Saturday, June 29, 2013

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

Another certain acquisition from the library’s used book sale, this one tattered and water damaged. Like Long Remember, the name of the author drew me, but this time with more anticipation. Holidays on Ice--and more specifically the Santaland Diaries it contains--is one of my favorite pieces of writing.

Another mom was having trouble controlling her little boy and she said to me, “Mister Elf, tell little Tommy here that if he doesn’t behave Santa’s going to bring him nothing but coal.” “Actually,” I said, “Santa doesn’t deal in coal anymore. If you’re naughty he just comes into your house and takes things. He’s going to steal all your appliances, including your refrigerator, and all your food will go bad and stink up your house.” “Okay,” the mom said, “that’s enough.” “He’s going to take all your lamps and towels and blankets, Tommy, and leave you in the cold and dark with nothing. Boy, let me tell you, when he gets done with you, you’re going to wish you never even heard the name Santa.”

Funny stuff.

So imagine my surprise when I found myself not liking this book. There are certainly some flashes of the same funny in Me Talk Pretty One Day, but they are fewer and farther between--and the stuff in between is sometimes difficult for me to relate to.

Sedaris is no doubt an elitist curmudgeon. And that’s good. That’s his essential appeal. But if he’s taking his eloquent pot shots at things you don’t think are stupid, or at things you don’t at least feel the same intolerance for, then the biting edge of his writing begins to drift towards banality. This was especially the case in the first half of the book, where the essays are exactly that--short essays about things unconnected other than through Sedaris’s contempt for them. Nothing has a beginning or an end--just a series of middles--and it left me unsatisfied.

The second half is better, whose essays are loosely tied together by Sedaris’s experience of learning French while living in France. Here’s a sample in which you must remember that the students are forced to speak only in French, regardless of how broken it must sound to native French speakers.

The Italian nanny was attempting to answer the teacher’s latest question when the Moroccan student interrupted, shouting, “Excuse me, but what’s an Easter?”

It would seem that despite having grown up in a Muslim country, she would have heard it mentioned once or twice, but no. “I mean it,” she said. “I have no idea what you people are talking about.”

The teacher called upon the rest of us to explain.

The Poles led the charge to the best of their ability. “It is,” said one, “a party for the little boy of God who call his self Jesus and...oh, shit.”

She faltered and her fellow countryman came to her aid.

“He call his self Jesus and then he die one day on two...morsels of...lumber.”

The rest of the class jumped in, offering bits of information that would have given the pope an aneurysm.

“He die one day and then he go above of my head to live with your father.”

“He weared of himself the long hair and after he die, the first day he come back here for to say hello to the peoples.”

“He nice, the Jesus.”

“He make the good things, and on the Easter we be sad because somebody makes him dead today.”

And so on. It’s funny, but unfortunately, it’s only a few short pages in the book.

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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

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

Monday, June 17, 2013

It Doesn't Scale

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Last week, in Member Engagement and Association Building Blocks, I wrote about the story I told at 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. We told several stories in the session, and each was meant to convey a critical concept about member engagement that we wanted the participants to discuss. My story was about letting members leverage the resources of the association to direct their own volunteer efforts and, after telling it, I offered the following to help frame the discussion that followed:

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?

After a vibrant discussion, we opened the session up for comments or questions from the floor. And here's a paraphrase of what the very first person said.

We can't do what you suggest. It doesn't scale. Engaging that one individual member in the manner you advocate may be a good thing, but how are we supposed to do the same thing with the next one, ten, or hundred members who call? We can't open ourselves up like that.

I was very diplomatic during the session. I accepted what the participant was saying and, more importantly, the place she was saying it from, and offered some suggestions on how her association might be able to experiment around the edges with such an approach.

But inside I was seething.

It doesn't scale. Really? What, exactly, doesn't scale? How about that traditional committee structure so many associations are wedded to? You know, the one with all the chair positions that go unfilled because no one wants to take responsibility for work that means nothing to them and their professional development. What about that? Does that scale?

We can't open ourselves up like that. You can't? What, exactly, is your association for if you're not going to help your members solve their problems? And who is this 'we' you refer to? Aren't your members part of the 'we'? In fact, aren't the members more a part of the 'we' than you are? Who do you think pays your salary?

Look, it's actually pretty simple. Every time a member calls with an idea for how he or she can use the association's resources to further their own developmental goals and return value to the association and its membership (like that's going to happen more than once or twice a year anyway) you respond with one of two possible actions.

