Monday, June 24, 2013

Member Engagement Starts at Home

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Last week, in It Doesn't Scale, I vented a little. I was talking about some comments offered in 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. My segment of the session was about letting members leverage the resources of the association to direct their own volunteer efforts and, in last week's post, I took issue with what one participant said about how the idea wasn't scalable.

There were other ideas offered, many of them quite good and cognizant of the fundamental realities the practice of letting members direct association resources towards their own ends would face.

One thing we talked about was the need to clearly and continually communicate your overall mission and priorities to the membership. Spend less time talking about the things you want to sell your members and spend more time talking about the things the association wants to achieve. In doing so, encourage members to come forward with ideas for how those ends can be achieved--especially those they would be willing to lead because they align with their own interests or developmental goals.

Another thing we talked about was the need to reserve some portion of the association's budget, staff time, and resources for the projects the members subsequently bring to you. After all, you can't give your members resources to leverage if there aren't any resources to spare after pursuing the association's pre-determined agenda. Like Google's much ballyhooed 20% time, you must protect some portion of your capacity from the voracious appetite of your formal committee structure if you're going to give true adhocracy as chance.

One thing we didn't talk about as much as I would've liked was the idea behind the initial questions I posed to get the discussion started:

Think about how such an unsolicited member idea to use your resources for their own purposes 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?

For me, this is where the rubber really hits the road. Who in your organization has the authority to accept such a proposal from a random member and commit association resources towards it? The CEO? Department heads? Program managers? Front-line staff? Every situation is probably different, but I would suggest that the farther down the organizational chart you can drive this decision-making, the more likely you are to be able to actually enter into these partnership activities with your own members.

And this circles back to the two participant comments I highlighted above. Any staff person who has that kind of decision-making power has to have some budgetary authority and a clear understanding of what the association intends to achieve. Without the first, the decision-making power is toothless. Without the second, you run the risk of it working at cross-purposes with the association.

My sense is that when association executives think about whether or not their organization is ready for this kind of member engagement, most of them hesitate because of uncertainty around these internal questions, not the likelihood that they’re going to be overwhelmed by member requests. If this describes you, start working on making sure everyone in your organization understands where you’re trying to go. In this regard, member engagement really does start at home.

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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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