We all know the golden age of volunteerism is over. Gen X and Millennials are more than willing to give of their time but they need some fairly significant circumstances: A) if you are going to ask for my time it better make a difference in the lives of others B) if you are going to ask for my time don’t waste it and C) if you are going to ask for my time there should be something in it for me. If we accept that volunteerism is at a decline why are we seemingly unwilling to change our association models. How many association execs out there actually track WHO is attending your offerings and meetings- not just how many?
For the last several years I have been doing just that. My research shows that in general (of course there are always outliers and some offerings reach a larger crowd) but in general, at my former association of almost 8000 members about 400 of the same people show up or take part in association business. Yep, that would be about 5%. I also found that in all the committee slots available many of same people were on multiple committees. One year out of 410 committee seats the seats were filled by less than 200 members, as one member would serve on multiple committees. Has it ever occurred to anyone that perhaps as associations we are doing all this work (and collecting all this money) to serve less than 5% of our membership? I wonder if that is really fair to the other 95%? This begs the question, “IS MEMBER ENGAGEMENT REALLY NECESSARY FOR A RELEVANT AND SUCCESSFUL ASSOCIATION?”
In Coerver and Byers book Race for Relevance (check out their website by clicking here) they focus on five radical changes:
- Overhaul the governance model and committee operations (and get the right people focused on the right things).
- Empower the CEO and leverage staff expertise.
- Precisely define your member market.
- Rationalize programs and services–and focus where you can have maximum effect.
- Get the supporting technology framework right
This book certainly isn’t new and has been passed around enough in the association world but little change has happened? Why? Because we are stuck in our old processes and refuse to let go. Imagine a world where staff departments made the business decisions- staff that has expertise in their chosen fields. Imagine an association where committees were no longer necessary? They engage such a tiny fraction of the membership. Do other people’s dues money really need to be spent to make the 5% feel good? What if dues money were spent on the mission instead? What if the majority of dues money was spent on the mission and focus of the association? That might actually garner the relevance for the rank and file members we so desire.
Imagine a board that focused on strategic oversight rather than on mundane business decisions? I seriously have sat through two board meetings in the last year where over an hour was spent on renaming an event and recreating a tag line. Is this really strategic governance? Or volunteers playing marketing? I am not saying that there is not a place for volunteers- there certainly is! I am only suggesting the place is not committees.
If we truly desire relevance for the rank and file member, the 95% who are not engaged, we need to stop catering to the 5%. Leadership means there are followers and 5% is an awfully poor following. Our leadership needs to take a good long hard look at their personal agendas, check their egos at the door and get to work on the mission and focus. Yes you have always wanted a class on historic buildings…. that is not a reason to be President. The class probably isn’t offered because there is no call for it from the membership. Let’s stop throwing events for the 5% and instead spend our dues money on advocating for the industry as well as improving business conditions. Let’s have boards of directors who focus on strategic initiatives that improve business conditions and provide financial oversight – it’s okay if that means the board only meets quarterly remember the members dues should not be used to make other members feel good about themselves or feel important.
As a staffer what can we do to facilitate this change? Train our leaders, flood them with information, try a few pilot programs that are committee-less, share blogs such as this with them, share studies that show why association members are not engaged, sneak in some strategic discussion on your agenda, share what you are learning as an assn exec, and be willing to have some frank and uncomfortable discussions with your formal and informal leaders (the influencers of your organization).