How Well Are You Managing Your Online Community?

How Well Are You Managing Your Online Community?

There’s a difference between “setting up” and “building” an online community – and the latter requires much more time, ongoing effort, and resources.

Private online communities have grown in popularity in the association world, and they can be a great tool for building engagement and connecting members.  But many resource-constrained membership organizations set them up only to find that it’s a lot harder to manage a community than they thought it would be.

A thriving online community requires a lot of time and attention. So before you launch, be sure you have the ingredients you need to make it successful!

A Purpose

What do you want to achieve? Most communities focus on information sharing, connecting members, staying in touch with members, and giving members a place where they can get answers to questions. Online communities thrive on content, but before you can determine what kind of content you want to distribute, you need to have some specific goals in mind.

A Strategy

It takes time to build a thriving community, so you need to think long term, rather than posting content on an ad hoc basis. Your strategy follows your purpose. Based on your goals, get something down on paper that provides some detail on what kind of content you’ll post, how often, how you’ll manage your community, and who will be responsible for managing it.


With so much competition for your members’ attention on the web, you need to be sure you’re giving them relevant, timely information they can’t get anywhere else. Maybe it’s researching findings from studies you’ve conducted, quick tips from reputable experts within your organization, or videos that will teach your members something valuable.

Community Managers

Ideally, you’ll want to dedicate more than one person to creating and posting content, monitoring forums, and responding to questions. Choose people who know the industry really well, even if it means using a reliable volunteer. You want people who are up to speed on the latest industry trends so they can generate some discussion.


Think varied and personal. Your content should touch upon the issues and challenges your members to encounter on a day-to-day basis so that they are compelled to read it, watch it, or listen to it. Use a mix of mediums, including written content, videos, and photos to keep things interesting for your members.


Don’t do it alone. The most successful communities draw on the expertise of many contributors. This might mean including content from partner organizations, sponsors, board and staff members, and even enlisting some of your members to volunteer as contributors.


Your online community won’t grow overnight. Keep at it, monitor your progress, and re-assess your strategy from time to time. Be flexible – if something’s not working, acknowledge it and change your approach.

Put all these ingredients together, and over time your fledgling community will grow into a thriving, regularly visited hub for your members and prospective members.


Association Management Software: 3 Questions to Ask Before Buying


If you’re looking for association management software, you likely have specific features on your wish list that you can’t do without – and some “nice-to-haves”.  Of course, it’s important that the product you choose offers the feature set you need, but there are some intangibles that are often overlooked in the process of shopping for an AMS.

If you’re looking for an AMS that’s going to be with you for the long haul, be sure to ask these three questions when researching association management software solutions …

Can we customize it?

There’s no other organization exactly like yours and no one-size-fits-all solution. So it’s important to find a software product that can be customized to work with your membership structure.

You also want to think long term. While a product may seem like the right fit initially, it may not be so perfect once you integrate it with your business processes. You may also find that your needs shift and change over time. Software that isn’t flexible and customizable can force you to create inefficient workarounds – leading to wasted time and a frustrated staff. Going for customizable association management software reduces the risk of encountering unexpected issues down the track.

Does it offer flexible payment processing?

There’s that word again … flexible. You never know when things will change for your organization, so it’s useful to have options when it comes to processing payments. Look for association management software that gives you the choice of using your own payment processing provider (if you have one), opening a merchant account, or using a gateway like Paypal or

Does it include human technical support?

Online help centers aren’t really helpful if you can’t find the topic you’re looking for. When a question arises, you want to be able to pick up the phone, talk to a human being, and get a response quickly.

Getting up and running with a new AMS can take time, so don’t underestimate the value of having access to a good support team that can guide you through the process and help you get the software working exactly the way you want it to.


Why Perfectionism is a Big Time Waster

Why Perfectionism is a Big Time Waster

There’s a rule known as the Pareto Principle. It teaches us that 20% of our efforts produce 80% of our results. The additional 80% of our efforts will only yield an additional 20% of results. The first thrust of effort then is the most productive use of our time. The latter thrust is very costly.

For example, let’s say you allocate 2 hours (which we’ll represent as 20% of your time) to clean a room, a basement, or a garage. Let’s say that will you will be able to get it to be 80% clean. It won’t be perfect, but it will be acceptable and a job well done. However, to squeeze out an additional 20% of results, to make it “perfectly clean,” will require an additional 80% of your time, or 8 hours. The additional results are sixteen times more costly than the initial results from 20% of the effort, not to mention that while you’re trying to squeeze out those additional results, you are kept from doing a lot of other more productive things.

Looking for ways to boost your productivity? 123Signup will save you tons of time managing your events and members.

This rule has a lot of application to you as a time manager. Ever notice if you’re in sales how 20% of your customers give you 80% of your sales and the other 80% of your customers give you the remaining 20% of your business? Where then should you be spending 80% of your time? With the 20% of the customers who are giving you 80% of your business.

Ever notice how 20% of your relatives give your 80% of your headaches?

It may not always work with exact mathematical precision, but, typically, the small chunk of input yields the biggest chunk of output or results.

Most of us benefit from this rule intuitively. When you and I approach a task (clean a room, prepare a term paper, write up a project, etc.) we decide to put in a reasonable amount of time and effort to achieve a reasonable result. The result may not be perfect but it will be acceptable and this will release us to devote our time to tackling other endeavors.

We put in a reasonable amount of time and produce a pretty decent report. It may not be perfect, but putting in a whole lot more time to make it a little better is not cost-effective and therefore not worth the effort.

Those who suffer from the Curse of Perfectionism do not understand this principle. Their goal is always perfection, which, realistically, is unattainable. For example, you cannot clean a room perfectly. As you clean it, it’s getting dirty as the dust settles. Any written report can be polished and improved upon with more time and effort. Striving for perfection is then always stressful and frustrating.

Their overall productivity suffers as they spend an inordinate amount of time on a few things, trying to make them perfect, rather than a lesser amount of time on a lot of things that will multiply their results.

The curse is cured when they abandon the need to do their tasks perfectly when they understand that excellence in performance is attaining a degree of perfection, not absolute perfection. This does not compromise one’s standard of excellence in performance. It enhances excellent performance with increased results.


5 Simple Tips for Attracting New Members

5 Simple Tips for Attracting New Members

Attracting new members is challenging in an increasingly competitive marketplace.  If marketing has been on the back burner for your organization until now, are a few simple things you can do to start stepping it up:


3 Attendance-Boosting Online Event Registration Tools

3 Attendance-Boosting Online Event Registration Tools

There are some powerful online event registration software products out there, packed with fancy features and tools that let you do far more than just accept registrations on the web.

Whether you realize it or not, it’s likely that your software can do more to help you increase your signups. So the question is: are you taking advantage of all the tools that are available to you?

Here are three things you should be doing with your event management system:

1) Tracking Abandoned Registrations

This is a big one because if you can track people who have started registering but haven’t finished, you have a great start to closing those extra registrations. People who take the time to click on the link and start the process have shown interest, so they’ll likely be your easiest targets.

Many systems will let you download a report that tells you who left your site without completing the process. Send those people a personal email reminding them that they haven’t yet completed their registration, and you’ll likely convert at least some of them to attendees.

2) Tracking Where Registrations Are Coming From

You likely promote your event through many different channels – partner websites, social media, and in advertisements. It’s important to understand where your registrants are hearing about your event so you can direct your marketing time and resources to the most productive channels.

How do you know where people are hearing about your event? A simple way is to “tag” your registration links. This simply means adding a unique label to the end of the link for each of your referring channels. It takes no time at all, and many online registration systems will allow you to download a report that shows you exactly where each registrant was referred from.

3) Using Promo Codes

The right promotion targeted to the right group of people can do amazing things for your registration numbers. The classic promotion for events is early bird registration, but there are so many other ways to discount tickets. You can set up promo codes to offer special rates to certain membership types, run a refer-a-friend promotion, or offer special pricing in advertisements.

If you aren’t already using discount promo codes, it can’t hurt to try them out. It’s easy to set them up if your system has the functionality in place, and the results might surprise you.


Data Rules, Assumptions Drool: Keeping Your Email Marketing Relevant

Data Rules, Assumptions Drool: Keeping Your Email Marketing Relevant
Contributed by Mary Byers, CAE

Email marketing has long been the mainstay of an association’s marketing plan, but is it still effective? The popularity of smartphones and tablets has made email readily accessible but has also created some challenges. To be most effective you’ll need to do a little research to determine how and when your members read their email, and what type of content is most likely to engage them.

