7 Ways Your Association Can Improve Its Renewal Dues Collection Process

7 Ways Your Association Can Improve Its Renewal Dues Collection Process

Sweating through his pale-yellow shirt, Todd reluctantly shuffles his way into the meeting room. He lo-o-o-a-a-thes this time of year. Dreads it. Would like to be doing anything but reminding members to pay.

Caty is late with her dues … again. Not a peep from Mark since the renewal period began. Amy said she’d bring her payment to tonight’s meeting — but she also said that 3 meetings ago.

No doubt collecting dues is about as much fun as getting a tooth pulled. The good news? There are ways to make the renewal process much more effective and efficient — and way less painful.

Having worked with so many professional and trade associations for nearly 20 years, we’ve seen many renewal campaigns. Some highly-effective. Others not so much.

One thing is certain: those that do work share common elements — and those tactics can be easily replicated.

Tip #1: Review past renewal performance

Take a look at your last renewal period. Run a list of members that were up for renewal, then note when members renewed.

Did most members renew after your first email notice was sent? After an announcement was made during a group meeting? After the second email notice, or the last?

Make adjustments to your communication plan based on what you find. For example, if most members renew after the last notice goes out, and you would like more upfront renewals, make improvements. Consider adding incentives and highlighting benefits in your other notices and communication channels.

Tip #2: Clear up ALL roadblocks

Be sure to look at the data in its entirety. Think back to the last campaign.

Why was Caty late with her payment, as she is every renewal period? Maybe Caty doesn’t check her email regularly. Maybe sending reminders through another channel, like text messaging, would be better for her.

Why did Amy keep forgetting to bring her payment to the meetings? Perhaps offering different ways to pay online would be more convenient for her versus remembering to bring in cash or a check.

All circumstances and scenarios should be factored into how you design your renewal campaign going forward.

Tip #3: Review payment methods

While there are organizations that accept check and cash, utilizing online methods to take payment should be used, or at the very least, considered.

Not only is taking payments online quicker and less work for your association or organization’s treasurer, it’s much more convenient for members.

Many of the associations we work with utilize the 123Signup online membership applications for taking credit card payments for renewals. These webpages can be styled to match your organization’s brand and integrated with your website for a seamless member experience.

Once you have the renewal webpage set up, you can include the link in your email reminders. Having an online payment method for your renewals gives members an easy way to renew and pay online whenever is most convenient for them.

Tip #4: Consider an incentive for renewals

To expedite renewals, consider adding an incentive such as a discount.

Through 123Signup, you can create membership promotion codes with a fixed discount (a flat amount) or a percentage discount  to be applied to the total. You can also control the total number of times a code can be used, which member types are eligible to use the code, and you can limit the dates the code can be used.

Tip #5: Develop a communication plan and stick to it

Don’t let this overwhelm you. A communication plan is simply a plan in writing of what communications you’ll send and when. It’s proven that the more the information about a renewal dues period is communicated — whether in person or online — the smoother and quicker the process.

Tip #6: Include the option to renew membership while signing up for an event

123Signup’s integrated registration and renewals functionality allows you to include a membership renewal option on your event signup forms — making it simple for members to register for an event, and at the same time, pay their dues.

Tip #7: Set up automated email renewal reminders

While you never want to annoy your members, it’s a fact that many simply forget to renew, or need an extra nudge beyond the meeting announcement, making it worth sending a series of email reminders.

Most associations we work with send 3-4 renewal reminders.

If you don’t have a good association management software that automates this task for you, it’s a good reason to investigate low-cost technology options that will enable you to set up a series without further work or intervention.

Through 123Signup Association Management software, you can set up a series of emails with specific messages to be sent at specific time periods of your choosing.

You can create as many templates as you’d like and further customize your messaging by creating templates for each member type. For example, your message to your student members may differ from your message to regular members.

We’ve found that organizations that combine in-person announcements with automated email renewal reminders to expiring members run the most effective membership renewal campaigns.

