Monday, June 10, 2013

Member Engagement and Association Building Blocks

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Thanks to my co-presenters, Elizabeth Engel and Peggy Hoffman, and all the folks who joined us at our "Walking the Walk of Deep Member Engagement" learning lab at last week's ASAE Marketing, Membership and Communications Conference. Elizabeth has put up several resources from the session on her blog--the handout, the powerpoint slides; even a video interview she and Peggy recorded right after the session ended. Go check them out!

We structured the session around three stories, each connecting to a critical concept we wanted to convey and discuss regarding member engagement. Here's the story I told:

One of the realities we all face in the world of association management is that some members want to direct their own volunteer efforts. They don't want to assume a traditional committee leadership role. They don't want to be pledged to an agenda they may not feel any real passion for, and they certainly don't want to be bound by a bunch of association-specific rules, regulations, and reporting requirements.

How do I know this? Because I’ve been one of these members.

Before joining the board of the Wisconsin Society of Association Executives, I was just a member. And as a member, I looked to WSAE the way a lot of your members probably look at your association.

Help me. Help me engage with my peers and help me develop the skills that I need to advance my career.

In my case, I was willing to get engaged in a volunteer capacity, but I wanted to do it on my own terms. I already knew the subject area I was interested in, and I knew it was an area that others in my profession were also interested in. I also knew how I wanted WSAE to help me explore it.

So I approached them with a proposition. I even used terms I knew they would understand.

I said, "I’ll lead a task force on the issue. Our task force will investigate and discuss the issue for a while, and when we feel we’ve learned something, we’ll author a white paper on it, summarizing our findings, which the association can share with the rest of the membership."

From my point of view, it was an ideal bargain. It was a subject I was going to study anyway, but by working through the association, I would be able to leverage their resources to assist me in my learning process. They would promote the task force and its purpose to the wider membership. They would help identify professionals who shared my same interest. They would organize the necessary conference calls and meetings. They would help perform the research for the white paper. And they would circulate its early drafts to a wider pool of interested parties for review and comment. And when we were finished, I would have learned a great deal about the subject that interested me and further developed my leadership skills, and they would have a piece of educational content that they could leverage for member development and recruitment purposes.

It was a richly rewarding experience for myself, my task force members, and the association. It worked with me and WSAE precisely because they: (1) Provided enough structure to help me define my objective and provide me with access to the appropriate resources to pursue it; and (2) Facilitated the process rather than trying to direct it. But these are two things that are exceptionally difficult for many associations to do.

Why is that?

That's what I wanted the participants to discuss. And here's how I set that discussion up for them:

What can your association do to make it easier for your members to use your association’s resources to define and create their own value?

Think of the scenario I just described. 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?

You see, I believe that if associations are going to capitalize on the passion and interests of members like this, they are going to need a structure and a streamlined process for turning the association’s building blocks over to those members to see what they can build with them.

What followed was a vibrant and useful discussion. I'll share some of the best parts of that discussion in future posts.

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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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