brother to a man, and yet he never had—or at least, he hadn’t since the death of Sacagawea, his mother; and that had occurred when he was only a boy.

But neither of these promises are kept—at least not in this volume of Berrybender Narratives. Pomp Charbonneau and even Jim Snow are more like minor characters in the story that follows, spending most of their time away from the story’s main character, Tasmin. There’s a hint of a coming conflict at the very end of the novel, when Pomp is injured in a climactic Indian attack, and has to have an arrowhead removed via frontier surgery before he floats off toward death.

Pomp, drifting in deep and starless darkness, heard Tasmin speak softly in his ear, saying she was here, she was here; but he couldn’t answer. The easeful darkness held him in its lazy power; he floated downward, deeper and deeper into it, as the soaked leaf sinks slowly to the bottom of a pool, to a place deeper than light. Helpless as the leaf he sank and sank, until, instead of Tasmin’s voice, he heard, “Jean Baptiste…Jean Baptiste!” Then the darkness gave way to the soft light of dream, and there was Sacagawea, his mother, sitting quietly in a field of waving grass, as she had so many times in his dreams. Though her dark eyes welcomed him, the look on her face was grave.

As always in his dreams of Sacagawea, Pomp wanted to rush to her, to be taken in her arms, as he had been as a child; but he could not move. The rules of the dream were severe—old sadness, old frustration pricked him, even though dreams of his mother were the best dreams of all.

As usual, when she visited him in dreams, Sacagawea began to talk in low tones of things that had happened long ago.

“When we were on our way back from the great ocean I took you up to the top of those white cliffs that rise by the Missouri,” she said. “I wanted you to see the great herds, grazing far from the world of men; but you were a young boy then, not even weaned, and I held your hand so you wouldn’t step off the edge of life and go too soon to the Sky House, where we all have to go someday. Now that old Ute’s arrow has brought you to the edge of life again, but the woman who whispers to you wants to pull you back, as I pulled you back when you were young.”

Sacagawea was looking directly at him—Pomp wanted to ask her questions, and yet, as always in his dreams of his mother, he was gripped by a terrible muteness; he could ask no question, make no plea, though he knew that at any time the dream might fade and his mother be lost to him until he visited her in dreams again. With the fear that his dream was ending came a sadness so deep that Pomp did not want to wake up to life, and yet that was just what his mother was urging him to do—she wanted him to listen to Tasmin.

“I did not wean you until you had seen four summers,” Sacagawea told him. “My milk was always strong—I filled you with it so that you could live long and enjoy the world of men, the world I showed you when we stood together on the white cliffs. Obey the woman who whispers—it is not time for you to come to the Sky House yet…”

Then, with sad swiftness, his mother faded; where her face had been was Tasmin’s face, leaning close to his. Pomp tried to smile, but couldn’t, not yet. Even so, Tasmin’s eyes shone with tears of relief.

“There…it’s out—and he’s not bleeding much,” Father Geoffrin said. “I think our good Pomp can live now—if he wants to.”

Tasmin had been watching Pomp’s face closely. Her heart leapt when he opened his eyes.

“I’ll see that he wants to!” she said, overjoyed that her friend had lived.

Father Geoffrin—priest, surgeon, and cynic—raised an eyebrow.

“I expect you will, madame,” he said. “I expect you will.”

That’s how the book ends. The juxtaposition between Pomp’s mother and Tasmin is, of course, symbolic, but the Father Geoffrin’s allusion at the very end is fairly direct. It’s too bad that I’ll have to wait until Book 3 to see this confrontation of moral attitudes.

So if not that moral confict, what does The Wandering Hill focus on? Well, the wandering hill, for one.

“I guess I’ll stay with you,” he said, a little awkwardly—but Pomp seemed not to mind the awkwardness. He was staring at a small, conical hill about half a mile away. The hill was mostly bare, but had a gnarled tree—cedar, probably—on top, a single tree with a dusting of snow.

Pomp looked troubled.

“That hill looks familiar,” he said—“but it ought to be farther south. There’s a hill just like that down by Manuel Lisa’s old fort, where my mother is buried.”

Jim looked at the tree—it seemed to him that he had seen a hill remarkably similar to this one—hadn’t it been near the South Platte?

“Maybe it’s the wandering hill—they say you usually find it where there’s been killings,” Pomp said.

Jim had heard of the wandering hill several times—it was a heathenish legend that many tribes seemed to believe. The hill was said to be inhabited with short, fierce devils with large heads, who killed travelers with deadly arrows made of grass blades, which they could shoot great distances.

