Monday, May 26, 2014

Should You Break Your Own Rules?

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Here's a little quiz.

A member of your association Board is on the phone. He forgot to register for the upcoming conference and has now missed the early bird deadline. He went to the website, but if he registers there, he is going to get charged the higher registration fee. He would like you to make an exception and get him registered at the early bird rate.

Obviously there is a decision to be made. You either break your own rules and get the Board member registered at the early bird rate, or you tell the Board member that rules are rules and that he'll have to register at the higher rate.

Which do you do?

In my experience, the answer to this dilemma is tightly correlated with the kind of association professional that is being asked the question.

Staff working on the front lines, those who are responsible for making sure things like online registration systems work smoothly, will most often skew towards the integrity of their systems. They'll tell the Board member that it isn't fair to everyone else that is being charged the late registration fee to make an exception in his case. And then they might complain later in the break room about the nerve of some of their volunteers.

While staff working at the executive level, those who are responsible for making sure things like committees and Boards are populated with volunteers with the right interests and skill sets, will most often skew towards the integrity of the relationship. They'll tell the Board member absolutely, they'll take care of it, and how much they're looking forward to seeing them at the conference. And then they might hear others complaining later in the break room about how much of a pushover they are.

Who's right? In my view, probably both.

Any community that lacks to ability to set and enforce its own rules is not a community. It's a mob. And an organization that doesn't care about the integrity of its systems isn't likely to provide the kind of customer service that most associations would aspire to.

But an association that lacks the ability to put its own rules into the proper perspective is also in trouble. Over the course of my career, I have found myself on both sides of this question. I have been the front line staffer complaining about volunteers, knowing that I'm the one being held responsible for hitting our registration numbers, and I have been the executive doing favors for VIPs and being complained about by others in the break room. And with the benefit of that perspective, I have come to understand that I want my association to be the kind where the volunteers are comfortable calling and asking for special favors.

Because some aren't. Some volunteers in some associations know that there are stringent rules for things like meetings registrations, and they wouldn't dream of asking anyone at the association office to bend any of them on their behalf. They know there's no sense in asking the association to do any favors for them--and as a result, they are less than enthusiastic about doing any favors for the association. Volunteers in associations like these will sit on committees and boards, but they won't necessarily bring their A-game to those responsibilities.

So, should you occasionally break your own rules? Yes, absolutely you should. Not only does it acknowledge that your volunteers are human, and that your association thinks of them as such, it can be one of the best ways to build better engagement 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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