First, if the idea is aligned with your association's overall strategy, then you figure out a way to support the member's request. You just stumbled onto someone who is going to help your association fulfill its mission and they aren't going to charge you anything for doing it. Bake them a cake. Do whatever it takes to get them plugged in and engaged.

Second, if the idea isn't aligned with your association's overall strategy, then you have a frank and honest conversation with the member about why it isn't, and you see if they are willing to brainstorm some alternate ideas that they could get behind that are aligned with your association's overall strategy. If you come up with something, great, go back to step one. If you don't, thank the member for their time and ask them to call you if they have additional ideas in the future.

This is how you break the formal committee structure that everyone seems to be complaining about and that is driving so many of your members away. One at a time, a single member with passion for a project, aligned with your association's strategy and resources. It can be a very powerful combination.

And it certainly does scale.

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IMPORTANT NOTE: Google Reader is shutting down on July 1, 2013. If you read this blog through Google Reader, please find another way of accessing the feed after July 1. Or, subscribe via email by using the link in the right sidebar. Thank you!

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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

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Long Remember by MacKinlay Kantor

I’m sure I picked this one up at the local library’s book sale, and I’m sure I did because I recognized the author’s name from that historical novel about the Andersonville prison that I read some time ago. I don’t remember much about Andersonville, but I do think I will remember pieces of this novel, also set during the American Civil War, this time amidst the Battle of Gettysburg. And one of the pieces I’ll remember is the novel’s protagonist, Dan Bale.

He’s a native of Gettysburg who has been living out west for a number of years—Wisconsin or Minnesota, I forget which. At the very start of the novel he is coming back into Gettysburg to tend to his sick grandfather who, in fact, has died while Bale was in transit, and whose estate Bale will now inherit and need to manage. The war, which has been raging for two years, and which consumes everyone else’s attention in Gettysburg, is a distant concern for Bale, and when he is forced to confront it, he is unrepentant in his stark opposition to it.

Here he is, talking to an old friend—Elijah Huddlestone, or Hud—about a volunteer regiment Hud is trying to organize, and which he wants Bale to join.

“I’d be of no use to you. Not the way I feel.”

Hud shouldered the musket, thudded it down again. “Say, did anybody tell you about Wesley Culp? They say he’s in the rebel army.”

“He ought to have known better.”

“I suppose,” Elijah nodded, “that it was because he was down south before the war, and all.”

“You ought to know better, too,” Dan told him. “Everyone ought to know better. But of course they don’t. Human beings belie their designation every day, and have been doing so constantly for two years. The only hope is to keep on until all the fools are killed off. Then we might have—not peace, but at least a diversion of energy towards something else. ”

There were welts of color on Huddlestone’s cheeks. “Perhaps—” he tried to make his voice smooth—“you don’t believe that the Union is sacred. Is anything sacred to you?”

“Nothing,” Dan said. “I reckon human life comes as close as anything else, though.

“Did you ever kill anything?”

“What do you mean?”

“Did you ever kill anything?” repeated Dan.

Elijah’s face froze into a furious, pearly white. “Why, you damn fool, we went hunting together all the time when we were boys!”

“Yes,” Bale told him, “and we killed squirrels and partridges and two deer and I don’t know what all. And out west I killed two Indians that I know of, and maybe more. They were animals, too. That’s what I try to tell myself, always. But I’ve felt funny ever since.”

And I realize, this early on, that the protagonist in the war novel I’m about to read, written in the 1930s about the American Civil War, is, of all things, a humanist. What an expected surprise.

And it’s not just war that he opposes. Here he is, meeting his late grandfather’s minister.

Before the carriage was out of sight, a middle-aged man in a long coat had appeared from somewhere and was standing beside Dan, combing a thin beard and dusting off his shiny lapels.

“Daniel. Indeed. So you’re Daniel! I am the Reverend Solt. I was your dear grandfather’s pastor. I respected him, sir, and loved him as a true servant of the Lord…vineyard…arms of our Saviour…funeral at two o’clock…do not know how many Masons…and music; the chaplain will…and God our Heavenly Father, so we must not grieve for the departed.”

“Yes,” Dan said. Yes. Yes. For God’s sake, what do you want of me? Oh, I’m sorry. You mean it. You cannot help yourself; there are so many people like you in the world. You cannot help—”

You mean it. I think I like that line best of all. It shows better than anything else the currents that Dan Bale’s mind typically runs in, and how he has to be pulled out of them in order to relate to the God-fearing folk around him.

