Monday, September 9, 2013

Member Engagement? It's...Well, It's Complicated.

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A big thanks goes out to the more than forty association professionals who joined me on Wednesday, September 4 for an informal discussion on member engagement. The call was hosted by WSAE as part of its peer-to-peer discussion group series, and it was (I think) the best attended discussion they have ever held. We even had one person dialing in from Philadelphia!

A less humble discussion leader would probably think the crowd was there to hear him talk, but I think the more reasonable explanation is that member engagement continues to be one of the issues that seems to be on everyone's minds.

I've led a few of these discussions now, and one consistent thing I've noticed is that when it comes to member engagement, we all seem to be talking about several different things.

I've written about this before. For some, member engagement means getting members to utilize the association's services. For others, its means getting more volunteers for its committees and task forces. For still others, it means a process that allows individual members to leverage the resources of the association for their self-directed development objectives. And, as I heard for the first time during Wednesday's discussion, for still others it means members engaging with each other in association-hosted venues.

Unless we are clear about which definition of member engagement we're talking about, it should be easy to appreciate how complicated an innocent conversation about member engagement can become.

But one new insight came out of Wednesday's discussion that makes things even more complicated. Not only are we often talking about different things, but even when we're talking about the same things, the differing natures of our organizations means that we're still talking about different things.

A state trade association with a dozen members and one staff person is a very different entity than a national professional society with 120,000 members and 100 staff people. Getting more volunteers for its committees and task forces, for example, means something very different to that trade association than it does to that professional society.

I'd like to think that innovation and learning can come from exposing oneself to even radically different organizations and their ways of doing things. But too often in this member engagement discussion I've seen one professional shut down when they realize the colleague they're talking to represents a dramatically different type of association than the one they work for.

I find this confusing. We're all associations, aren't we? You may have resources and capacities at your disposal that aren't at mine, but we're trying to solve the same basic problem, aren't we? Isn't there some insight I can gain that is useful in my world when I listen to how you tackle problems in yours?

Let's not over-complicate things. By all means, let's be sure that we're defining our member engagement challenges in the same way. But having done so, let's not shy away from listening to the ways we can potentially help each other.

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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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