Monday, October 30, 2017

The Joy of Membership Interview

I was recently interviewed by Joy Duling of The Joy of Membership blog, for The Movement Summit, an online event she is creating and hosting, which will be happening live next week, November 6-10, 2017. Click on either of the links above if you're interested in learning more or perhaps participating.

My interview, along with many others that Joy is collecting for the event, is on the often thorny problem of member engagement. In it, I elaborate on some of the related themes that I've explored on this blog.

For example, the importance of defining the rules of engagement:

You really have to define the rules of engagement with your members. In a very professional, but very transparent and above-board kind of way. Member engagement is a term that means a lot of different things to a lot of different people and so you have to be really clear about it. Are you talking about increasing attendance rates at your conference? Are you talking about increasing the number of members that serve in your leadership structure, either on committees or on task forces? Those are two very different kinds of things.

My own focus is primarily on that leadership angle. Trying to get more of our members involved in the different aspects of our committees or our task forces or, yes, even on our board of directors. In that space, it's really important for you to be, again, above-board and transparent with the member that you're bringing in, about what job it is that you're asking them to do. What is the time commitment involved? What are the expected outcomes that their involvement are going to have? They have to understand what they're getting into from the very beginning.

And the value of interpersonal connections:

I've come to rely more heavily on the value of interpersonal connections. There is no limit to amount of email you can send to a member. There is a limit to how many emails a member is going to choose to read. Those are two dynamics that often work at cross purposes in the larger objective of  increasing the level of engagement with your association. It's kind of like fundraising. If you want somebody to give money, you have to ask them to give money. You have to reach out with a personal appeal and see if you can connect them into an engagement opportunity. It's important for you to be a face rather than just an email or a text message coming through. 

But, this powerful tool also has a limitation to it, because you can only ask a member to do so many things. Like most associations, our association has at least dozens of opportunities, whether they're leadership opportunities or member programmatic opportunities, for people to get engaged. And, to pretend that someone's going to get engaged in more than three or four of those things is probably unrealistic in a lot of ways. And yet, again, many of our structures are designed to blast messages out to everybody. Even those who are already engaged with this laundry list of things that people can get engaged in. I've just not seen a lot of success driving up engagement numbers with that kind of broad approach.

And the fear that many associations have of trying something new:

In a lot of the associations that I've had experiences with there is a hesitation to experiment with either a new program or a new twist on an existing program because there is a fear of losing face in front of the members. This is a half-baked idea, and we're not sure how people are going to react to it, and it's important for us to maintain the reputation of this association, so we better not do that. I just feel the opposite. That, in most of my experiences when you do attempt something new or unique or innovative or different, yes, it's not always going to resonate with people, but, almost always, the people that you're pitching it to appreciate the creativity and the effort that went into it. And that helps build bridges to further conversations and new opportunities to find a project that actually will work for them.

It's a great conversation and I had a good time recording it. I hope you'll give the interview a listen and let me know what you think.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Saturday, October 28, 2017

The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha

I took a class in college on the Bible as literature, and this edition of the Bible was the recommended text for that course. Indeed, my copy still has the price stamp from the college bookstore on its first blank page -- $27.95.

Now, years later, when I had set out to read the entire thing, I knew that, unlike many of the books I read, I had no intention of composing a long and detailed review of my experience for the pages of this blog. That would require far more effort than I was willing to offer this experience. And indeed, after the first seven hundred pages or so, the reading became so tedious that I purposely moved onto other books, simply trying to knock off ten more pages of the Bible every day I could. With the books of the Apocrypha included in this volume, the total page count topped out at just over 1,900.

Why? Simply so that I could say whenever asked that I had, in fact, read the Bible. Yes. The whole damn thing.

Of all the things I could cite, therefore, let me reference only three. First, this early paragraph in this edition’s preface, which, to me, serves as a more than adequate warning against believing that you have achieved any true understanding on the words printed on these pages.

The first English version of the Scriptures made by direct translation from the original Hebrew and Greek, and the first to be printed, was the work of William Tyndale. He met bitter opposition. He was accused of willfully perverting the meaning of the Scriptures, and his New Testaments were ordered to be burned as “untrue translations.” He was finally betrayed into the hands of his enemies, and in October 1536, was publicly executed and burned at the stake.