The Reverend continues…

“Daniel, I came to you feeling that you might find comfort in a moment of prayer.”

“Very well,” Bale told him wearily.

They left the fragrance of the outside shade and went into the house. Reverend Solt hesitated at the closed parlor doors.

“Not in there,” Dan said, sharply.

They moved into the library across the hall. Reverend Solt put his flat hat on Pentland Bale’s desk, and slid down on his knees, facing a narrow Windsor chair. He looked questioningly at Dan, knotting his creased, farm-worn hands together. He had not been a minister all his life.

Dan said, “I’m sorry, Reverend Solt. I do not wish to offend you or my grandfather’s memory, nor do I wish to be a hypocrite. During these years, my ideas— If you will feel satisfied, praying for me instead of with me, please go ahead.”

The minister’s eyes filled with tears. He bent his forehead against the hard edge of the chair; with one hand he motioned rapidly for Dan to kneel beside him. He began a hasty, full-hearted chant which was wholly honest and passionate, and yet which he must have uttered many times before: “Oh, Lord, our Father, our Heavenly Guardian and Redeemer of all, we come to Thee in a midnight of sorrow and loneliness. We beseech Thee to shew us that our way is not Thy way, that we have not Thy all-seeing wisdom to understand when the pangs of desolation strike at our hearts. Oh, Lord our Heavenly Father, in Thee is our only refuge, in Thee we trust when we come thrice cast down. Oh, Lord—”

After a few minutes Dan felt rather absurd, standing there behind this man with his struggling, hot, clasped hands and his wet bald head. He went down on his knees as quietly as possible; no doubt the Reverend Solt would be happy at last when he turned and knew that Dan, too, had been kneeling.

How often have I felt this way while others were praying? Too many to count. And what comes next for Dan Bale? After deriving as much observational knowledge as he can from the scene, watching exactly the way an anthropologist watches the rituals of an aboriginal culture? Quite naturally his thoughts turn inward.

Bale squinted at the pink-and-tan pattern of the faded carpet. Of course he was thinking of her. It seemed unreal, even to have knowledge of such a woman. For the first time in his life he was aware of the desire, the plan and hope to do willful evil, something without remorse and never to be eradicated.

And who is this woman? This woman that has captured Bale’s desire and has him contemplating evil even while a minister beside him prays over the departed soul of his grandfather? Why, she is the wife of one of his childhood friends, now grown like him to manhood and, unlike him, about to go off to war.

Love and War

Kantor’s depiction of war in Long Remember has no fondness associated with it. This is as close as it gets—a mother’s idea of war as she watches her son go off to it.

He lived in a tent, as did all other soldiers. The tents were snow-white, they stood in even rows, mile after mile. Pennons flapped from their ridge-poles. Tyler sat at a rude desk writing letters home, writing orders, writing despatches. Sometimes a bugle blew. He went out, then, to oversee a drill. The army filed past, rank on rank, glistening steel, garish buttons, pristine gloves. The army saluted Tyler. He sat his horse, rigid, stern, young… Still her boy, her boy. “Captain, the rebels are advancing.” “Convey my respects to General Hooker, sir, and inform him that the rebels are advancing.” Cannon began to boom in measured, spaced billows of sound; there was the “roll of musketry.” Smoke became thick and white. Far away sounded the rebel yell. Advance, friends, and give the countersign. Forward, march! Present arms! Fire! … Tyler rode up to the rifle pits of the enemy; he unsheathed his sword and waved it gallantly. Forward, men, onward and forward and onward and take them in the flank, take them in the rear, for the sake of Old Glory … Wait. Stop. Halt! The captain’s hit. Are you struck, sir? Yes, General, I’m afraid I’m severely wounded. My boy, you’ve done noble work today. Take him to the hospital at once… Your wound is not fatal, I trust, sir. The nation needs men like you. Pennsylvania is proud of you, Captain Fanning… 

And even when the boys come home, the mothers still have no sense of what it is they have done and the things they have experienced.

Then, inexplicably, he had come home on furlough, very sour-faced and thin and yellow, and had thrown up a whole stomach full of veal broth and barley. War, she understood, was a ghastly and hateful business. People were wounded, and they ruined the best hooked rugs in their mothers’ houses. And had to ride back to Hanover Junction with a lot of pick-axes and Irishmen.