123… Takeaway!

It’s coming. A great big bear hug from your treasurer. (Fill in your treasurer’s name here) is much happier these days since improving the renewal dues collection process.

Whether you use one or all 7 of these tips, you’re bound to improve your renewal dues collection process — and make your treasurer, and members’ lives, a bit brighter.


Organizational Assessments For Associations: A Step-By-Step Guide

Organizational Assessments For Associations: A Step-By-Step Guide
Assessing your organization’s strengths and weaknesses along with the barriers to achieving your goals is an essential – yet often overlooked – step on the path to growing your membership. Be warned: you won’t like everything you see. That’s a good thing because it will help you identify where you need to improve.

First, start off by asking yourself questions like:

Resist the urge to jump to conclusions based on what you think you know about your association. Making assumptions can create disconnect between what you believe is valuable to members, and what actually is valuable.

Understanding how well your association is meeting the needs of its members and fulfilling its mission requires time, research, objectivity, and long-term commitment.

Assessing Your Organization: How to Perform a Thorough Evaluation of Your Business


1. Write out your mission statement.

This will remind you of your organization’s core purpose. Later, you will compare how your mission statement aligns with the benefits and programs you offer, and your members’ needs.

2. Make a list of all of your current services, programs, and benefits.

Rank the most valuable benefit as “#1” and continue from there. What is the unique selling point for each of them? What sets your organization apart from your competitors? Note the answers to these questions next to each benefit.

3. Audit your information management processes.

All the things that happen behind the scenes can have a huge impact on your customer service and overall performance.

For a week or two, every time you feel yourself getting frustrated by a time-consuming task or you’re having a hard time accessing needed information, write it down. Get all of your staff members to do the same. When you put all of the information together, you should be able to see some obvious aspects of your processes that need improvement.  Issues with finding information about your members quickly, or needing to update the same information in several different places could mean you may need to improve your membership management process.

4. Crunch your numbers.

Good data should be the foundation of your decision-making process. If you have decent member management software, you should be able to get the information you need fairly quickly. If not, you may need to estimate for the time being.

5. Analyze your Membership Stats.

Compare your membership statistics from the past two years. You could go back even further if you have access to significant historical information. Looking at trends over time can be very useful. For starters, record the following data segmented by membership type:

6. Research your competitors.

Go through this process as a prospective member would. Search online for other competing organizations as well as employers or companies that offer similar products or services for free or at a lower cost. Compare benefits individually and also consider how your packages stack up to your competitors.

TIP: Track and compare benefits and costs on a spreadsheet. Determine your 3 to 5 most valuable and unique products. If you discover that some of your products don’t seem as valuable as those offered by your competitors, make a note of how you can improve or enhance those products.

7. Define your business objectives.

Once you have a better understanding of your strengths and weaknesses and how you stack up to your competitors, you can define your goals and objectives. Are you looking to expand your market share? Expand into new markets? Increase your revenue? Increase participation and engagement?

Your objectives will ultimately guide the way you shape your membership structure, pricing, and marketing efforts. For this reason, carefully assessing your organization with your business objectives in mind is undoubtedly worth taking the time to do.


Assessing a Governance System

Assessing a Governance System
Before you begin to redesign your governance system, invest adequate time in analyzing your current system. After all, this is what Einstein would do!

Einstein has been quoted as having said “if I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes. In other words, he would spend significant time figuring out what the problem is.

If your current governance system isn’t performing up to par, it’s important to understand why not. Depending on what the “real” problems are, the solutions may lie in making actual structural changes (reformulating the committee structure or size of board, for example) or they may lie in changing the practices the board engages in (agenda design or meeting design, for example). Investing the time to adequately define and redefine the problem will:

Although a problem might be complex, the processes used to solve a problem are not complex. The first step is properly defining the problem and this begins with challenging assumptions and breaking the problem down to ensure you are focused on the root problem.