Lori Ely, Marketing Manager at Informz, Inc. says, “Behavior is huge and understanding what your individual members are doing in your emails, both on desktop and mobile, will help in creating the right strategy.” You can accomplish this fairly easily using analytics technology offered by most email marketing systems.

Ms. Ely offers the following tips for keeping your email campaigns relevant and effective:

Many associations are taking notice of Ms. Ely’s advice and revamping their email marketing to meet the needs of their members. Here are a few examples of associations that made significant changes to their email marketing strategy to become more effective:

Toy Industry Association, Inc. – revamped their weekly newsletter through testing, re-engagement strategy and design.

Satellite Broadcasting and Communications Association – transformed their monthly newsletter into a mobile-friendly version based on utilizing data to identify those who read on a mobile device.

The American Political Science Association – improved their customization of messaging by utilizing behavioral marketing.

The success of any email marketing strategy begins with understanding your members’ preferences and how to best engage them. Tracking and analyzing your email campaigns and utilizing behavioral marketing concepts will help to achieve a better response rate and more effective communication with your members.

– See more at:

About Mary Byers

Author. Speaker. Facilitator. Consultant. Provocateur. All describe Mary Byers, CAE.

Mary Byers helps associations gain clarity and focus through leadership conference training and facilitating strategic planning retreats, assisting task forces and work groups, and helping association staff and volunteers talk through tough issues. Visit

Blog Category: Industry Trends & News, Marketing, Technology


Fighting Email Fatigue in Association Marketing

Fighting Email Fatigue in Association Marketing
This week’s blog post on association marketing is re-posted with permission from Aaron D. Wolowiec,  founder and president of Event Garde, a professional development consulting firm based in Grand Rapids, Mich. Website:

While I was out of the office recently tending to some personal affairs, my husband commented on the number of “dings” from my iPhone. He was shocked when I explained that said “dings” indicated yet another email.

When I returned, I had 400 emails. Really. After only three days.

I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir, but I can’t keep my inbox clean. I operate three accounts regularly and they’re all suffering from inbox overload.

So. Much. Email.

And…so much deleting.

But I have to admit even when I’m overwhelmed, I open the emails with the catchy subject lines.

Lesson here: People are suffering from email fatigue, so as an association marketer, your job is tough. How do you get people to open your emails, let alone read them?

It’s a delicate balance of testing, creativity and, most importantly, research, finds a new Informz report.

The “2015 Association Email Benchmarking Report” summarizes email marketing metrics from more than 1 billion emails associations sent in 2014. The four metrics measured in the report: delivery rate, open rate, click rate and unsubscribe rate.

Informz found email testing is on the rise. In 2014, there was increase of more than 26 percent in email subject line testing. But also, associations are testing layouts, timing and call-to-actions.

At the same time, the survey found 72 percent of email subscribers received five or fewer emails per month. But subscribers who received six to 10 emails per month had slightly higher open and click rates. And while all this is important, the single most important engagement factor is relevancy, Informz said.

Key findings from the report:

“The data shared will help you understand what metrics to analyze, what goals to set and how your email marketing program is performing in comparison to your peers,” Informz said. “Always keep in mind that these are averages from your peers.”


Member Retention: The First Step Toward Growing Your Association

Member Retention: The First Step Toward Growing Your Association

The best way to grow memberships is often debated, and many believe that driving new sales is the way to go. However, keep in mind that “an association that adds 5,000 new members a year and maintains a 75% renewal rate will grow to 20,000 members. While an association that adds the same 5,000 new members but maintains an 85% renewal rate will grow to 33,000 members.” (T. Rossell, 2012)

Here are some member retention ideas for keeping your members, and keeping them happy:

Spread the News of Your Improvements.

Communication is one of the key pillars of retention. When you make improvements, achieve big milestones, or have new information that will be helpful to members, be sure to share it with the right people. Wherever possible, segment and personalize your communications so that your members get the information that really matters to them.

Turn Up Your Reminder Frequency.

You don’t want to annoy your members, but it’s a fact that a lot of people simply forget to renew their memberships. Experts are now suggesting that seven is the most effective number of renewal reminders. If you don’t have good membership management software this task can be difficult – a good reason to look into low-cost technology options that will enable you to automate your renewal reminders.

Offer Online Membership Payment Options.

If you haven’t started accepting online member payments, you should make this a priority. It is becoming the preferred method of payment for many people, and user-friendly processes are great for member retention. As a bonus, it will cut the time you spend manually processing payments down significantly.


Offering a discount for early membership renewals can give your members a good reason to submit payments right away, instead of pushing the task to the bottom of their to-do list.

Use Multiple Marketing Channels.

Don’t rely on email or your website alone. Send your members news and information through your website, social media, postcards, newsletters, and even contact key members by phone to remind them of deadlines. To keep your members engaged, your marketing strategy should include multiple tactics.

Highlight Non-Member Prices.

On all of your products, events, and services, make it a point to remind your members of the value of their benefits by publishing non-member prices.

Partner Up.

Keep your eyes open for potential partnership opportunities with other organizations that will be mutually beneficial. Often, you can tee up arrangements that will bring added benefits to your members, and make them more likely to value their memberships.

Review Your Member Welcome/Orientation Program.

Inviting new members to free orientation events where they can meet their colleagues is a great way of building the sense of community that is necessary for member retention. If you don’t have the time or budget for that, send them a welcome pack or give them a personal welcome phone call at the very least.


3 Lessons Associations Can Learn from Netflix

3 Lessons Associations Can Learn from Netflix

Associations have more in common with for-profit businesses than you think. Thinking outside the nonprofit box can help you glean new insights that you can translate for your organization.

Take Netflix as an example. It’s had its ups and downs and made mistakes along the way. But it’s a company that’s not afraid to change direction when things aren’t going as planned – and it’s known for its innovative work culture.

Here are 3 lessons that Netflix has learned that are transferable to the association world.

1. Stick with Your Mission.

There was a point in Netflix history when the company built its own black box for streaming movies, but after investing a lot of time and money, they ended up deciding to ditch the box.

Why the sudden change in direction? It didn’t align with their mission of “having Netflix on every device on the planet that is connected to the internet.” So instead of competing with existing hardware providers, they convinced those providers to include Netflix on their devices.

The takeaway for Associations: If it feels like your products and services aren’t aligning with your true mission, take a step back and ask yourself, “Are our current products really what our members want?” If the answer is no, don’t be afraid to change directions. It might mean some wasted resources in the short term, but it will pay off in the long run.

2. Give Membership Options – and Make “Free” Part of Your Membership Strategy.

When you join Netflix, you get your first month free and the choice of Premium, Standard, or Basic memberships – and they allow you to change levels at any time. This is a pretty standard model for a lot of online membership-based companies.

Why does it work for Associations? Offering membership levels – including a free membership option – means that you can cast a wide net and capture nearly everyone in your target industry. It removes the cost barrier and allows people to choose the level that will give them the most value.

With technology, it’s easier and more affordable than ever to offer a free membership that grants access to online forums and content. And once you have members through the door, it’s much easier to sell them on paid memberships.

Association management software products have also made it quick and easy to manage multiple membership levels – another reason to introduce some variety into your membership model.

3. Invest in Your Leaders – they Define Your Culture.

It’s no secret that your leaders are your most valuable resources. But don’t look at them only as resources – look at them as the people who create the culture that attracts and retains the kind of employees and members you want.

Netflix has become known for its unconventional HR policies, and one of the keys to their success is giving their leaders ownership of creating the company culture. Netflix leaders know the company’s values. They are trusted to model and hire employees who align with those values, and Netflix gives them all the tools they need to build a great pool of talent.

For the most part, great leaders aren’t born that way. They’re coached, supported, and empowered – and they understand and fully embrace the organization’s mission and values. Earmark resources for leadership initiatives. Help your managers grow and empower them to build the culture of your organization.


What Are Member Personas? And Why Do You Need Them?

What Are Member Personas? And Why Do You Need Them?

Do you know who your perfect members are? They’re the ones who stand to get the highest perceived value out of your organization and are willing to pay for what you are offering. Using information from surveys and research, you should be looking for common traits, needs, behaviors, and motivators for each of your membership segments.

Creating member personas enables you to better understand the needs of the people you want in your organization. This helps you package and price your benefits to provide the highest perceived value for each of your desired member groups – and tailor your messages and communications appropriately.

When members perceive your organization as valuable, they stay. When prospects think the benefits of being part of your organization is worth the investment, they join.

