Monday, June 17, 2013

It Doesn't Scale

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Last week, in Member Engagement and Association Building Blocks, I wrote about the story I told at the "Walking the Walk of Deep Member Engagement" learning lab Elizabeth Engel, Peggy Hoffman and I ran at the recent ASAE Marketing, Membership and Communications Conference. We told several stories in the session, and each was meant to convey a critical concept about member engagement that we wanted the participants to discuss. My story was about letting members leverage the resources of the association to direct their own volunteer efforts and, after telling it, I offered the following to help frame the discussion that followed:

Imagine a member who has never served on a committee before contacts you with an idea for a new project. You recognize that the topic is relevant to the educational needs of many of your members, but the project has no precedent within your organization. The member is willing to do most of the work himself, but he needs the association to spend some of its resources--some of its money, yes, and some of its staff time, and, most importantly, some of the precious attention of its members--in order for it to be successful.

Think about how such an idea would be received in your association. Is there an approval process such an idea it would have to go through? Who controls it and on what factors are its decisions based? What barriers would stand between the idea and the successful completion of the project? And what can you and your association do to remove them?

After a vibrant discussion, we opened the session up for comments or questions from the floor. And here's a paraphrase of what the very first person said.

We can't do what you suggest. It doesn't scale. Engaging that one individual member in the manner you advocate may be a good thing, but how are we supposed to do the same thing with the next one, ten, or hundred members who call? We can't open ourselves up like that.

I was very diplomatic during the session. I accepted what the participant was saying and, more importantly, the place she was saying it from, and offered some suggestions on how her association might be able to experiment around the edges with such an approach.

But inside I was seething.

It doesn't scale. Really? What, exactly, doesn't scale? How about that traditional committee structure so many associations are wedded to? You know, the one with all the chair positions that go unfilled because no one wants to take responsibility for work that means nothing to them and their professional development. What about that? Does that scale?

We can't open ourselves up like that. You can't? What, exactly, is your association for if you're not going to help your members solve their problems? And who is this 'we' you refer to? Aren't your members part of the 'we'? In fact, aren't the members more a part of the 'we' than you are? Who do you think pays your salary?

Look, it's actually pretty simple. Every time a member calls with an idea for how he or she can use the association's resources to further their own developmental goals and return value to the association and its membership (like that's going to happen more than once or twice a year anyway) you respond with one of two possible actions.

First, if the idea is aligned with your association's overall strategy, then you figure out a way to support the member's request. You just stumbled onto someone who is going to help your association fulfill its mission and they aren't going to charge you anything for doing it. Bake them a cake. Do whatever it takes to get them plugged in and engaged.

Second, if the idea isn't aligned with your association's overall strategy, then you have a frank and honest conversation with the member about why it isn't, and you see if they are willing to brainstorm some alternate ideas that they could get behind that are aligned with your association's overall strategy. If you come up with something, great, go back to step one. If you don't, thank the member for their time and ask them to call you if they have additional ideas in the future.

This is how you break the formal committee structure that everyone seems to be complaining about and that is driving so many of your members away. One at a time, a single member with passion for a project, aligned with your association's strategy and resources. It can be a very powerful combination.

And it certainly does scale.

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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

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