Determining the root cause(s) of an underperforming or ill performing governance system is one of the first steps in governance system redesign. Often what is first identified is a symptom of the problem, not the root cause. As such, it is important to challenge one’s assumptions and not get “locked” into the first “problem” that is identified.

When analyzing a governance system, two methodologies are useful: Ishikawa Diagram and Toyoda’s 5 Whys.

Ishikawa Diagram

An Ishikawa Diagram takes a systems approach to problem identification. The diagram is used to identify all possible root cause categories, under which actual root causes are listed. This approach forces one to consider all of the different parts of the governance system as one analyzes the problem.

An Ishikawa Diagram looks like a fish skeleton, with the initial problem being the head and possible root cause categories represented by the rib bones, under which root causes are listed. The illustration below uses lack an underperforming board as the initial problem, and then identifies six possible root cause categories, which become the rib bones of the diagram. Actual potential root causes are then listed along each rib bone. A more comprehensive list of root categories for governance system analysis is provided further below.

Five Step Process

Governance Ishidawa Diagram


As mentioned above, the Ishikawa process starts with brainstorming all of the potential root cause categories. These are comprised of all of the parts of the “system.” Following is a list of root cause categories for governance issues. All or some of these may apply to your organization. You can use this list as a starting place to identify additional root cause categories that are applicable in your situation as you build out your Ishikawa Diagram.

Toyoda’s 5 Whys

Toyoda’s 5 Whys is a very simple method to identify root causes. It can be used alone or in conjunction with the fishbone technique illustrated above. When a problem arises, ask why and for each response to the question ask why again until the why question has been asked at least five times.

Applying the 5 whys methodology to our problem of having a board that is a non-strategic thinking entity, the questions might look like this:

Q: Why doesn’t the Board think Strategically?

A: Because the are always digging into short-term tactics

Q: Why are they always discussing short-term tactics?

A: Because these issues are perceived to be important by the Board

Q: Why are these issues important to the Board?

A: Because they believe it is the role and responsibility of the Board to discuss and act on these issues

Q: Why does the Board believe this is their role and responsibility?

A: Because they don’t know another way

Q: Why doesn’t the Board know another way?

A: Because we don’t have a governance / Board development program

Using this example, we see the real problem is not that the Board isn’t thinking strategically, it is that we don’t have a formalized training / development program for our Board members. Of course, each group (or reader) will answer these questions differently; the point is to engage in the process to dig deeper into the actual root problem.


Spending time to make sure that you have defined the problem(s) correctly is imperative to governance system redesign. On a very basic level, it ensures that you are focusing on the right problem and creates a high level of probability that the right solution(s) will be developed. Further, working on the problem identification process with a Governance Task Force builds consensus around the actual (root) problem(s). Finally, engaging in robust problem identification reveals information and knowledge that will inform the development of solutions and governance redesign.

Of course, it is also critical that you and your board have a thorough understanding of what good governance looks like as well as the appropriate roles and responsibilities of a high performing board. Likewise, it is helpful to create a vision of what a high performing board would look like for your organization so you can redesign toward that vision.

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


Best Association Management Practice #1: Dream

Best Association Management Practice #1: Dream

There are a lot of association management practices and general management theories focused on advancing organizations, but, when it comes down to it, if you want to propel your organization to the next level: dare to dream. This thought was crystalized for me when, going around the room at the end of a board leadership development session I conducted, a board member said the most important thing he heard all day was “dare to dream.” Dream not about what is, but about what’s possible.

In order to dream effectively, one must be willing to challenge their own assumptions, be open to letting go of long held beliefs and practices, and have the courage to challenge the status quo. Of course, to ultimately lead change, one must also be willing to challenge the assumptions of others, in an appropriate manner, and embrace calculated risk taking.