How to Create Member Personas

In our post, Growing Membership By Working Smarter, Not Harder, we explored how to segment your membership according to their needs and the perceived value they get from your organization.  If you haven’t read that article yet, take some time to go back and refer to it.

If you have never surveyed your members – or haven’t in a while – that’s a step you shouldn’t skip. Research in the way of surveys, focus groups, or interviews is essential to understanding who your members are so that you can segment them according to common characteristics and needs.

Here are a few characteristics and themes you may want to explore as you create your member personas:

Once you’ve assigned some characteristics to each of your membership segments, you may find that it’s easier to relate to them and understand what they need. You should keep re-visiting these personas as you create your membership strategy. They’ll remind you which members are getting the most out of your organization – and willing to pay for your services – and where you may need to make some changes to better cater for the segments you’re not connecting with.


5 Things Every Association Should Have Check-listed

5 Things Every Association Should Have Check-listed
Beyond the usual financial audits, the end of the year is a great time to review your operations and processes – and shed the inefficiencies that could hold you back from achieving your goals in 2015.

Here are five things (besides the obvious review of your business plan) you should consider doing before January rolls around.

#1 – Review Your Service Contracts

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” isn’t the motto to operate by when it comes to your service contracts. Your needs have likely changed since you first signed some of your contracts, and you could be wasting unnecessary time and money by sticking with a provider that you’ve outgrown.

Make a list of all your service providers – including utility and equipment rental companies, printers, professional service and software providers, and any others you use regularly. Consider how they’re priced, the value you get for the money, and their level of customer service.

Prioritize the services that are most critical to running your organization, and invite proposals and quotes from competing companies. Even if you ultimately stick with your current provider, doing the research may give you the leverage to negotiate lower prices or more favorable terms.

#2 – Evaluate Your Internal Processes

While you’re refining your business plan for next year, make it a point to review your day-to-day processes to determine how well they support your strategies. You can do this internally, or consider hiring a consultant to perform the assessment for you.

Ask staff and committee members to document the processes they use to fulfill their responsibilities. Brainstorm with your team to identify inefficiencies and come up with ways to improve. As you go through the process, don’t forget to research new technologies that can help you save on time and resources.

#3 – Update Your Policy Manual

If you don’t already have a policy manual, create one. If you have one, review it. Your policy manual is your blueprint for your internal operations – yet it’s an often-neglected document, particularly in smaller associations.  It covers everything from human resources … to attendance and dress codes … to facilities management issues.

It’s important to review your policies every year to make sure they continue to meet changing employment and business laws. You’ll also want to check that they still align with your current practices and procedures.

#4 – Do a Marketing Audit

Using outdated marketing materials can reflect poorly on your organization – whether it’s letterhead with your old phone number or address on it, membership welcome packs that still mention old services, or a website that lists Board members who retired last year. Sometimes these details slip through the cracks, so gather all the collateral you currently use and go through it with a fine-tooth comb.

Ditch any materials that have information, messages, graphics, or branding that no longer reflect your organization’s direction, and put a plan in place setting out how and when you will update each piece with specific dates for completion.

#5 – Say Thank You

Recognize and thank staff , volunteers, members, committees, sponsors, and anyone else who had a part in your organization during the year. Convey your appreciation through cards, events, gifts, or just a special note in your newsletter if your budget is slim. “Feel-good” gestures will have everyone heading into the new year feeling appreciated and engaged with your organization.


Community Management is About Strategy

Community Management is About Strategy
This week’s blog post on online community management is re-posted with permission from Aaron D. Wolowiec,  founder and president of Event Garde, a professional development consulting firm based in Grand Rapids, Mich. Website: 

Although still relatively new, online communities are quickly becoming popular platforms for engagement, discussion, and membership.

But there’s still some confusion about best practices and culture, according to a new report by The Community Roundtable and Higher Logic.

“In the current environment, it’s easy to question or second guess ourselves, but one thing I feel strongly about is this: A community approach can help navigate these issues in a way that brings along customers, prospects and employees,” said Rachel Happe, principal and co-founder, The Community Roundtable. “It is the best way, and maybe the only way, to keep our organizations in sync with themselves and with their markets.”

Happe said communities are the most effective way to deliver learning and change – much better than social media platforms, which are inundated with advertisements.

The Higher Logic report contains data from 339 community programs from a range of industries. The first takeaway: strategy. Strategy is based upon a shared understanding of value. In other words, communities must define value to their organization and to their community to foster engagement. In addition, the report found those who could measure that value to determine ROI performed best.

Next: operations. Giving members a voice is key to community success. Communities that provide a formal feedback system, multi-tiered advocacy program and member-led community programs far outperformed their peers.

And then, tactics: Most communities measure basic activity and membership, but going beyond that, including regularly tracking activity, behavior change and outcomes, reaps big rewards.

Some recommendations from Higher Logic:


Create strong, defined value statements for your organization and members, highlighting the shared value of the community. Tip: Boil it down: What’s the value that the organization and members get from being a part of the community – and where do those value statements intersect?


Engage and empower members, through feedback programs, member- and internal expert-led programs and by prioritizing getting organizational buy-in and understanding of community. Giving the community a say in its operation can help increase engagement and community contributions. Tip: Tap into the expertise in your membership – communities that include member-led programming demonstrate higher engagement and maturity than their peers.


Focus metrics and measurement on the behaviors you want to see, not just the ones you can easily measure. Everyone measures something, but the best-in-class communities are digging into the metrics that demonstrate the impact of the community. Tip: Use frameworks to better connect behavior changes to metrics so that you can more readily explain the value of the community to members and the organization.

“As community professionals, we need to keep our focus on the fundamentals and continue to reinforce value and success,” Happe said. “Don’t lose sight of the basics; continue the dialog with those that can benefit from your community, and develop an ROI model to define the specific business value that is generated from the community.”


10 Tips for Board Meeting Breakouts

10 Tips for Board Meeting Breakouts
Breakout sessions can be highly beneficial at board meetings as a technique to increase board member engagement and reduce the likelihood of groupthink. They also introduce a different dynamic into the typical board meeting, which can increase the value perception held by board members, enhance relationship building and develop a team spirit. Depending on the issue at hand, all groups can be asked to work on the identical problem or each group can be asked to focus on a different aspect of the issue.

As you consider the use of breakouts, keep in mind that you want to vary meeting formats from time to time. If you use breakouts at every meeting, your board my experience “breakout fatigue.”

In order to enhance breakout effectiveness, keep the following considerations in mind:

  1. Seek optimal diversity: Don’t allow the members to self-select their groups. Groups should either be designed before the meeting or determined by random selection techniques at the meeting. Also, make sure the groups are different from meeting to meeting. If you predetermine the groups, in order to ensure optimal diversity, take into consideration factors such as: industry sector, size of company, gender, experience levels, time served on board, expertise, level and style of typical engagement and personality. Also keep in mind that, ideally, you will want a good facilitator in each group. There are a number of techniques that can be used to “randomly” select groups at the meeting. A common approach is to have the board members go around the room and “count off” up to the desired number of groups. For example, count 1, 2, 3 – 1,2,3, etc., until everyone around the room has a number. Another spin on this is to have the board members form a line standing in alphabetical order based on the city they were born in. This protects against having the same groups every meeting if members often sit in the same order.
  1. Identify predetermined space: Anticipate how much space you will need. If possible, a separate room should be set aside for each breakout group. Of course, one group can use the main boardroom. Although it can be done, putting more than one group in a room is not advisable. When choosing rooms, try to find rooms with plenty of wall or window space where flip chart pages can be posted. Wifi access is also helpful if you expect the group to bring in outside information.
  1. Identify a facilitator for each group: The quality of output is often dependent of having a great facilitator. Facilitators should be chosen and identified before the day of the meeting. A good facilitator will keep the discussion on target with the end goal in mind, engage all of the group members in the dialogue and ensure that the contributions of all are considered. Most likely, you will find that you have a few outstanding facilitators on the board, some that are ok and some that just don’t work to well. If this is the case, try not to always rely on the great facilitator(s) from meeting to meeting. Rotation is important; just stay away from the not so good ones.
  1. Provide the facilitator instructions: Prior to the day of the meeting, facilitators should receive a written document that contains a list of their responsibilities and instructions. Instructions might include information such as: at the beginning of the breakout, identify a time keeper and a presenter to report back the groups findings to the larger group; begin the dialogue with a discussion about the problem statement to gain buy in for the problem or to restate the problem statement; lead the session standing in from the front of the room and capture major items on the flipchart; use a separate flipchart page to capture ideas that are brought up, but not relevant to the discussion at hand; and, encourage everyone to participate, directly calling on those that are not engaging in the dialogue.
  1. Clearly review the assignment: Before breaking into small groups, provided each group is addressing the same question, clearly define for the large group the assignment and what outcome you expect from each group. Also, provide the larger group with an explanation of what you expect to take place in the individual groups. Encourage questions to ensure clarity.
  1. Provide a written problem statement: Each group should be given a written copy of any instructions regarding format, the objective(s) for the session and, most importantly, a written problem statement / question. Depending on the problem / issue to be discussed, a one-half to one page backgrounder may be helpful to frame the issue. Of course, if you intend to use the small groups to frame issues, you will want to refrain from using the background paper to frame the issue; instead you may want to provide some data or information.
  1. Room set up: For small groups a conference table set up works fine and a “U” set up is generally not needed. Make sure each room has an ample supply of a variety of colored flipchart markers and masking tape to hang the sheets as they are filled. Of course, you will need flip charts in each room; if possible provide two so one can be used as a “parking lot” to capture ideas that are surfaced but not relevant to the conversation. So much the better if you can get “post it note” flip chart pads which have self-adhesive on each page.
  1. Reporting back: Each group will report back their results to the whole board. In order to be efficient with time, you might ask the presenters to only report back “new information” that was not mentioned by previously reporting groups. The board members should be encouraged to ask questions and challenge the presentations. In fact, you may want to assign people to play devil’s advocates.
  1. Transcribe the results: After the meeting, don’t just roll up the flip charts and put them in a corner. First, prior to leaving the board meeting location, make sure you have pictures of them all. Then, when back at the office, transcribe the sheets / document the findings. Often, the information and knowledge surfaced during the breakout sessions will be very useful as input into your strategy development process.

