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How do you think about the relationship between your members and your association?
Is it transactional? By that I mean do you approach your members the way a vendor might? Your association has some quality products--networking, market intelligence, professional education, etc.--and your job is to deliver those products to the members at a value equal to or higher than what they are willing to pay in dues or fees. Are you there to sell and your members are there to buy?
Or is it aspirational? And by that I mean do you approach your members the way a coach might? Your association has some strategic objectives--creating new business opportunities, shaping legislation, creating positive social change, etc.--and your job is to pull your members together into effective volunteer teams and motivate them to work towards those objectives. Are you there to dream and your members are there to act?
It's actually a trick question. Successful associations don't approach this as an either-or proposition, because they know that failure waits at both ends of the continuum.
Associations weighted too heavily towards the “transactional” side risk failure if their members come to view the association in the same way the association is viewing them--as vendors. They may demand higher levels of service for lower levels of investment, because that’s what people want from their vendors--the best possible product at the lowest possible price. Most associations will struggle to meet these demands, because they are generally not the most nimble and adaptive businesses, and the members may begin looking to have their needs fulfilled elsewhere in the marketplace. The association, after all, is just a vendor--probably one of many providing the needed services--and the member’s loyalty to the association only runs so deep. The association winds up losing members, further straining its limited resources, and soon the whole enterprise implodes.
However, associations weighted too heavily towards the “aspirational” side risk failure if their members come to view the association as too focused on what the members can offer it rather than what it can offer its members. Some small fraction of the membership will always be motivated by the passionate quest for big picture change, but most will want some grounding in the practical reality. Most will be willing to offer some of their time and expertise to help the profession or industry the association represents, but these resources are among the most limited in the association world. Volunteers are increasingly challenged at balancing their existing professional commitments. To get engaged with one visionary quest after another, with little or no payback in terms of practical tools and connections they can leverage for their own professional success--this is asking too much of members. They will drift away, the association will lose its capacity to affect the change it seeks, and the organization will fold.
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.
We try to do both in my own organization. We’re by no means perfect, but here are two tactical lessons I’ve learned trying to walk the fine line between transactional and aspirational membership.
1. Find your golden handcuffs, and then don’t lose sight of them. I’m not a big fan of the term, but it does effectively convey the idea. Your association must have a program or service that your members find absolutely invaluable, that they can’t imagine doing their jobs without. And you have to be the only, or at least the best, source for it. This program, whatever it is, is your pair of golden handcuffs, the program that will keep members in the association through thick and through thin. If you don’t have one--get one. And once you have it, don’t take it for granted. Don’t assume that every member, new and old, sees and understands its value. Members are bombarded by thousands of messages every day--many from your own organization. In this jungle of conflicting communication priorities, keep the golden handcuffs front and center, even if you think the messages surrounding your aspirational goals are more important and more compelling. They’re not. At least not to the members unfamiliar with the golden handcuffs. Get them engaged there first.
2. Talk more about the future that must be created than about how to get there. If your association is like most that I’m familiar with, then any long-term, big-picture change objective it has will require the buy-in, dedication and heavy lifting of its members in order to have a chance of succeeding. And if your members are like mine, they’re going to want to be a part of both defining that objective and determining how to get there. If they don’t help define the dream, it’s not theirs. And if they don’t help figure out how to get there, they’re just taking orders from you--and you don’t pay them. You can best leverage these dynamics by speaking out--loud and often--about the objective you’re all working towards. Don’t burden these presentations with a lot of specifics. Your goal is to rally people around a cause, not issue orders. The feedback you get will do two things: (1) Help you refine the vision so it appeals to even more people; and (2) Identify the champions who are willing to work towards the change because they bring their ideas for doing so to the table.
Neither of these lessons was easy for me to learn. And whether you embrace their specifics or not, it is important for you to realize that you must position your association as trying to do both--providing useful services AND working together with members on positive change. The first gives people a reason for belonging. The second helps them develop a desire to achieve more.
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Do you like the things I say on this blog? Are you attending the 2013 ASAE Marketing, Membership and Communications Conference? Then please stop by the learning lab I'll be leading with Elizabeth Engel and Peggy Hoffman. "Walking the Walk of Deep Member Engagement" will be held from 10:15 to 11:30 AM on Wednesday, June 5, 2013. Click here for more details on the conference. Hope to see you there!
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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit www.ericlanke.blogspot.com, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.