Tyler Fanning is a real character in the book. He is the childhood friend of Dan Bale whose wife Bale falls in love with. Her name is Irene, and she has somehow become trapped in a marriage she thought would be her liberation but in fact has become a kind of prison. Fanning is not abusive to her. He dotes on her. But the war-torn world in which they live has expectations for husbands and wives that Irene dreams of abandoning.

The wisteria vine hung close to her window. She had loved to think that it was tropical, a female cat-creature more animal than vegetable, holding some watery mystery in its pointed little leaves. All the pendulous orchid tufts were long gone, and now it was a clambering jungle of solid green. The gray snakes of its trunk were hidden below the porch roof; the vine came up without reason or support, the only daring thing which could put its soft paws near Irene Fanning’s window.

It was not like the rest of Pennsylvania, she knew. Not like the small, tight town with good people doing good things, and a very few bad people doing bad things. Nothing was compact or regular or disciplined in its nature… All about her was an oppressive, interlocking existence, and so she loved the vine more than she could say.

And in her wistfulness, Irene finds Dan Bale, and she falls for him as equally as Bale falls for her. For a good portion of the novel, the illicit relationship that develops between these two misplaced souls comprises a compelling narrative. The reader comes to care for them as much as they care for each other, all the while realizing that a clash of titans is descending on their tiny Pennsylvanian hamlet and knowing, that in the morality of their time, their affair cannot last.

I don’t know if they ever made a movie out of Long Remember, but I would imagine it much like James Cameron’s Titanic, with Jack and Rose replaced with Dan and Irene, and the foreboding sense of doom that the inevitable sinking provides replaced with the pending disaster that is the Battle of Gettysburg. In many ways, I think I might’ve even preferred this imagined Long Remember to that Titanic, because while the two historical events are equally catastrophic, the impact Gettysburg has on Dan and Irene is somehow more satisfying. There’s no romanticism or Celine Dion music. There is just hard choices and the reality of life.

Here’s how it plays out. Bale’s vocal opposition to the war doesn’t sit well with some townsfolk, and one sends a letter to Fanning, informing him that Bale has been conducting an illicit affair with his wife. This informant does not, in fact, know this. He has made it up in an attempt to smear Bale, and with the hopes that Fanning will come back to kill him. But it prompts both Irene and Bale to realize that they must end their relationship and confess themselves to Fanning. To do this, Bale must risk his own life to wander through the final two days of the battle, looking for Fanning among the thousands of Union troops.

He gets caught up in various famous episodes during on the battle, and is forced to take up a rifle and kill and Confederate soldier at one point. But he eventually finds Fanning, where else, but at the Bloody Angle after the repulse of Pickett’s Charge.

You could see a soapy gray remnant sliding back toward Codoris’, guns still popping, but most of the mass had lain down or gone staggering to the rear. Ty, Bale said. Where in damnation. He can’t be dead. He started to look around. Guns near at hand had all stopped their crackling. He yelled, “Fanning! Fanning!” and there came some kind of a responsive drooling. He climbed across the retching, gargling pile. Tyler leaned back, his face chalky, his shoulders against the cannon wheel. Here, he whined. He saw Dan and blinked at him. The devil, he said at last, and then lifted his wet hands and made a foolish gesture--he had been caressing his thigh and it was all soaked and purple.

Dan got down beside him. Was going to tell him something, he thought: what? I had to see you … the distant, stubborn volleys fought to take his words away from him. Tyler rolled his eyes this way and that … what-you-doing-in-the-army-ahhh, he said.

I came through the lines to see you I was here--

The pale eyes went around again. Had to tell you, Dan railed at him--it’s not true. You see, it’s not true. That letter … Tyler said , Bluhhh, and his lips went away from his teeth … that letter, Ty, it’s not true, not a word of it, it was all a fabrication, I was here and killed somebody--he was middle-aged--I shot a man, just to tell you--I tell you, I shot him--you God damn dirty son of a bitch, do you hear, do you hear, do you hear?

He has decided to lie to Fanning--not so he and Irene and continue their affair in secret, but so Tyler can accept Irene back as his faithful wife. He is giving Irene up in a way that preserves both her position and his friendship with Fanning. But Fanning is severely wounded.

Fanning slid lower and began to vomit.; his lips were fish-gills. He mourned, Tell me what’s not true...Bluhhh.

Your wife. Fanning opened his eyes, and closed them, and opened, and closed. Aw, he sighed with the yellow dripping from his chin. Aw, that.