Breakout sessions have been around for a long time. But, to capture real advantage from sessions, thought must go into the design and execution of breakouts. Of course, notwithstanding pre planning and design, there will be times that breakout groups will engage in a dialogue or process that is entirely different than planned; when this happens, just accept it and reflect on their work.

How have you improved the effectiveness of breakouts at your board meetings? What has and has not worked?

About the Author

Robert Nelson, a Certified Association Executive (CAE), brings over a quarter-century of successful executive leadership experience, working with Boards and high-powered CEOs in a not-for-profit setting. He is the founder of Nelson Strategic Consulting and brings hands-on experience guiding and facilitating the design of strategy development processes and think tanks. His focus on organizational strategies and strategic solutions to complex organizational and global grand challenges for national as well as international organizations.

Contact Robert through his website, or learn more about Nelson Strategic Consulting at


7 Rules for Successful Membership Strategies

7 Rules for Successful Membership Strategies
So you’ve brainstormed some exciting membership moves, but are you ready to play them? Here’s a list of things to remember when implementing your membership strategies to ensure they pan out just as you intend …

#1 – Do your research.

Don’t rely on a hunch – test your ideas on your members. Select a sample of current members – or prospects that represent your ideal member types – and conduct informal interviews with them. Once you have their feedback, there will undoubtedly be things you need to change or refine before you launch your new strategies. …

#2 – Plan and document your processes.

How will you administer your new membership structure? If you’re really serious about growing and have limited staff to help you do it, you will need to make your processes as efficient as possible. You may need to look for an affordable online membership management software to help you organize your member data and automate many of your day-to-day tasks.

You’ll also need to think about how you will communicate changes to your members and promote to non-members, what actions members need to take to sign up for new benefits or transition to other membership levels, how you will keep track of the different types of members, who will be responsible for each step of the process, how you will set up reporting to help you track the effectiveness of your strategies, and what systems and technologies you will need to manage your members.

#3 – Include your staff, volunteers, and Board.

Enlisting the help of the people “on the ground” can increase buy in. Go through the processes for each new service or initiative you’re introducing with your team, and assign someone responsibility for it. Do some mock run-throughs with your staff on the new procedures. Once you’ve confirmed your processes, document them so that everyone involved is consistently following them.

#4 – Pilot your programs.

If you’re introducing new programs, identify a sample of members or prospects to test the waters before you jump in – even if it’s just running the high-level idea past them. For example, if you’re introducing a new member portal online, have a diverse group of stakeholders test it out before you make it available to your entire organization.

#5 – Communication is key.

For any new event, initiative, program, or service offering, it is a good idea to create a communications plan that outlines the key stakeholders, messaging for each, time frame for communications, how you will deliver the communications, and overall goals. If you are making changes that impact your members in any way, always let them know well in advance, and continue to remind them as the scheduled changes approach.

#6 – Set specific, measurable goals.

Setting goals helps to create a sense of accountability for you and your staff. The basic metrics to measure will include participation in programs and events, sales and revenue from products, renewal and acquisition percentages, data from member satisfaction surveys, and your return on marketing investment. You may also have more specific metrics depending on your objectives.

#7 – Re-assess.

Make it a point to touch base with a few of your members through informal phone calls every month to get their feedback on what’s working and not working for them. Conduct another survey a year from now. It can be effective to use the same survey from the previous year so that you can make direct comparisons in the various areas. Analyze the data to see if your strategies helped you reach your overall goals, and continue to make adjustments on an ongoing basis.


Choosing Membership Management Software: The Mistakes Associations Make

Choosing Membership Management Software: The Mistakes Associations Make
Membership management software requires not only a financial commitment but also significant time and resources. Your staff members will be taking time out to learn the ins and outs of your new system, and it also takes time to go through the data migration and integration process. There are a lot of things to consider when software shopping, and a lot of ways you can get it wrong.

Here are some of the most common mistakes we see people make when selecting a membership management platform …

They Don’t Plan for Growth.

Don’t plan for where you are now, plan for where you want to be. If you’re a new-ish association or chapter, you likely have a pretty simple membership structure. Assuming that your goal is to expand, and not to shrink, you need a system that will grow with you.

Picture your organization three to five years down the road. By that time, you’ve diversified your membership levels to attract more members. You’ve put in place some new benefits and programs to generate additional revenue streams. Your membership is growing by the day. When you get to that point, I guarantee you’ll regret settling for an inflexible piece of membership management software that lacks the features you need.

There are several online membership management packages out there that will work within your budget and also support your growth.

They Don’t Consider the Possibilities.

Your membership management software doesn’t have to stand alone – and it shouldn’t. The purpose of investing in software is to cut down on your administrative workload, so you’ll want to make sure that whatever system you choose can integrate with your existing software – either directly or by downloading and uploading csv files.

Make a list of your existing programs, ask your software rep about the possibility of linking them with the membership management system, and see if you can’t get things a little more streamlined.

They Don’t Audit Their Current Processes.

Do you really know what you need? Have you talked to your staff members and had a brainstorming session around the processes that they feel could be made easier. Have you talked to current members about what they need? Get these questions answered first, shop for your software later.

When you demo different types of software, you should have a list of the features you’re looking for – with the most important prioritized on top.

They Don’t Include Users When Selecting Their Association Management Software.

Years back, an association I worked with was looking at putting a system in place and their finance manager decided to skip consultation with staff members and make all of the decisions herself. The staff didn’t know anything about the new system until it was actually implemented. The finance manager ticked all the boxes that were important from her perspective, but after spending thousands of dollars, discovered it made tasks and processes harder for the staff. In the end, all the spiffy new system actually achieved was to make tasks more time-consuming.

The lesson is obvious. The most important testers of your software are the people who are actually going to be using it. Invite them to your demos, ask them what most frustrates them about their processes, and observe how they currently execute their tasks so that you understand their needs.

They Choose a Membership Management Software with the Wrong Price Structure for Them.

Every software company structures their prices differently. Some charge monthly subscriptions, others charge by usage, and some add charges for upgrading features or processing credit cards.

After auditing your processes and talking to your staff, you should have a list of requirements. Being clear on what you’re looking for and asking a lot of questions up front can help you avoid paying hidden costs.

Many companies offer subscriptions that increase in price when you reach a certain number of members. For example, you may start out paying $100 monthly because you have under 500 members, but as soon as you increase to 501 members your subscription jumps to $200. This means you’re essentially paying an extra $100 per month for just one extra member. If you’re growing at lightning speed, this price structure could work. But in the real world, it makes sense to choose a package that lets you pay for only the members you have.

Here’s an idea: compare the total of all costs for each software provider based on the number of members you have now. Then do the same thing based on the number of members you hope to have in three years. Divide the total costs by the number of members, and that should give you a good feel for which solution is most beneficial for your organization.