“If that’s the hill with the devils in it they’d have a hard time finding grass blades to shoot at us, with all this snow,” Jim said.

Pomp was still staring at the strange, bare little hill.

“My mother believed in the wandering hill,” he said. “She claimed to have seen it way off over the mountains somewhere—near the Snake River, I think.”

“Well, I thought I saw it once myself—on the South Platte,” Jim admitted. “What do you think?”

Pomp shook his head.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I just don’t remember that particular hill being here the last time I came this way.”

If the novel hadn’t been named after it, this little section on the wandering hill may have gone unnoticed. But the title makes it stand out, and you begin to wonder what role the Indian legend is going to play in the narrative that follows.

The answer, surprisingly, is very little—until the very end, when the hill makes another appearance, convincing an Indian warrior that the English party traveling near it possesses some unknown kind of magic that is keeping the devils inside their hill. Magic of such power, he reasons, must be fought, and great honor would be bestowed on the warrior who could wrest it away from the English—and that prompts the attack in which Pomp is wounded.

In between these two events, there is nary a mention of the hill, making me wonder how relevant it really is to the story line.

There was only one other symbolic theme I stumbled across. It comes when the painter in the Berrybender party—George Catlin—is convinced to paint a nude portrait of Tasmin and another woman in the group, both exceedingly pregnant.

George Catlin scarcely noticed the incident, so absorbed was he in planning the composition; though idly suggested by Tasmin, it had now quite taken hold of his imagination. Motherhood, if delicately yet boldly executed, might be the canvas that would make his name. Perhaps it should be hung in some great building in Washington—the Capitol, perhaps. The more he thought about it, the more excited he became. The allegorical dimension should not, in his view, be ignored. Were not these two Englishwomen, after all, giving birth to Americans—and, by extension, to the new America itself? Would not they represent the newer, grander America even then being born in the West?

McMurtry is also an artist not likely to ignore the allegorical dimension of his work, and this passage and a few that follow are proof of it. The Berrybenders in the West are indeed an allegory of the new America being born, forged both out of the rugged frontier and overmastered by the self-assumed sophistication of English and, more broadly, European cultures. At one point Tasmin herself wonders which life would be best for her newborn son:

What did she want for Monty: the English life with its order and pattern, or the frontier life with its vast beauty and frequent danger?

Sadly, it’s a choice that the reader also has to make, as I don’t think that McMurtry has blended these ideas as well as he might’ve in his fiction. I’ll read the next volume in the series, but I won’t rush it to the top of my pile.

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

Monday, April 1, 2013

Stop Using the Word "Just"

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I recently made a decision. A resolution of sorts. I'm trying to eliminate the word “just” from my vocabulary. Especially when I'm talking to my staff, my members, and my volunteers.

Let me try to explain. My association isn't the largest association on the planet, but like every other association I know of, we have a ton of stuff going on. Metrics to track, programs to manage, objectives to achieve. And for me more specifically, I have staff members to support, members to communicate with, volunteers to inspire. 

In that mix of needs and competing priorities, any human, consciously or otherwise, is bound to make some choices and set some priorities. Sometimes it's a necessary strategy for getting things done--or for staying sane.

And this is when the word "just" creeps in. That metric is just a temporary indicator. That program is just an experiment. That objective is just something to strive for. That staff person is just an assistant. Those members are just associate members. That volunteer is just a troublemaker.

Perhaps you can already see the problem with this kind of thinking. "Just" minimizes whatever it is you're thinking about. It puts it in a mental category that can be more easily dismissed or ignored. And although there may be times when that type of thinking is appropriate or necessary, it's another thing entirely if phrases shaped around this line of thinking ever escape your lips.

To the people most directly affected, nothing is "just" anything. Of course things have relationships to other things, but first and foremost they are what they are in and of themselves. That metric is not just a temporary indicator to the staff person whose reward system is based on it. That program is not just an experiment to the manager who is afraid of failure. That objective is not just something to strive for to the person looking to advance inside the organization. That staff person is not just an assistant to the members who engage with the association through his efforts. Those members are not just associate members that can be taken for granted. That volunteer is not just a troublemaker that can be ignored.

Make choices. Prioritize, by all means. But when speaking from a position of leadership, never refer to anything as "just" something else. It sends signals you do not intend.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Google Reader is shutting down on July 1, 2013. If you read this blog through Google Reader, please find another way of accessing the feed after July 1. Or, subscribe via email by using the link in the right sidebar. Thank you!

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