We know that the meaning of the words we read in the Bible have been argued and fought over for centuries. But contemplate for a second that, regardless of the English edition, we’re not even reading them in their original human language. Which, of course, presupposes the idea than any human language can adequately contain the transcendental truth of the omnipotent, timeless creator of the universe. Any way you slice it, keeping your focus on the cultural influence of these words, and not their literal meaning, is the only reasonable way to approach them.

Second, this excerpt from the editor’s introduction to the Book of Philemon, which contains one of the most shocking apologetics for human slavery that I’ve encountered. Here’s the situation:

What should be done when a runaway slave who has robbed his master repents of his misdeeds and becomes a Christian? The Letter to Philemon, a resident of Colossae in Phrygia, is a model of Christian tactfulness in seeking to effect reconciliation between Onesimus, the runaway slave, and his master, who according to Roman law had absolute authority over the person and life of his slave.

And here’s what the editor have to say about it:

When it is realized that in the ancient world slavery was regarded as a legitimate and necessary segment of the social order, and that severe laws punished those who interfered with the rights of slave-owners, it is not surprising that neither Jesus nor any of the apostles attacked the institution of slavery as such.

Stop. Read that sentence again. Only this time, in place of “the ancient world”, insert “1850s America”. Now, is the first half any less true? And is it or is it not surprising that neither Jesus nor any of the apostles attacked the institution of slavery as such? Okay. Let’s keep reading.

At the same time, Jesus’ teaching of the essential worth of every human soul … and the church’s recognition of the brotherhood of all Christian believers … were destined to reorganize society. This Letter to Philemon reveals yet another side of the apostle Paul. In a situation which involved no doctrinal or ecclesiastical dispute, he writes with a delicate appreciation of the legal rights of Philemon, while inculcating at the same time a principle … which would soften the harshness of slavery and eventually operate to banish it altogether.

So in other words, slavery in the ancient world was okay because Christianity, through a series of tepid and deferential entreaties to slave owners, eventually accreted enough human sympathy to banish it as an institution. Well great. I guess all the uncounted millions who lived lives of abject suffering pale in comparison to such models of Christian tactfulness.

But this really shouldn’t surprise any critical reader of this text. Slavery may be the most visceral example of the dynamic of gods who care almost nothing for human suffering, but the Bible is littered with other less obvious examples. In fact, as I came to understand, when you dismiss the editorial frame that the prefaces and book introductions attempt to impose, and when you approach the flawed English text directly, you find a surprising number of examples of a very impersonal god. Here’s my third citation, from the great Book of Job:

But ask the beasts, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of all mankind. Does not the ear try words as the palate tastes food? Wisdom is with the aged, and understanding in length of days. With God are wisdom and might; he has counsel and understanding. If he tears down, none can rebuild; if he shuts a man in, none can open. If he withholds the waters, they dry up; if he sends them out, they overwhelm the land. With him are strength and wisdom; the deceived and the deceiver are his. He leads counselors away stripped, and judges he makes fools. He looses the bonds of kings, and binds a waistcloth on their loins. He leads priests away stripped, and overthrows the mighty. He deprives of speech those who are trusted, and takes away the discernment of the elders. He pours contempt on princes, and looses the belt of the strong, He uncovers the deeps out of darkness, and brings deep darkness to light. He makes nations great, and he destroys them: he enlarges nations, and leads them away. He takes away understanding from the chiefs of the people of the earth, and makes them wander in a pathless waste. They grope in the dark without light; and he makes them stagger like a drunken man.

So impersonal, in fact, to be almost entirely absent. Because here, as in many other places, all the things that God is said to be able to do can alternatively be seen not as the exertions of an all-powerful agent, but as the inscrutable whims of an infinitely complex system.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, October 23, 2017

Peer Surveys Protect the Status Quo

Like many association professionals, I suspect, I belong to a number of associations myself. One of those associations -- comprised primarily of the staff executives of associations that look and behave like mine -- recently conducted a survey of its membership. It was a survey designed to assess and illuminate the practices of all its association members with regard to one particular area of strategy and management.

What that area was isn't important for the purposes of this blog post. What is important is how I reacted to the results.

First off, let me say that I like filling out this kind of survey. Especially for an organization that I believe accurately represents a peer group for my association. It's great, in my opinion, to benchmark what my association is doing against its peers and competitors. So I dutifully filled in all the fields, hit submit, and waited patiently for the results to be tabulated and published.

When those results appeared in my inbox, I remember feeling a small measure of apprehension. I think my association is doing well. But is it? What will the marketplace of my peers say? Are others achieving more or less success that we are?