Association Strategy Pitfall: Looking for the “Right” Answer

Association Strategy Pitfall: Looking for the "Right" Answer
As a society, we are so accustomed to being asked to find the right answer that we often don’t look beyond that answer. This can problematic when we develop an association strategy. In fact, it can be problematic anytime we are trying to solve a problem.

When developing strategy, it is imperative to think strategically. And, a key component of strategic thinking is creative thinking. Creative thinking is also vital when solving problems outside of the strategy development realm.

Find out how 123Signup Association Management Software can help solve your membership problems.

Creative thinking demands that we come up with a variety of solutions. Maybe our first “right” answer is the best solution, but maybe the best right answer is the second, fourth or tenth right answer. The point is, we won’t know if our first “right” answer is the best until we have developed other solutions to compare and contrast it to.

The first step to identifying the best right answer is asking the right question. That starts with by charging your team with finding the right solutions or answers, not the right solution or answer. It also requires that your team challenges or ignores its assumptions. How you word the question can make a difference as well.

If we ask an employee or group of people to solve a problem, they will typically rely on their assumptions and come up with the solution. They will find a sense of satisfaction when they first encounter the solution and be happy to demonstrate that they have the solution. What they often don’t do is continue to search for other answers. As a facilitator, leader or manager it is your job to encourage them to develop multiple answers or solutions.


In Roger von Oech’s book “A whack on the Side of the Head, ” he has some excellent examples that demonstrate the importance of not stopping with the right answer and the importance of asking the right question. But first, I need you to select the shape below that is different from all of the others.


If you picked B, great job, you are right. B is the only shape that is made from all straight lines. Of course, if you picked C, you are right as well, as it is the only shape that is asymmetrical. But, then, A is also a right choice as it is the only shape with no points. As you give it more thought, you see that D is also the right answer; it is the only shape that has both straight curved lines.

The point is, often there are many right answers. However, the right answer in not always the best answer.


Von Oech goes on to tell the story about a plague striking a village many centuries ago. Those stricken with the plague almost immediately fell into a death like coma. Most died within a day, although a few miraculously survived. One problem the village faced was that in the 1700s medical technology wasn’t very advanced and it was extremely difficult to tell the dead from those still alive.

The village was horrified one day when they discovered that someone was accidentally buried alive. So a group of villagers got together and solved the problem by agreeing to put a little food and water in each casket along with an air tube going to the surface. It was an expensive solution, but they knew it could save lives. A second group also got together and developed a cheaper solution; they would affix a knife blade to the inside top of each coffin that would pierce the heart of the victim as the coffin was closed, thereby assuring that no one would be buried alive.

The solutions were different because each group used a different question to find the solution. The first group asked, “what if we bury someone alive” and the second group asked, “how can we make sure everyone we bury is dead”?


When confronted with a problem that is similar to a previous problem we have dealt with, it is human nature to assume that the solutions and results will be similar. However, when developing strategy and solving problems it is important to either forget or challenge assumptions. The fatal nature of not challenging assumptions is illustrated in the story of Croeus, the last ruler of the great Lydian Empire.

As Croeus contemplated attacking the Persians in 546 BC, he turned to two oracles for advice. They both answered that if he attacked the Persians, a great empire would be lost. This made him feel secure and gave him the confidence to move forward; so he formed an alliance and attacked the Persians. In the end, Croeus was defeated and true to the oracles statement, a great empire was lost. Croeus’ fatal assumption was two fold: he relied on the first right answer, which was the one he assumed he would find, and he assumed since he had went into battle before and won that he would get a similar result this time.


Good strategy and effective problem-solving demand that we ask the right questions, challenge our assumptions and develop a number of right solutions before moving forward with the best solution. The next time you ask a group or an employee to solve a problem, ask them to identify solutions not a singular solution. Then make sure you and they are challenging the assumption upon which the answer rests. Of course, before you even ask them to solve the problem, it is imperative that you’ve identified the right problem and ask the right question; after all a great strategy for the wrong problem is no strategy at all.


Overcoming Misperceptions About Your Association

Overcoming Misperceptions About Your Association
Whether negative perceptions about your organization are accurate or not, they can get in the way of executing on your mission. In other words, misperceptions can be as damaging to your organization as are accurate, but negative, perceptions. As the old adage goes, perception is reality. As such, misperceptions must be taken seriously and often dealt with in the same way as accurate, negative perceptions.

Overcoming negative perceptions starts with identifying stakeholder perceptions, determining whether or not you are committed to overcoming the perception and then, if committed, taking real, substantive and often visible action to change the perception. If you are not serious about changing a negative perception or committed to real change, then it may be better to ignore the perception, knowing what the consequences might be. In other words, if you are only going to engage “window dressing” your efforts may likely backfire.

If you are intentional about it, your organization can overcome negative perceptions, whether or not they are accurate. Here are 10 steps to alter perceptions.


  1. Listen for the kernel of truth. Don’t be defensive. Be careful not to reject misperceptions. Rather than outright reject misperceptions, seek the kernel of truth in what stakeholders are saying. Give the stakeholders the benefit of the doubt.
  1. Be willing to admit and accept there is an issue. There is no need to place blame. If your survey confirms that there are negative perceptions, accept the results as simply being a truth. For that matter, even if you don’t conduct a survey but are receiving feedback from multiple parties that has a common thread of negative perception running through it, accept that there is an issue.
  1. Evaluate the perceptions. Some negative perceptions may bring more harm to you than others. Consider to what degree the various negative perceptions impede your mission or the execution of your strategy. In doing so, recognize that a group of different negative perceptions may all have the same root cause. On the other hand, take note of and celebrate the positive perceptions that you identify. Ask yourself if there is some way to exploit the positive perceptions in overcoming some of the negatives. Evaluating and prioritizing negative perceptions will inform your next steps.
  1. Determine if you and your organization are willing to do what it takes to change the negatives. You only get one chance to start the journey of changing perceptions; a halfhearted attempt or a strategy that deploys “window dressing” could backfire. It comes down to whether you are committed to or just interested in changing perceptions. If you are committed, the perceived value of changing the perceptions is greater than the perceived difficulty of doing so; if you are interested, the perceived difficulty is greater than the perceived value. If you are committed, you act no matter what; if you are interested, you act if the circumstances permit. If you are committed, you will have results; if you are interested, you will have a bunch of reasons why you should act.
  1. Determine the root cause. Put simply, this means figure out why those with negative perceptions think the way they do. Start by identifying some people that hold the negative perception and engage in a dialogue with them to find out why they hold the perception. Remember, don’t challenge them or be defensive, just listen and accept what they are saying. In fact, consider usingToyoda’s Five Whys root problem identification methodology. This step is probably the most important one; it is absolutely critical that you identify the right and real problem before you embark on developing a problem solving strategy.
  1. Develop a strategy to change the perception. You may need different strategies for different stakeholder groups. Don’t develop your strategy in a vacuum; key to a sound strategy is diverse perspective. In this case, you will want to include those with negative perceptions in the strategy development process. There are many strategy development and problem solving models out there. One you might consider for this task is a force field problem-solving model. Make sure that your strategy contains sound metrics for evaluating / measuring success.
  1. Take visible action. As you execute your strategy, seek some tactics that are visible and then promote the action being taken. But remember, changing perceptions requires more than those with negative perceptions seeing what is different. It is equally or more important that they feel the change as well. As you are considering tactics, always keep the root problem in mind and ask yourself if the tactic will truly attack the root problem. If the tactic doesn’t meet this test, it may very well be “window dressing.”
  1. Be patient. Perceptions don’t change overnight. You need to have an ongoing strategy and a set of tactics that are rolled out and repeated over time. As you begin the journey of change, the goal is progress not perfection. Part of your job is building trust in those that held the negative perceptions; this takes time.
  1. Measure progress. In addition to fielding follow up attitudinal surveys, it is important that you regularly check in with some of the initial critics. By engaging some of the critics in the strategy development process and then seeking their input as the changes progress you may very well end up with some of your organization’s best promoters.

About the Author

Robert Nelson, a Certified Association Executive (CAE), brings over a quarter-century of successful executive leadership experience, working with Boards and high-powered CEOs in a not-for-profit setting. He is the founder of Nelson Strategic Consulting and brings hands-on experience guiding and facilitating the design of strategy development processes and think tanks. His focus on organizational strategies and strategic solutions to complex organizational and global grand challenges for national as well as international organizations.