Give yourself permission to dream about the possible. Let go of your fear and imagine what could be. Once you have formulated your vision, develop a strategy to get there and articulate the vision and strategy with clarity. In the end, it is not just about daring to dream, it is about daring to do things differently.

For even bigger dreams, create a board culture wherein the board as a whole dares to dream. Engaging your board in generative dialogue will add value to the organization and the board member’s experience, as well as build trust and free members to collectively create a dream that no one member may have envisioned alone.


Dreams do come true. This is especially true if you believe in them. It’s time to dream of what could be if your organization is at a transformational moment. It is also time to dream if everything is running smoothly and you’re experiencing a high level of comfort with what is. Remember, comfort with what is can be the enemy and often holds us back from achieving what could be.

So, if you want to add member value, create relevancy, transform your governance system, create growth, or strengthen the CEO – Board partnership, dream about what could be and then dare to do things differently.

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


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.


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.


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


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.


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


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.


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].


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:


Increasing Board Engagement for Better Governance

Increasing Board Engagement for Better Governance
Good governance demands that boards are engaged. An engaged board is a board that spends most of its time actively engaging in dialogue that explores big issues that really matter to the organization. High-performing boards engage in framing issues, asking (the right) questions, and considering options. They engage in critical and creative thinking as they explore issues.

Have you ever left a board meeting where it seems that majority of the board meeting was spent on listening to reports or presentations and conducting perfunctory business? Have you ever left a board meeting doubting that the meeting really added value to the organization? Or left concerned that some of the board members might be wondering why they even spent their valuable time going to the meeting?

If so, it is likely that your board is not actively engaged in a good governance sense.

Active engagement doesn’t “just happen.” If you want board members to actively and effectively engage in dialogue (around the right issues), you need to spend time designing a meeting/experience that encourages, welcomes and facilitates dialogue around the right issues.

If you are serious about increasing board member engagement, the first step is to evaluate the current level of board member engagement. Examine your last few board agendas and think back over the last year to calculate what portion of the board meetings were spent in true dialogue about big issues. Then, set a goal for where you want to be in a year or two’s time. In calculating where you want to be, keep in mind your Board’s culture and determine if the incremental change or revolutionary change makes more sense.

Once you determine where you want to be, develop a change management strategy to get there. Early on in the process, you will want to engage in dialogue with the chairperson and other key board members. Ultimately, it will be important to gain the support for the transition. In my experience, it is helpful to present the concept in a positive light; you are looking to enhance the performance of the board, rather than fix any problem.

As I mentioned in How to Create a Strategic Thinking Board, agenda design is key to increasing board engagement. However, in designing a highly engaged board meeting, you need to think beyond the agenda itself.

Rich dialogue is more apt to occur if there if there is a strong sense of “team” amongst the board members, and the board members feel comfortable working and contributing to the team effort. The challenge that most organizations face is that board members are only together three to four times a year, so there is little opportunity to build relationships. As such, a priority should be placed on including a social event in conjunction with each board meeting.

If you can inject a little bit of fun into the social event, so much the better. Again, be guided by the culture of your board or the culture you want to develop. Your social event could be a dinner or reception the night before the meeting. Or it could be an evening of bowling. As far as receptions, I have held them at the association office, on a boat, in a restaurant/hotel, and in a celebrity’s house. If you are going to hold a dinner, especially if you have a large board, try to precede it with a reception where the members can more freely mingle. If you do hold a dinner, especially if you have a large board, use rounds of no more than eight to facilitate conversation amongst everyone at the table.

Consideration must also be given to the type and quantity of information you provide the board prior to the meeting. In making the decision on what information to provide for the “big issue” discussion(s), ask yourself, will this information inspire robust dialogue or will it stifle creative thinking and critical thought? In considering what background information to provide, keep in mind that your goal is to get the board to engage in a divergent conversation, not a convergent one.