As I scrolled through the results, examining chart after chart of tabulated results, however, my apprehension quickly went away. For question after question, I saw, the strategy and management of my association was squarely in majority. We did this, and so did the majority of our peers, We did that, and so did the majority of our peers. Great!

It wasn't until well after I closed the document and safely filed it away in my "Benchmarking" folder that I began to reflect on and question my reaction. I was reassured, I realized, that my association wasn't an outlier in these data sets. That, I suppose, was a natural reaction, but it made me think how I would have reacted had the opposite been the case. What if I had been the outlier? What if the majority of my peers were doing something different? Would I have interpreted that as some kind of call to action? As a pressing need to do something different in my association?

No. If I am to be honest, I have to admit that if the results would have shown my association to be different from its peer group, I would have either dismissed the survey as faulty, or figured out a way to convince myself that what we were doing, although different from most of our peers, was right and appropriate for our situation and our association.

That's how powerful the barriers to change are in most organizations. Even reliable data isn't enough to overcome it. In either case, with a peer survey that either reinforces or contradicts our practices, I would've had my association keep doing the same old thing.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Monday, October 16, 2017

When Action Items Aren't Action Items

Last week I wrote about a message my Board chair and I had crafted to help frame the discussion at our recent Board meeting. With a Board that was committed to maintaining a governance role for the organization, the message was designed to help them determine and decide the pertinent strategic questions that were to be addressed at this point in our annual strategy and execution cycle.

Essentially, the message reminded them that the year's strategy had been set, and that the Board's job at this meeting was not to re-invent that strategy, but to review the action plans that had been put in place by staff. If those actions plans were adequate to the strategic tasks, then, see where Board members could help execute them. If not, then determine and provide the additional resources that would be necessary. At the end of the blog post I said I would be curious to see how our Board members would react to the message and what kind of discussions would ensue.

Well, now it's a week later, and the Board meeting in question is in the past rather than the future. The reaction of our Board members was universally positive. They are all very busy professionals, leading companies and divisions of companies in our industry, and they have all readily embraced the tenets of the Governance Policy we recently put in place.

That policy says the Board is in charge of determining the ends the association will achieve and the staff, under the leadership of the CEO, is in charge of determining the means for how those ends will be achieved. The message and the discussion frame it provided was viewed as a simple and welcome extension of that principle. We're not hear to tell you what to do, they seemed willing to say. We're only here to tell you if the things you're doing are the right or wrong things.

So that's great. The Board members all reacted positively. But as for the discussions that ensued; well, that's where things get a little more complicated.

A typical pattern for these discussions went something like this. The agenda would turn to a new strategic objective. Something the Board had said was important for the organization to achieve in the coming year. Staff would give a short report on the action plan that we were following to achieve that objective, even citing, when appropriate, places were individual members of the Board could get engaged and help move the action plan forward.

The Board would then discuss the action plan. Almost always, quick agreement would be reached that the action plan was appropriate and should be pursued. But also almost always, a number of suggestions would be made for how to improve the action plan. Those suggestions rarely included the requested actions for individual Board members to take. Much more frequently, they included new and somewhat speculative ideas. Actions whose resource ramifications were sometimes uncertain and other times unknown.

None of that is bad, per se. Often times, our Board members, as members of the association we work for, and of the industry that the association represents, have really good suggestions that staff needs to take seriously. They are the eyes and ears of the marketplace we're trying to serve, and they can absolutely help us get more quickly to the tactics that will help us best achieve our strategy.

The problem, as I see it, is therefore not with the suggestions themselves, but with how to position those suggestions in the context of Board discussions and decisions. In other words, are they action items? Are they the kind of Board decisions that should be duly noted in the minutes, and to which staff resources should be assigned in order to ensure their execution?

The day after the Board meeting, as I sat down to hobble together the minutes from the scribbled scraps of paper I had kept at my side during the discussions, my first inclination was that they were. They were action items. But as I began to transcribe them as such, I started to doubt myself. Really? This relatively minor suggestion, this simple tweak to a staff-level action plan, this was an official action of the Board? This is something I would have to document for posterity and then report back on at the next Board meeting?