Do you believe me? I killed a man just to--

What? Yes. Of course, I--, my Christ.

It’s an effective ending--disappointing to some, perhaps, but true to the era and to the characters. Fanning loses his leg but survives, and Bale winds up joining the Union Army, leaving Gettysburg, presumably, forever. For the humanist that initially intrigued me, it is the opposite of everything he desired.

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IMPORTANT NOTE: Google Reader is shutting down on July 1, 2013. If you read this blog through Google Reader, please find another way of accessing the feed after July 1. Or, subscribe via email by using the link in the right sidebar. Thank you!

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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

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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IMPORTANT NOTE: Google Reader is shutting down on July 1, 2013. If you read this blog through Google Reader, please find another way of accessing the feed after July 1. Or, subscribe via email by using the link in the right sidebar. Thank you!

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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

Monday, June 3, 2013

Transactional vs. Aspirational Membership - Expanded Version

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After my blog post on Transactional vs. Aspirational Membership published on April 29, 2013, I was contacted by the Midwest Society of Association Executives and asked to expand on a few ideas for their newsletter. Here’s the expanded version that will run in their July 2013 issue.

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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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IMPORTANT NOTE: Google Reader is shutting down on July 1, 2013. If you read this blog through Google Reader, please find another way of accessing the feed after July 1. Or, subscribe via email by using the link in the right sidebar. Thank you!

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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

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Comanche Moon by Larry McMurtry

This is a book about Indians. And more than anything else, it is about the way of life the Indians led before the white settlers came, and those brief few years before that way of life disappeared entirely.

But that’s not what you’d think this book was about if you read the paragraph synopsis on the back cover of the paperback.

Texas Rangers August McCrae and Woodrow F. Call, now in their middle years, are just beginning to deal with the enigmas of the adult heart—Gus with his great love, Clara Forsythe; and Call with Maggie Tilton, the young whore that loves him. Two proud but very different men, they enlist with a Ranger troop in pursuit of Buffalo Hump, the great Comanche war chief; Kicking Wolf, the celebrated Comanche horse thief; and a deadly Mexican bandit king with a penchant for torture.

Truth be told, McCrae and Call are the least interesting people in this book, less protagonists and more plot devices through which the real protagonists must pass. And who are the real protagonists? Who else but Buffalo Hump and Kicking Wolf—the men who are pursued, but who really drive the action in the story.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The story begins very much the way the paragraph synopsis describes—with McCrae and Call pursuing Indians and wrestling with their lover’s hearts. But there is some foreshadowing of McMurtry’s real intent going on. Here’s a scene from early in the novel, where the Rangers, high on a ridge, are looking down on an Indian buffalo hunt.

Looking down on the scene from high above, Augustus, though he couldn’t say why, felt a mood of sadness take him. He knew he ought to be going, but he could not stop looking at the scene far below. A line of Indian women were moving out from the camp, ready to cut up the meat.

Inish Scull paused a moment. He saw that his young ranger had been affected by the chase they had just observed, and its inevitable ending.

“Post coitum onme animal triste,” he said, leaning over to put a hand, for a moment, on the young man’s shoulder. “That’s Aristotle.”

“What, sir?” Augustus asked. “I expect that’s Latin, but what does it mean?”

“’After copulation every animal is sad,’” the Captain said. “It’s true, too—though who can say why? The seed flies, and the seeder feels blue.”

“Why is it?” Augustus asked. He knew, from his own memories, that the Captain had stated a truth. Much as he liked poking, there was that moment, afterward, when something made his spirits dip, for a time.

“I don’t know why and I guess Aristotle didn’t either, because he didn’t say,” Scull observed. “But it’s not only rutting that can bring on that little gloom. Killing can do it too—especially if you’re killing something sizable, like a buffalo, or a man. Something that has a solid claim to life.”

He was silent for a moment, a little square cut chaw of tobacco in his hand.

“I grant that it’s a curious thing,” he said. “The acts ain’t much alike, and yet the gloom’s alike. First excitement, then sadness. Those red boys killed their game, and they needed to kill it, too. A buffalo is to them what a store would be to us. They have to kill the buffalo to live. And they have killed it. But now they’re sad, and they don’t know why.”

Well, I don’t know why neither, Augustus thought. I wish that old man who talked about it to begin with had said why.