You will want to provide data and information that provides a 360-degree view, including opposing points or options for the board to consider. At all costs, you don’t want to provide one viewpoint or a recommendation. In deciding what information to provide, you want to protect against anchoring. Anchoring is when a board or board member locks onto an idea or piece of information upfront and uses that information as the basis for future judgments, which then stifles divergent thought. In my experience, less information is usually better than more. It is also important that the information you provide the board doesn’t inadvertently frame the issue before the meeting. Although it might be uncomfortable for some, ambiguity in the information can be a good thing. Of course, the issue or topic will also drive the selection of background material.

Selecting the right topic is key to raising the governance bar. You want to make sure that the topic is something that really matters and is of strategic import. Selection should not occur in a vacuum. Use your committees and the board itself to identify topics. Likewise, you can review your strategy and conduct environmental scans to identify big issues. In fact, a good way to begin your journey to a more engaged board might be to engage the board in a high-level discussion about what issues could be of strategic import. These issues could then be prioritized and fully explored at future meetings.

When it comes to the design of the meeting itself, it is important that the big issue discussions take place at the beginning of the meeting while the board members are still fresh. It is also important that you are explicit about the guidelines and objective(s) of the dialogue in which the board will partake.

First, the board needs to understand that the purpose of the dialogue is to engage in divergent thinking. It should be clear that the purpose is not to make a decision, rather, it is to creatively explore an issue from as many viewpoints as possible for the purpose of surfacing ideas, not decisions. This requires that individual members actively listen with an open mind to what is being said. People have a tendency to judge what is being said and be thinking about how they are going to respond to a comment; in active listening, no judgment is being made. Instead, the listener is trying to gain an understanding of what the speaker is saying.

Board members should also strive to ask questions, rather than make statements. What would have to happen for that to be true? What does that mean for us? Is there another way to look at that? What information would we have to know to make the best decision on this issue? Does this really advance our mission? Are we asking the right question(s)? What principles should we consider as we dialogue about this? Who does this issue impact? What would they think about the issue? What could be the unintended consequences? How could we frame this differently?

Above all, board members must actively challenge their individual assumptions and those of the group at large. They must also actively seek out opposing views and data that supports opposing views. This requires a willingness to look at issues from different perspectives and an openness to consider the different viewpoints as being right. Depending on the issue, you might consider periodically inviting non-board members, who bring a totally different perspective, to participate in big issue discussions.

Next, a decision needs to be made regarding the format of the discussion. I have found that breaking the board into small groups is very effective. In addition to visually sending a message that “we are doing something different,” breakouts help protect against groupthink and increase the probability that all of the board members actively engage in the dialogue. Depending on what you are trying to accomplish, you might assign all groups to the same issue or question to explore or provide each breakout group with a different issue or question. Either way, after the breakouts, the board returns and each group presents their findings. This is not the end of the dialogue, however.

Once the groups have reported back, the full board should be encouraged to challenge the findings and further dialogue on the issue. Again, the board should be encouraged to ask questions in favor of making statements and challenge the assumptions of the smaller group. One technique that I have used is to have the board think about how many ways the assumptions, concepts or conclusions of the small group could be wrong.

I would advise against using breakout sessions at all meetings. It is important that you vary dialogue methods from time to time to limit the probability of board fatigue with a particular practice. Again, ask yourself if a particular issue or set of issues is better explored in a large group or small group environment.

In summary, high-performance governance demands a high level of board member engagement. Achieving a high level of engagement requires intentionality and design thought. It is also only achieved if all of the board members engage, which, at times, requires a skilled chairperson, facilitator or discussion leader. Transitioning to this level of engagement may require the application of change management techniques and is often more effectively accomplished through incremental change. It also requires setting aside board procedural formalities and creating a retreat type environment.

Finally, it is important to monitor the implementation and success of your engagement effort(s). After each board meeting, survey the board to find out what they liked best and least about the methods used. In the beginning of your journey to a higher engaged board, you could also survey the board to get their ideas on how engagement could be increased and to determine their perception of the then current level of engagement.

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