Monday, January 13, 2014

Engaging Members in Your Development Process

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Six weeks ago, in You Are Not Innovative, I had a bit of an argument with myself--chastising myself for not doing all that I could to set a truly innovative example for my association. In the post, I leveled three essential charges against myself, including:

You talk about the need to learn more about the environment your members operate in, but you don't do it. You never go out into that world to capture any useful intelligence.

Which I dealt with in more detail four weeks ago in Capturing Useful Intelligence, and:

You talk about engaging your members in the development process of a new program or service, but you don't do it. All your ideas are kept safe and pristine within the four walls of your office.

Which I want to expand upon this week. Again, I was being intentionally hard on myself, because the fact is that we do engage our members in the process that develops new programs or program improvements in our association. But the inflated criticism was in a sense justified, because there's no doubt that this is one of the most complicated and difficult things that we do.

What makes it so complicated and difficult? I think a lot of it boils down to misunderstandings of where decisions have to get made.

Let me give you an example. We're launching a new committee in our association this year--and we're using our upcoming Annual Conference as an opportunity to populate it with members and get them engaged with its purpose and envisioned activities.

What is that purpose? And what are those envisioned activities? Well, since we're starting this fresh from scratch, I realized this was a wonderful opportunity for the staff leader in this area and I to have a conversation about decision-making and how it affects those questions.

When we think about the members on this committee, I told him, it's important for us NOT to think of them as decision-makers. They are not. When it comes to devising a strategy and developing programs that align with it, you, the staff leader, are the decision-maker, and the members of the committee are your advisors.

Therefore, when you put an agenda together, the appropriate frame is not, "What do you think we should do?" The appropriate frame is "Here's what we intend to do. What do you think of that?"

You see, the volunteers in my association are talented, yet very busy people. When you pull them together in a room or on a conference call and throw the "What do you think we should do?" question at them, for many they will have given no previous thought to the situation at all. There are often uncomfortable moments of silence after such a question is asked, and the first response--when it comes--is almost invariably not the best one. But others often accept it and start building upon it because they themselves have nothing better to offer.

And if you have abdicated decision-making to the committee, then you are stuck with the hodgepodge course of action they are building.

But when you instead take the time to develop and then explain a thoughtful strategy to them, complete with a course of action that is designed to execute the strategy and benefit the members of the association, it does two important things. First, it gives the volunteers time to acclimate to the new environment. They can shut off the part of their brain that is always focused on the day-to-day world of their business, and they can turn on the part that let's them accept and understand the broader purpose of your association. And second, when you ask the "What do you think of that?" question, it almost ensures that the responses you get are well-grounded, indicative of their own situations, and useful.

So when you say that all my ideas are kept safe and pristine within the four walls of my office, I have to laugh. On the contrary, I'm arguing that if you want to truly engage your members in your association's development process, you must boldly share even more of your ideas with them.

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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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