Contact Robert through his website, or learn more about Nelson Strategic Consulting at


Delegation: Six Steps

Delegation: Six Steps
Effective delegation is often thought of as one of the most challenging management skills to master. Yet, delegation is one of the most powerful management skills. In fact, if you are not an effective delegator, you are shortchanging yourself, your employees and your organization. Successful delegation entails delegating the right things to the right people at the right time, along with the authority and resources needed to carry out the assignment. Delegating, of course, conveys a number of benefits beyond getting the job done. It is an important part of employee development, employee motivation, self-development and succession planning.

Before exploring how to delegate more effectively, let’s take a look at why people don’t delegate. Often, those who are considered by their employees to be micromanagers simply have not perfected the art of delegating. Some people don’t delegate because they are perfectionists and others don’t want to take the time to delegate. Yes, it does take time to delegate properly, but the time invested pays dividends.

Some people think that they need to protect themselves; in part, this may be because when you delegate, although you delegate authority and responsibility, you don’t delegate liability. Some people just enjoy doing the tasks that they could be delegating. Often, it is a matter of trust; managers don’t trust the people working for them. Finally, some people are new to management and are not comfortable assigning tasks to others, especially those that were former peers.

Irrespective of the reason for not delegating effectively, we can all learn to delegate more effectively and reap the benefits that accrue to everyone involved. The first step is to identify work that can be delegated. Although there are some exceptions, I lean more toward the belief that you should delegate everything that either someone else can do or be trained / developed to do; to do otherwise is a disservice to your employees and your organization.

When identifying what you are going to delegate, try to delegate the complete job, rather than just some small tasks. By giving an employee a complete job, you can take better advantage of their creativity. Further, there is an exponential increase in employee pride and satisfaction when they can see that they took something from beginning to end.

Next, it is important that you plan ahead and provide enough time for the entire delegation process. That begins with setting clear objectives and boundaries, and ends with follow-up, completion of the task / job and feedback. The process may also require some employee development and / or training. Keep in mind, it may take an employee longer to complete a work assignment than it would you. Even considering that it may take longer for delegated work to be completed, for the reasons mentioned above, in the long run, delegation is worth it. The fact is, if you don’t delegate overall productivity declines due to your focus being taken away from critical issues that require your attention and a workforce that lacks motivation and is disengaged.


  1. Provide clear instruction: Articulate clear, observable and measurable objectives. The employee must understand exactly what outcome(s) you expect. The goal is to communicate the outcome, not how you expect them to do the job. This is a balancing act. You don’t want to micromanage; on the other hand, you want to provide them with enough input that sets them up for success. In determining how much information to give the employee beyond the objective(s), consider the employee’s experience with the specific task / job, the employee’s past performance related to taking initiative to figure things out, and their overall performance on previously delegated work. Also, communicate boundaries or constraints, if any, that the employee should abide by in carrying out the assignment.
  1. Determine resource and development requirements: Engage in a conversation with the employee to determine what additional training / development they feel they will need to complete the job. Also, find out from the employee what resources they believe they will need. As a manager, it is your responsibility to make sure the employee has the resources and training necessary to succeed. I find it best to start by asking the employee what their needs are and let the conversation flow from there; again, you don’t want to micromanage. You may also want to ask the employee how they plan to proceed with the work; this often informs what resources or development may be needed.
  1. Agree on a timeline: Once the objectives are agreed on and training /  development needs are determined, agreement should be reached on when the assignment is due. Again, I find it best to begin this conversation by asking the employee when, considering their current workload and other responsibilities, do they think it would be reasonable to have the work at hand completed in a manner that meets objectives and rises to the quality expectations? In my experience, it is helpful if you raise the issue of the employee’s other responsibilities, because it often results in the employee suggesting a more realistic deadline. In fact, I find employees are often over ambitious when estimating the timeframe needed to complete a work assignment. Often, when an employee suggests a timeframe, I respond with a suggestion that they take a minimum of 50 percent more time to complete the work. For example, if the employee states they could complete the job in two weeks, I ask them if they think 3 weeks might be more reasonable. Keep in mind, as a manager you want to create a situation that results in the employee’s success. Always factor in enough time to re-do or improve on the submitted work; let the complexity of the job and employee background / experience be your guide.
  1. Agree on follow-up plan: At the outset, you and the employee should agree on follow-up plan. Determine how often you and the employee will check-in to monitor the progress of the work. Depending on the work, you may agree to check in when the assignment it complete or you may set weekly or milestone check-ins. Regardless of whether or not “check-ins” are agreed to, it is important to let the employee know that irrespective of scheduled follow ups, you are available should the employee run into a roadblock. A word of caution, however, on check-ins: if the employee comes to you with a problem or question, make sure that you don’t end up being on the receiving end of someone delegating up. Only in a very rare situation should you permit work to be delegate back to you. Just as you delegated the responsibility to the employee to get the work done, the employee must take the responsibility and complete the task.
  1. Provide Feedback: Once the task is complete, provide the employee with feedback on the results. You may want to discuss the actual results and the process the employee engaged in in completing the work. The goal in these discussions is two fold: look for opportunities to give positive feedback and look for opportunities for you to learn something from the employee.

Finally, give credit where credit is due. Look for every opportunity to give credit to the employee for the work well done. On the other hand, if your board or members criticize the work or the job doesn’t come out like expected, it is important that you take full responsibility. Regardless of the circumstances, I firmly believe that as leaders we should always give credit to others, and take full responsibility when things go south.

Are there tasks / responsibilities that you think should never be delegated?

About the Author

Robert Nelson, a Certified Association Executive (CAE), brings over a quarter-century of successful executive leadership experience, working with Boards and high-powered CEOs in a not-for-profit setting. He is the founder of Nelson Strategic Consulting and brings hands-on experience guiding and facilitating the design of strategy development processes and think tanks. His focus on organizational strategies and strategic solutions to complex organizational and global grand challenges for national as well as international organizations.

Contact Robert through his website, or learn more about Nelson Strategic Consulting at


How to Write a Mission Statement That’s Meaningful

How to Write a Mission Statement That's Meaningful

How much time do you spend thinking about your mission statement? Mission statements are intended to communicate the vision and purpose of organizations. That’s an important function, so it deserves some time and thought. Even if your organization already has a mission statement, it’s important to re-visit it periodically to make sure it still reflects your purpose and direction.

Creating your mission statement (or updating it) is as simple as answering some questions about your organization, then conveying these answers in language that is compelling and succinct.

To formulate your mission statement, start by answering these questions:

Think about whether you want your mission statement to reflect your short- or long-term goals. When focusing short term, you can be more specific. Long-term goals require a more general statement. Think bigger than your day-to-day operations, products, or service offerings. What are the underlying values that drive your decisions and actions?

One of the best things you can do is involve your board, and staff if appropriate, in the process. Have a brainstorming session around the questions above, and distill your discussion down to common themes and key words.

Once you have your top key words and phrases, work on putting them together in a sentence or two. You should be able to convey why your association exists in an inspiring, believable, and relevant way.  And you should be able to convey HOW you’ll deliver on your mission. The most effective mission statements aren’t too vague or too specific, and they use simple language. You’ll want to avoid using complex language or industry jargon.

Come up with three or four options, and test them on your staff. Ultimately, the mission statement you choose should be customer-focused, but should also inspire your staff to get behind the cause. You want the words to be powerful enough to evoke emotion …

Who could resist Starbucks’ mission statement: ” To inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.”


Getting Your Board to Think Strategically

Getting Your Board to Think Strategically
Many associations don’t have the luxury of having their board members professionally trained. On volunteer boards, directors are often selected because they are good at their trade or well-known in their industry – not because of their background in governance. This often leaves CEOs and executive directors in a challenging position. How do you get your board to elevate their focus from details to the bigger picture?

Robert Nelson of Nelson Strategic Consulting gives some great insights in his article, How to Create Strategic-Thinking Boards – and he’s sharing it with our readers …

Transitioning a board to a strategic thinking entity requires intentionality. It is not a matter of teaching the board members to think strategically, but, rather, it is a matter of facilitating their learning by creating strategic thinking experiences. In other words, teaching strategic thinking through lectures or presentations on strategic thinking theory is trumped by engaging the board in the experience of strategic thinking. Since boards meet periodically, it is imperative that you intentionally design strategic thinking experiences into each board meeting.

If you are intentional about transitioning your board to a strategic thinking entity, the first step is to recognize that, ultimately, a revolutionary change in culture may be required. In such a scenario, it is helpful to have a clear understanding of the purpose of the transition, along with a well-articulated vision of the future state. Equally important are a solid change strategy and an execution plan.