More on Inish Scull in a moment. But first, note the theme. Sadness at the passing of a solid claim on life. The white man experiences it in small pieces—after a “poke”, or after a kill—but for the Indians in this story—especially Buffalo Hump and Kicking Wolf—Aristotle’s observation succinctly summarizes the journey of their narrative arc.

Compare these early thoughts to the tone of this scene at the very end of the novel, when Kicking Wolf—famous for his ability to move silently into an enemy’s camp and steal their horses—is goaded into doing so one more time by Dancing Rabbit, a young warrior who wishes to learn Kicking Wolf’s secrets. This time, the camp is that of McCrae and Call, and the horse is nothing more than an old brown mule.

As he watched the weary men walking toward the big orb of the setting sun, Kicking Wolf suddenly had a sadness fill him. His breast felt so heavy with it that he began to envy Buffalo Hump, who was dead. He knew already that he didn’t want to steal the Texans’ brown mule, and that was not because he had any liking for Texans or pitied them their long walk. He knew the Texans would kill him, if they saw him, and he in turn would try to kill them if they made themselves easy targets. They had always been hated enemies and were hated enemies still—Kicking Wolf was grateful that he was prosperous enough and free, so that he could still hate Texans as a Comanche should. He was glad that he did not have to pretend to be friends with them to collect a mere pittance to live on.

This is a reference to many other Comanche leaders, who were giving up the old way of life in order to become wards of the white man’s state on the reservations. Buffalo Hump, who had just been killed by his son, and Kicking Wolf, and are among the very few who are still clinging to the old way of life.

Yet he felt sad, and ,as the Texans stopped to camp, while dusk made the long plain indistinct—shadows here; last streaks of sunlight there—the sadness filled him until he felt he would burst. There, nearby, were Gun In The Water and Silver Hair McCrae, men he had fought most of his life and would gladly fight again if he could. He had stolen many, many horses from them, or from companies of rangers they rode with. Once he and Buffalo Hump had set a prairie fire that had nearly caught the two men and burned them and their company. There had been shots exchanged, arrows show, lances thrown, and yet the two rangers were still alive; and so was he.

Sadness like the kind that McCrae felt on top of the rise, looking down on the buffalo hunt—sadness at the passing of a solid claim on life.

Kicking Wolf remembered, as he watched the black man hobble the brown mule, that once, only a few miles from where they were, he had stolen the Buffalo Horse, right from under Big Horse Scull’s very nose. He had stolen him and taken him to Mexico, a venture that had cost Three Birds his life and led to his own derangement, his time of seeing two where there was one.

This describes a major episode in the novel—Kicking Wolf stealing Inish Scull’s prized horse, and taking him as a gift or bravery and tribute to a Mexcian outlaw. It is practically the central event around which the rest of the story turns.

It had been a great thing, the stealing of the Buffalo Horse, a great horse whose fate had been to be eaten in Mexico by many small dark people. Some of the old men still sang about Big Horse Scull and the Buffalo Horse—he sang about it, too, when there were great feasts and dancing, a thing that had not been common since the buffalo went to the north, where they would not have to smell the whites.

Remembering his great feat made Kicking Wolf want to sing—the urge to sing rose in him and mixed in his breast with the sadness that came in him because he realized that the time of good fighting was over. There would be a little more killing, probably; Quanah and the Antelopes might make a little more war, but only a little more. The time of good fighting was ended; what was left for the Comanches was to smile at the white men and pretend they didn’t hate them.

This sadness is greater than the sadness that McCrae and the white men feel. While the sadness of the whites is more familiar to us, the sadness of the Comanche touches us more achingly because it is more distant. Because what they have lost is gone forever, and what the white man has lost when he feels his sadness returns again with the next battle or the next poke.

Stick with me as I quote these closing paragraphs, because they do what McMurtry is often so good at. Thematic meaning suffuses the outwardly simple actions of plot and character.

Kicking Wolf did not want to smile at the white man. He wanted to die somewhere on the llano, alone, in a spirit place, as Buffalo Hump had tried to do. Not only that, he did not want to steal the puny brown mule, either. Why would a man who had once stolen the Buffalo Horse want to steal a skinny brown mule? It would be an insult to himself, to do such a thing.


So he waited until the moon rose and turned to go back to the gully and the horses, only to discover that Dancing Rabbit, the foolish boy, has disobeyed and followed him.

“What are you doing? I told you to watch the horses,” Kicking Wolf said. “If those Texans were not so tired they would steal our horses.”

“I only came because I wanted to watch you steal the horse,” Dancing Rabbit said. “I just want to see how you do it.”