That, I realized, was not in keeping with the very message that my Board chair and I had offered at the very beginning of the meeting. We are not here to micromanage the staff. Only to review their work and to decide if it has the adequate resources to succeed. For a Board as committed to a governance role as mine was, and with nothing but the best of intentions, the results of many of its discussions at our most recent Board meeting had a decided management feel.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Saturday, October 14, 2017

25 Years of Tomorrow by Dan Perkins

I’m a big fan of This Modern World, a weekly satire in cartoon form published by Dan Perkins under the pseudonym Tom Tomorrow.

A while back, he had a Kickstarter campaign in order to fund the printing and publication of a two-volume “boxed set” of his entire career -- twenty-five years of his creative output.

I kicked in my seventy dollars, and two coffee-table-sized books, titled 25 Years of Tomorrow, Volumes 1 and 2, arrived at my doorstep a few months later.

For this fan, they were an absolute delight to read, filled with treasures both expected and unexpected. No where else was I likely to come across the very first incarnation of This Modern World, a self-published “zine” from 1987.

It is 27 pages of vintage Perkins -- in many ways laying the foundation for much of his satirical view and sense of humor. This Modern World, then, was a place where citizens have mandatory consumer quotas (because it’s not just a good idea, it’s the law), industry mines the very fabric of reality (for the good of mankind), and children are well cared for in a null-entropy stasis field where they don’t grow older or make any noise (a real boon for modern parents).

Like a piece of pork fat, the satire may sometimes be difficult to swallow, but it is always delicious.

Today, and for much of the intervening 25 years, This Modern World has taken a decidedly political bent. Many would call it liberal, but I think it is more properly thought of as progressive. Perkins exposes both Republicans and Democrats for the politicians they are, often more occupied with placating their own egos and their electoral bases than with any of the progressive causes Perkins loves and to which at least half of the politicians he portrays pay lip service.

Yes, President Trump was shown as an Incredible orange Hulk during the recent primary season, smashing all challengers with his unhinged utterances…

...and is shown now as a giant man-baby, throwing tantrums on Twitter and complimenting anyone who pays him doting attention.

But before him President Obama was shown as a superhero called Middle Man, seeking compromise on even the most right-wing proposals…

...and before that as a plain politician with a ghostly image of himself hovering nearby -- the progressive fantasy of his presidency that many of his supporters voted for and continued to assume that he was.

And that’s just the tip of the crazy (and clever) iceberg. Above all, This Modern World is a place where the otherwise dying art of satire still reigns supreme. That, if nothing else, was worth my seventy bucks.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, October 9, 2017

When Governance Means Governance

I'm gearing up for another Board meeting this week. That means, among other things, that I've been in communication with our Board chair about necessary agenda items and things that we would like the Board to achieve by the conclusion of the meeting.

Now, as I've recently blogged, a few years ago my association's Board adopted a Governance Policy that, among other things, clearly separates responsibility for ends and means determination. In other words, it puts the Board squarely in charge of governance, the association CEO squarely in charge of management, and creates a bright line between the two.

This year's Board chair takes that policy seriously, and in our planning discussion a major focus was on how we would keep the Board "out of the weeds" and focused on either: (a) determining the outcomes the association should achieve; (b) monitoring whether or not the plans put in place by staff were achieving those outcomes; or (c) allocating the resources needed for successful execution of those plans. In the view of my Board chair, those were the only kind of discussions that would keep the Board squarely in its governance role.

It's a more complicated situation than it may seem. Four months ago, at the Board's annual strategic retreat, high-level outcomes for the association were determined, as well as a set of metrics that would be tracked over the next fiscal year to determine if the association was moving productively towards those outcomes. In the intervening months, most of the activity of the association has been at the staff level -- setting goals, developing the program objectives that would help us achieve them, and moving forward with the individual and necessary action plans.

Now, we're only one third of the way through our fiscal year. Some of those action plans are already producing the desired results, but not all, and many are not expected to. The plans and programs, after all, are designed to manifest over the course of an entire year. To me, pulling the plug on them after only four months makes even less sense that re-discussing, and potentially changing, the desired outcomes that we determined back in June. But, if we're not careful, the Board, given its focus on governance not management, may find itself going down either of those trails.

What are we to do?

Well, working with my Board chair, we crafted the following message, which will be included as one of our first agenda items:

At the June 2017 meeting, the Board set our “ends” – and described them in our ends statements, success indicators, and approved budget.

Since the June meeting, the staff has defined our “means” – and have described them in a series of goals, program objectives and action plans that should help us achieve our ends within the limits of the budget approved by the Board.