Although the chief executive will most likely be the catalyst for the change, it is important that “champions” are identified early on in the process. Hopefully, you will be able to recruit 5 to 10 percent of your Board as champions for change, with the chairperson playing the role of chief change agent. These champions will be key influencers as you work to develop board consensus and support for the need to transition to a strategic thinking board. Likewise, the champions will be key supporters for the behavioral changes that will be needed to complete the transition.

I firmly believe if you want to change an organization, simply change the agenda. This is especially true for transitioning a board to a strategic thinking entity. Strategic issues and dialogue should be the first items on the agenda, immediately after adoption of the agenda. The strategic issues / dialogue are followed by actions the board must take and oversight issues geared to monitoring performance. The last item on the agenda should be the consent agenda that contains all of the written reports. The main objectives are to engage the board in strategic dialogue about big issues at the beginning of the meeting and minimize the time the board spends talking about the past by placing committee and other reports in a consent agenda, which is adopted at the end of the meeting.

Ample time and considerable thought should be given to determining what strategic issues are going to be placed on the agenda. It is important that the issues are truly “big” issues with strategic implications for the organization. Strategic issues can be identified through environmental scanning and by engaging in off-line discussions with members of the board and other stakeholders. A board meeting itself can also be used to identify strategic issues of import to the organization.

Although boards are often accustomed to discussing issues for the purpose of making a decision or taking action, it is important to realize that decisions don’t have to be made in conjunction with strategic dialogue. In fact, strategic agendas often contain “reflection” items. Most, if not all, of your board meeting agendas should contain strategic “reflection” items, in addition to any “action” items. These agenda items are intentionally used to carve out time for dialogue and reflection. The board agrees up front, before the dialogue begins, that no decisions are going to be made at the conclusion of the dialogue. The sole purpose of the strategic reflection items is to dialogue about the issues and reflect on them. This practice is consistent with the adage “don’t just do something, sit there.”

These decision-free strategic dialogues are excellent opportunities for the board to engage in generative thinking. And, the chairperson should guide the dialogue in a manner that engages the board in a process of inquiry. Ideally, the board members will enter and engage in the dialogue with learning mind.

Following are 19 examples of questions that can be used as tools of inquiry. They are the types of questions that drive strategic thinking.

Strategic thinking can also be practiced during action item discussions. For this to occur, it is imperative that options, not recommendations, be brought to the board. Too often, traditional boards are presented with a recommendation from staff or a committee. Strategic thinking boards are presented with multiple options to consider, rather than a recommendation. Such an approach increases the engagement of the board members and fosters strategic thinking as the options are discussed.

Pre-designating a board member to argue in opposition to an option and a board member to argue in favor of a particular option further increases board engagement and creates a richer strategic dialogue. However, prior to the arguments being presented inquiring dialogue should take place. In other words: dialogue before deliberation.

If you are going to be intentional about engaging your board in strategic thinking, you must be intentional about the type of information you provide your board. As such, considerable thought must be given to the background material that is placed in the board book. When identifying materials for your board book, ask yourself what data, information, and knowledge would be helpful to stimulate strategic discussion? What data, information, and knowledge are needed to formulate an informed decision? Do the data, information, and knowledge being provided deliver a 360-degree view of the issue at hand?

Another key opportunity to provide a strategic thinking experience is the strategy development process itself. All organizations should have a well thought out process for developing a strategy. A well-designed strategy development process in and of itself facilitates strategic thinking, presents a tremendous learning opportunity for the board and builds the strategic capacity of the board.

If you are interested in 10 additional tips for a strategic thinking board, click here.

What have you found to be helpful in transitioning a board to a strategic thinking entity

This article is re-blogged from the NSC Strategies Blog.


What Does Member Engagement Mean, Anyway?

What Does Member Engagement Mean, Anyway?

The phrase “member engagement” is big in the association world. But what does it really mean, and how do we measure it?

Member engagement runs deeper than member satisfaction. You would use the word “satisfaction” to describe a member’s attitude toward your organization. But engagement covers both attitudes and behaviors, and gives you a measure of your relationship with your members. Retention is all about building strong relationships, so it’s really important to know where you stand with your members.

Recently, the Loyalty Research Company (LRC) did research to determine the key indicators of member engagement, and found that engaged members are more likely to:

It boils down to this: a strongly engaged member equals higher non-dues revenue and strong participation. A weakly engaged member is less likely to buy “extras” and rarely participates.

You should know who your highly-engaged and moderately-engaged members are, and what aspects of your membership value proposition are most important to them. That information should drive your business strategies. You’ll want to put the most effort and resources into the initiatives that are most important to these groups because that’s how you’ll keep them, and attract new members.

So how do you determine an engaged member from a non-engaged member?

You check in with them through surveys and other forms of member research. Matt Braun from LRC says when it comes to measuring engagement in surveys, it’s not a one-question solution. You’ll want to include questions that cover:

The combination of responses to those questions will tell you whether the member is strongly engaged, moderately engaged, or weakly engaged.

If your members’ behaviors don’t seem to be matching up with the answers they provided on the survey, that’s a sign you may need to dig a little deeper to find out what’s going on. But this is a good place to start.


The Public is Listening, and Associations Are Spending

The Public is Listening, and Associations Are Spending
This week’s blog is re-posted with permission from Aaron D. Wolowiec, MSA, CAE, CMP, CTA. Aaron is the founder and president of Event Garde, a professional development consulting firm based in Grand Rapids, Mich. Website:

As a public relations professional, imagine my excitement when I stumbled across a new report that found associations are spending an unprecedented amount of money to sway public opinion.

No, I’m not excited that associations are shelling out big bucks, but it’s validation.

It’s true that we’re spin doctors, but we’re there when you need us. It’s our job to help you sort through the clutter of public confusion, misinformation and media madness.

Last month, the Center for Public Integrity released a report on the PR spending of Washington, D.C.-based trade associations.

“It’s been well-publicized how much industry spends on lobbying the government, but little is known about how much money goes toward influencing the public,” the center says. “In an effort to find out more, Center for Public Integrity reporters examined the tax returns for trade associations that spent more than $1 million on lobbying in 2012. The IRS requires the groups to report their top five contractors.”

The report found that from 2008 to 2012, 144 trade groups spent $1.2 billion – 37 percent of the total amount spent on contracts – on PR and marketing. By industry sector, energy and natural resources associations were the big spenders. Business associations came in second, spending more than $200 million on public relations, marketing and ad services. And, perhaps of special interest to our readers: The food and beverage association ranked No. 4 in PR spending.

At one time, associations earmarked thousands of dollars for lobbyists. But that’s slowly shrinking, thanks to the advent of social media, blogs and citizen journalism. Whereas lobbying engages policy makers, public relations engages a public platform devoid of class, gender, race and socioeconomic divisions.

So why the shift to public relations?

“They certainly want to influence the general public because the general public will then influence the politicians, the lawmakers or the regulators in that particular industry,” said Steve Barrett, editor-in-chief of trade magazine PR Week.

And it seems Edelman is thriving. The nation’s largest public relations firm, which employs 5,000 people, netted the most revenue. According to the report, associations paid Edelman nearly $350 million, with the American Petroleum Institute carrying most of the load.

It’s important to note that the report measured only the most politically active associations in Washington, D.C., so some key players could have been left out of the analysis.

However, “the contractor information provides an inside look at the way trade associations use PR and advertising to ply the American mind,” the Center for Public Integrity says. “Trade groups determined to fight regulations and boost profits of their members have spent heavily to influence how the public perceives policies that affect everything from the air we breathe to the beverages we drink.”

A word of caution: Transparency is important. If you budget for public relations efforts, make sure your members know where your association stands.

So, all this said….what do we do?

Essentially, PR pros are message makers. In a sticky situation, it’s our job to help clients maintain their integrity. But we’re also storytellers. Earned media (or non-paid media coverage) is key to reputation building, especially in a market in which PR pros outnumber journalists.

Is your association setting a trend? Does your association have an awesome success story to share, i.e. outreach or community service? Do you have a member organization that’s doing something incredible? That’s where PR can help. For starters, check outPublic Relations Society of America, which includes a directory of PR firms and service providers.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Feel free to reach out to me at [email protected].


Make Your Passwords Secure

Make Your Passwords Secure

Having your membership data in the cloud is convenient, cost-effective, and efficient. But with the many advantages comes the risk of data security breaches. If your membership database is hosted online, it’s your responsibility to do everything in your control to safeguard your members’ personal information.