“It is not even a horse!” Kicking Wolf said. He grew so angry that he almost forgot to whisper—but then he remembered the Texans and led the foolish boy farther away, to reprimand him.

“It is only a mule,” he pointed out, once it was safe to talk. “It was near here that I stole the Buffalo Horse. I am not going to steal a mule.

“You steal it, if you want it so badly,” he told the boy.

Dancing Rabbit knew he had not skill enough to steal the mule. Besides, he didn’t want the mule—he merely wanted to watch as Kicking Wolf stole it.

“Just show me how you approach it,” he pleaded. “Just show me how, in case I see some Texans with a fine horse I could steal.”

Dancing Rabbit wants to continue Comanche traditions, but there are no more horses for them to steal, and Kicking Wolf doesn’t want to pretend. Pretending to live is worse than dying.

“I stole the Buffalo Horse,” Kicking Wolf said, several more times, but, in the end, he gave in and did what Dancing Rabbit wanted. He sat with the young warrior most of the night, watching the moon arch over the still prairies. He saw Famous Shoes come back and lay down to rest. He watched as the Texans—exhausted, all of them—fell asleep. Even Gun In The Water, whose habit was to stand guard outside of camp, did not stand guard that night.

Gun In the Water is the Comanche’s name for Woodrow Call. And Famous Shows is an Indian tracker—a Kickapoo—that often travels with the Texans.

“When will you do it?” Dancing Rabbit asked him several times. “It will be light soon.”

He was worried that Kicking Wolf wouldn’t do it; but then he looked again and Kicking Wolf was gone. The old man had been sitting quietly, a few feet away, but now he was gone.

Then, to his astonishment, he saw Kicking Wolf standing by the mule, stroking its neck. The black man who had tethered the mule was sleeping only a few yards away, but the mule was calm and so was Kicking Wolf. The old man stood by the mule for a few minutes, as if talking quietly to it, and then he disappeared again. He had been by the mule, but now he wasn’t. Dancing Rabbit had no idea where the old man had gone. Hastily he made his way back to the gully where the horses were, only to find, when he reached it, that Kicking Wolf was there and had already mounted his horse.

“We had better go,” Kikcing Wolf said. “The Kickapoo will see my track first thing in the morning. I don’t think they will follow us, but I don’t know. Gun In The Water might chase us on the mule.”

“I didn’t see you move,” Dancing Rabbit said, when they were riding together. “You were with me and then you were with the mule. I didn’t see you move.”

Dancing Rabbit can’t do what Kicking Wolf does. He can’t even perceive it. That way of life really is gone.

Kicking Wolf smiled. It had been pleasant to do his old trick again, to walk without making a sound, to go up to a horse, or, in this case, a mule, to touch it and make it his while the owner slept nearby. It was a skill he had that no other Comanche had ever equaled. Though he had had to travel a long way across the llano in dry weather, it was good to know that he still had his old gift. It made up a little for Broken Foot and the cramps in his leg and the sadness of knowing that the old ways were gone.

“I don’t move,” he said, to the credulous young man who could still not quite believe what he had seen. “When the time is right I am just there, by the horse.”

“But I saw you—you were with me and then you were by the horse. I know you moved,” Dancing Rabbit said.

“It isn’t moving—it is something else,” Kicking Wolf said.

Dancing Rabbit pestered him all the way home, wanting to know how Kicking Wolf did what he did when he approached a horse; but Kicking Wolf didn’t tell him, because he couldn’t. It was a way—his way—and that was all.

If it was up to me, the novel would’ve ended right there. The final chapter the follows, in which the Texans wake to discover that their camp had been invaded, is an anti-climax in the extreme. They are as insensitive to the Indian’s solid claim on life as they are to the presence of Kicking Wolf among them.

The Symbol of the Captive Bear

There is another chapter mid-way through Book III that also poignantly describes this passing of the Indian way of life. The Comanche are being scattered—some are going off to live on the white man’s reservations, others are going off to try and continue the Comanche way of life, and others are denouncing both and turning into bandits. Blue Duck is one of the bandits, and Idahi is one who is looking to preserve the Comanche way of life. When they meet in Blue Duck’s bandit camp, Idahi discovers that Blue Duck is keeping a bear captive—tied with a chain around its neck to a tree.

“I wish you would let the bear go,” Idahi said. “It is not right to tie a bear to a tree. If you want to kill him, kill him, but don’t mistreat him.”