During the October 2017 meeting, the program objectives and action plans associated with several of our key goals will be described and discussed. The Board is asked to focus its attention on the following questions:

1. For each goal, are the means in alignment with the ends that the Board has defined? Does the Board believe that execution of the described plan will result in the achievement of the goals?

2. If yes, what role can Board members play in the execution of the means? Remember that in addition to serving a governance function at our Board meetings, Board members can be asked to provide key support for our operational objectives.

3. If no, why not?

4. Do the proposed resources appear adequate to fund the means? What additional resources might be needed? How can those additional resources be provided?

It's a good message. It reinforces our strategy and execution process and provides the Board with clear expectations for its role at this stage -- four months in to what must be viewed as a twelve-month journey. It seems to communicate, remember, we have already set our goals, and now we are working the plan. If the plan is sound, good, we can rest easy. If it isn't, then we must ensure that it is made sound, and especially that it has the resources it needs to succeed.

I'll be curious to see how the other members of the Board react and what kind of discussion ensues.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Monday, October 2, 2017

Board Succession Quiz

As I said a few weeks ago, another association has invited me to speak at their Annual Leadership Conference on the subject of high-functioning association Boards. I'm going to hit four subjects during my presentation: Board selection, Board discussions, Board decisions, and Board succession. Each one is going to begin with a one-question quiz, with which I hope to take the temperature of the participants in the room.

Here's the question I've drafted for Board succession.

Which statement most closely describes your knowledge about the people who will be joining your Board in the next two years
(a) I know the people who will be joining our Board in the next two years and they are already engaged in Board activities and decisions.
(b) I know the people who will be joining our Board in the next two years but they have not yet been engaged in Board activities and decisions.
(c) I do not know the people who will be joining our Board in the next two years.
(d) No new people will be joining our Board in the next two years.

The "right" answer, of course, depends on the specifics of your own situation, but I plan to make the case that, for high-functioning Boards, the correct answer is (a). Boards interested in increasing their effectiveness should be sure that the people joining their ranks in the next two years have been identified and are already engaged in Board activities and decisions. The speed of business, and the need for association Board members to make quick and meaningful contributions, require nothing less.

For my own association, the answer is (a). A few years ago, we created a structure we call Strategic Task Forces that have helped us not only identify viable candidates for future Board service, but get them plugged into Board activities and decision-making from a very early stage.

Our Strategic Task Forces are task forces of the Board, which means that all Board members serve on one of them, but they also very consciously include non-Board members from some of our most important stakeholder groups. The job of the Task Forces is to assist our Board in determining the appropriate metrics by which we will measure the success of our strategic objectives, in tracking the progress of those metrics over time, and in deploying the needed resources.

The real magic, however, comes from the fact that our Strategic Task Forces only meet at our Board meetings. The Board meetings themselves are two-day events. On the first day there is an opening lunch and a strategy briefing, where we bring all the attendees (Board and Task Force members alike) up to speed on the strategy of the organization, and the issues that will frame the rest of the Board meeting. In the afternoon following the strategy briefing, the Task Force meetings are held where the Board and non-Board members of the Task Force engage with the issues presented and interact with each other. A social dinner is held that evening, and on the following morning comes the Board meeting proper, where the Task Forces report on their discussion and the Board takes formal action on any recommendations coming from the Task Forces. One more social lunch as people begin to rush off to airport brings everything to a close.

Two otherwise difficult things happen as a result of this structure and schedule of meetings.

First, the non-Board Task Force members get an in-depth preview and orientation on the Board and how it operates. No one is trying to describe or present it to them. They are experiencing it, participating in it, in real time, with real issues and real decisions.

Second, sitting Board members, especially those on our Nominating Committee, get to know the candidates and witness how they perform and communicate on issues of importance to the organization. Do they contribute effectively? Do they have the necessary vision and perspective? When it comes time to select one of the Task Force members as a nominee to the Board itself, there usually isn't any doubt that the individual will make a positive contribution to the Board and its objectives.

Following the presentation of this material, I plan to ask the participants to discuss some of these concepts at their tables. How does their organization identify and engage future Board members in the activities and decisions of their Board? How might their organization start engaging future Board members in the activities and decisions of their Board?

Knowing that every association faces a different situation, I fully expect the most practical learning to come out of these table discussions, and the brief report-outs that I will facilitate at their conclusion. I can set the stage and provide some examples, but if their experience is anything like mine, finding their own specific way forward is something only they can do.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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