If you’re using an online software provider to host your membership database and store credit card information, it’s up to them to make sure the system meets PCI Security Standards. But your users will need to do their part to keep client data safe.

Here are some common-sense rules for data security that you and your staff should be following!

Keep Your Administrators Up to Date

It’s pretty obvious that when someone leaves your organization, they should no longer have access to your membership data. But this one tops the list because it is so often overlooked. There is nothing complicated about it– just remember to update your administrators when positions change.

Don’t Share Passwords if You Can Help It

If possible, everyone who accesses your membership database should have a different username and password for several reasons. First, every transaction and change that is processed through your system should have an administrator attached to it. If an issue ever arises, you’ll know exactly who you need to approach to fix it. It also prevents people from leaving your organization with your log-in information (if you forget to change it).

Make your passwords at least eight characters, and include both letters and numbers. Use both upper and lower cases and if you can help it, don’t use words you can find in the dictionary. It’s best to have a unique username and password for every website you log on to so that if one website gets compromised, you don’t risk compromising the others.

Your email password should be extra secure because when you forget a password online, that’s where a replacement password will be sent.

Don’t write your passwords on a post-it and stick it to your computer, and if you have a document that contains all of your usernames and passwords, use an encryption tool to keep the information secure.

Be Careful of How You Collect and Store Information

Never ask your members to send you credit card details or other sensitive information by email, and don’t be casual about taking credit card information by phone. If you write it down on a piece of paper, process it immediately and dispose of it securely or store it in a locked drawer. If you are taking payments online through your software provider, check to make sure they meet current security standards.

Create a Data Security Policy

Data security is not top-of-mind for most people, so it can be helpful to create a security policy and ask each member of your staff to read and sign it. This is an effective way of raising awareness of the risks and ensuring that your staff acts mindfully when it comes to member data.

You probably know people who avoid using technology because of fears around security – maybe you’re one of them. The truth is, these fears are justified and having your data compromised is possible. However, it’s often not the technology that’s insecure, but the practices of people using which may lead to a security issue. Even with the best software in the world, you can still inadvertently have your data hacked if you’re not mindful about your day-to-day processes.


How Will the New Overtime Rules Affect Your Association?

How Will the New Overtime Rules Affect Your Association
In May, the United States Department of Labor released new overtime rules that will take effect on Dec. 1.

Since December will be here before we know it, nonprofits are already making adjustments, as the new rules will have significant implications for the nonprofit sector.

According to the National Council of Nonprofits, it all comes down to salary requirements.

With limited resources, many nonprofits can’t afford to pay their staff big bucks. Under the new regulations, most employees earning less than $47,500 will be entitled to overtime compensation. So think about your events and meetings. What will that mean?

If you’ve got limited staff resources, 123Signup can help you do more with less. 

That said, it’s a complex formula for understanding compliance, but the U.S. Department of Labor has published resources.

According to DOL, employers have a few options:

The council offers some tips, as well.

“Employers have various options to comply with these change in overtime rules, ranging from increasing exempt employees’ salaries to the new level, converting them to hourly employees and paying overtime or making other changes to benefits or operations,” the National Council of Nonprofits said. “Nonprofits with budget years ending on June 30 will need to develop new budgets for the fiscal year beginning in six weeks that take these new changes into account. Nonprofits with budget years ending on Dec. 31 have more time to adjust and plan for 2017.”

In addition, the rules allow for the use of volunteers under certain circumstances, but DOL warns nonprofits shouldn’t use volunteers to skirt the regulations.

The department contends its new regulations will ensure companies – including nonprofits – adhere to the Fair Labor and Standards Act. It also says the new regulations will lead to a better work-life balance while increasing productivity and reducing turnover.

“Job titles never determine exempt status under the FLSA,” DOL said. “Additionally, receiving a particular salary, alone, does not indicate that an employee is exempt from overtime and minimum wage protections.”

Regardless of the exemptions the new rule provide, associations are concerned about the ramifications. According to ASAE, more than 250,000 associations submitted comments on the proposed rule to the department last year.

“Because the rule would dramatically expand the number of employees now eligible for overtime pay, associations and other employers could be forced to lay off staff or limit employees’ work outside of core business hours, stinting employees’ career growth and harming productivity,” wrote Chris Vest on June 1 in “Associations Now.”

Additionally, Alex Beall wrote about the new regulations, offering advice from Julia Judish, special counsel with Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP.

“Once the employer has identified which of its currently exempt employees would convert to nonexempt, the employer should start now requiring those employees to do the equivalent of clocking in and clocking out and track their average hours,” Judish said.

As December approaches, we’ll track the new DOL overtime rules and report changes and their implications for nonprofits.

This week’s blog post on online community management is re-posted with permission from Aaron D. Wolowiec,  founder and president of Event Garde, a professional development consulting firm based in Grand Rapids, Mich. Website:


Stakeholder Analysis: The Key to Good Strategy

Stakeholder Analysis: The Key to Good Strategy
Stakeholder audits are a critical component of an ongoing strategy development process. Your organization can profit from stakeholder audits in other ways as well. Stakeholder audits are an imperative component of an issues management program, they are part and parcel of good governance, and they are key to collaboration.

Stakeholder analysis should be undertaken as part of your environmental scanning activity. In addition, such analysis can play an important role in strategy execution, as you seek to align stakeholders with your strategy. Although you may take a “stakeholder management” approach when conducting environmental scanning, a different mindset is suggested for strategy execution. When possible, in strategy execution, the goal is to take a collaborative approach with stakeholders. Ultimately, a mutually defined, reciprocal relationship should be sought.

Stakeholder Identification

The first step is to identify your stakeholders. For purposes of a stakeholder audit, stakeholders are defined as anyone or any organization that could be affected or that could influence your organization or its outcomes. Take an expansive or divergent approach when identifying stakeholders. Early in the process, it is important to identify all of your stakeholders. It is often helpful to take a systems approach.

Stakeholder Identification Systems Approach

Stakeholder Analysis

Once you have identified all of your stakeholders, it is time to conduct an analysis of the stakeholders. Make a determination to use either (or both) qualitative or quantitative analyses. Likewise, you will want to engage in both primary research and secondary research. The types of stakeholders and your current relationships with them, along with your ultimate research goal, will dictate the research methodology you employ. The objectives of the research are to: gain an understanding of their influence, determine their needs, determine their concerns and issues, assess their level of commitment or resistance, and understand their perceptions of your organization.

When evaluating the influence of stakeholders, take into consideration their constituencies, credibility and capacity. You will also want to consider whom they are connected to.

A complete analysis also takes an inward view. You will want to give consideration to what you want from each stakeholder. Finally, you will want to make a determination of the importance each stakeholder represents to your organization.

Stakeholder Prioritization

Relative importance and influence are two key elements generally considered when engaging in stakeholder prioritization. The following matrix can be used to map stakeholders and determine their priority level.

Stakeholder Audit Priority Matrix

Protect: This quadrant contains stakeholders that are considered to be very important to your organization, but they do not have a lot of influence. As such, it will be important to pay particular attention to the group to make sure that their interests are protected and considered as strategy is developed. In fact, you may want to make sure they are well represented at any strategy development think tank.

Good Relations: You will want to make sure that you develop a close and constructive working relationship with this group. If engaged properly, these stakeholders can have a significant multiplier effect on your strategy execution and programs. They are considered to be high priority stakeholders.

Monitor: These stakeholders wield significant influence, but they are not very important to the organization. As such, they can be a source of risk to the organization. In the strategy development process, it is important that you recognize the potential risk and consider risk scenarios.

Low Priority: These stakeholders are of relatively low importance to the organization and do not carry much influence.

The priority level classification of each stakeholder is taken into consideration as strategy is developed. Priority levels are also fed into an issues management program.

In summary, the primary goal is to take a collaborative approach with stakeholders, especially those in the “protect” and “good relations” categories. This demands a mindset wherein you consider the stakeholders as sources of opportunity and competitive advantage. On the other hand, some stakeholders, such as those in the “monitor” category, could present risks and, therefore, require a stakeholder management approach to ensure that you mitigate the potential negative impact.

In today’s rapidly changing environment, it is important that you engage in a comprehensive stakeholder audit every 12 to 18 months. Most importantly, it is critical that you begin with an all-inclusive list of stakeholders; taking a systems approach to stakeholder identification can help ensure you are considering all potential stakeholders.

How do you engage stakeholders in the strategy development process?