“I drug that bear out of a den when he was just a cub,” Blue Duck informed him. “He’s my bear. If you don’t like the way I treat him, you can go kill him yourself.”

He said it with a sly little smile. Idahi knew he was being taunted, and that he was in danger, but, where the bear was concerned, Idahi suffered no doubt and had to disregard such considerations.

“He’s my pet bear,” Blue Duck added. “If I was to turn him loose he wouldn’t know what to do. He doesn’t know how to hunt anything but dogs.”

Idahi thought that was a terrible comment. No bear should have its freedom taken away in order to be a pet. He himself had once seen a bear kill an elk, and he had also had two of his best stallions killed by bears. It was right that bears should kill elk and stallions; it was a humiliating thing that a bear should be reduced to killing dogs in a camp of sullen outlaws. Idahi didn’t know what life he was going to have now, anyway. He had left his people and did not intend to go back. He could go to one of the other free bands of Comanches and see if they would accept him and let him hunt and fight with them, but it might be that they would refuse. His home would be the prairie and the grasslands; he might not, again, be able to live with his people. It seemed to him that he ought to do what he could to see that a great animal such as a bear was treated in a dignified manner, even if it meant his own death.

“If you would turn him loose I wouldn’t have to kill him,” Idhai said.

“It’s my bear and I ain’t turning him loose,” Blue Duck said. “Kill him if you want to.”

Idahi decided that his life was probably over. He got up and began to sing a song about some of the things he had done in his life. He made a song about the bear that he had seen kill an elk. While he sang the camp grew quiet. Idahi thought it might be his last song, so he did not hurry. He sang about Paha-yuca [his chief, who had decided to take his people onto a reservation], and the people who would no longer be free.

Then he walked over to his horse, took his rifle, and went to the willow tree where the bear was chained. The bear looked up as he approached; it still had blood on its nose from the beating Blue Duck had given it. Idahi was still singing. The bear was such a sad bear that he didn’t think it would mind losing its life. He stepped very close to the bear, so he would not have to shoot it a second time. The bear did not move away from him; it merely waited.

Idahi shot the bear dead with one shot placed just above its ear. Then, still singing, he took the chain off it, so that it would not have, in death, the humiliations it had had to endure in life.

I ask you, what is the captive bear but another symbol of the Indian way of life that has passed?

Inish Scull

Inish Scull is a character that deserves his own trilogy. I’d say almost a third of the novel is dedicated to him. The battle of will and wits that he wages with Ahumado (the deadly Mexican bandit king with a penchant for torture) is worth the price of admission alone. When it’s done—or at least when Scull thinks it is—McMurtry offers us the following from Scull’s point of view.

But the fight was over. He had seen many men—generals, captains, privates, bankers, widowers—arrive at the moment of surrender. Some came to it quickly, after only a short sharp agony; others held to their lives far longer than was seemly. But finally they gave up. He had seen it, on the battlefield, in hospital, in the cold toils of marriage or the great houses of commerce; finally men gave up. He thought he would never have to learn resignation, but that was hubris. It was time to give up, to stop fighting, to wait for death to ease in.

It’s a great moment at the climax of Scull’s battle—which like all great literary battles, is more internal than external. You find yourself rooting for him the entire way, and when he resigns, you realize that he lasted far longer than you would’ve done in the same circumstances.

Misery That Knows No Bounds

One last thing I consistently like about McMurtry’s fiction.

William, her husband, had been away, driving some stock to Victoria, when the four Comanches burst into her cabin and took her. The babe at her breast, little Sal, they had killed immediately by dashing her head against a log. Eddie, her oldest boy, hurt his leg in the first scuffle—the pain was such that he couldn’t stop whimpering at night. Maudy would hear him crying even as she endured her torments. On the sixth day the Comanches lost patience with his crying and smashed his head in with a gun butt. Eddie was still breathing when they rode on—Maudy prayed someone would find Eddie and save him, but she knew it was an empty prayer. Eddie’s head had been broken; no one could save him even if they found him, and who would find a small dying boy in such emptiness?

It is amazing to me how passages like these can affect me. In the world that McMurtry writes about, suffering and misery knows no bounds, and he is able to write about it in a way that is not maudlin, but raw and untempered.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Google Reader is shutting down on July 1, 2013. If you read this blog through Google Reader, please find another way of accessing the feed after July 1. Or, subscribe via email by using the link in the right sidebar. Thank you!
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