Monday, August 26, 2013

In Praise of Past Presidents

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WSAE has invited me to lead a peer-to-peer discussion on Membership Engagement on September 4, 2013. It's going to be via conference call, so all are welcome to participate. Go here for more information and to register.

I'm going to start with some of my own thoughts and experiences in helping to lead a similar discussion at the ASAE Marketing, Membership and Communications Conference (which I blogged about here, here and here) but I expect the conversation will go in several directions after that. When it comes to member engagement, the conversation usually does, as everyone seems to have a unique set of problems they're trying to solve. And one of those common problems is often the question of past presidents.

In my own association, we call them Past Chairmen--because we use the "Chairman of the Board" rather than the "President" nomenclature to describe our chief governance officer. But whatever you call them, many associations struggle with keeping this group of knowledgeable, invested, and often passionate members engaged without giving them too much power and influence over the decisions that must be made by the current group of volunteer leaders.

I don't pretend to have a magic solution to this problem. But thinking about it made me realize that I may have something of a unique situation in my own association. One of my past chairs has a habit of calling me on a semi-regular basis and offering me his feedback on our association's programs and services.

In some situations, I can see how that kind of thing might be unwelcome. If the roles aren't clearly understood, there may be some questions about the use of such a communication channel and the perceived priority that such comments would be given. A busy CEO, struggling to shape the organization according to the directives of the new leadership, might wonder, Does the past chair know he's not the chair anymore? What does he expect me to do with his feedback? Put it to the top of my pile?

Happily, in my situation, this is not the case. The past chair in question knows that he has no direct authority over me; nor does he try to exert any. But because of our past relationship, he has an easy time picking up the phone and calling me. And I value his feedback. He sees things both through the eyes of a member--a consumer of the services the association is providing--and through the eyes of a leader--someone who knows what resources are at the association's disposal and what its capabilities are. The feedback he offers is always relevant, and grounded in the reality of what could be done better or next.

It has me wondering if this isn't a model for keeping past presidents engaged. What if each took responsibility for being a "watchdog" over one of the association's programs or services? Not the chair of a committee, but more of a confidential informant? Someone clearly on the side of the association and the CEO, who can provide honest and well-grounded feedback on how a particular program or service is being received by the membership at-large.

In my own situation, this is exactly how I use the feedback of my past chair--which often centers on one particular program he has always had a passion for. I don't do everything he suggests, but I do consider the impact of what he's advising, and they have helped me lead positive changes within the organization.

Wouldn't it be great if I had the same kind of relationship with half a dozen other past chairs, each focused on one of our core programs or services?

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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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