Monday, July 18, 2011

Those Who Understand Your Members Best Aren't on Your Board

I have a hard time keeping up with the blogs that I follow. I use an RSS reader to keep an eye on them all, and each day I go through the new items there and do a quick triage. Each one gets a thirty-second scan: (1) Nope, not interested. [Delete]; or (2) Hmmm, that's interesting and it's short. I'll read it right now; or (3) Oh man, that's going to require some thought and some processing. I'll flag that and get back to it later.

One that recently fell into that third category was Joe Rominiecki's Acronym post on What good is governance without influencers?, which was based on Maggie McGary's post on Influence in the Context of Associations. They're both discussing the rise on online and non-traditional influencers in associations, and how these thought leaders and the followers they attract are changing the leadership dynamic in our community. Maggie asks:

[A]s time goes by and more of your members begin interacting in the online community, a new group of influencers will grow out of those interactions. Meanwhile, traditional influencers—board and committee members—will become less visible and, therefore, less influential and important, at least to members. Will you know when this change occurs, or will you be stuck in thinking the wrong people matter the most?

I see this change taking place in my own life and in the associations I'm affiliated with. I wrote about it here, and called it "networking in a box." Associations want to keep members connected within their own "boxes," but more and more the borderless online world is allowing people to create and leverage their own networks that don't follow any pre-existing association lines--which are, to the concern of the pre-existing associations, all the stronger and more powerful for it.

Joe speculates that associations should work to bring the online influencers in the lives of their members into the leadership of the organization, but struggles to identify a mechanism for doing so. I sympathize. To many non-traditional influencers, I would imagine that the structure and hierarchy of formal association leadership would seem like shackles compared to the freedom of association they currently enjoy online. They will naturally reject the idea of being locked up in anybody's box.

I think traditional boards are growing less and less in touch with their respective memberships--and the rise of online influencers is only one of the reasons why. But you know who remain in touch with their membership? Association staff. Especially staff people that naviagate, either as part of their professional responsibilities or personal interests, the same open and unstructured online networks that the influencers do. Joe himself, I'll bet, is much more in tune with what the ASAE members are thinking, than many of the well-intentioned and hard-working folks on the ASAE board.

Does the ASAE board view things this way? Does Joe come in at the start of every board meeting and give a ten-minute update on what's on the mind of the members, of what topics are being discussed in the blogosphere, of which ones seem to resonate with people and which ones don't? Would the board members listen to him if he did?

Maybe it's not a staff person in your association. Maybe it's one of your association members. Maybe it's the editor of one of your industry's trade magazines. Or maybe it's a blogger who has critical things to say about what your association does. Whoever it is, if they are more connected with your membership than your leadership is, you'd better find a way to get their market intelligence into your strategy discussions. And asking them to serve on your board is not going to work. They're not interested.

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Jeffrey Cufaude said...

This was one of the keypoints in Decision to Join, wasn't it? That boards simply are too deeply involved in the organization to see things through the perspective of a typical member, particularly a newer one?

You make a great point about staff that is probably true in most case, but in large associations some staff have much more interaction with the average member while others primarily have interactions with the more engaged and involved members.

Maybe every association needs to have a conversation about who is in touch with what segments of the membership, how, when, etc. As you said, the market intelligence needs to get into the strategy conversations.

Eric Lanke said...

Yes, Jeffrey, that's it. It won't be the same person or people in every association, but most associations can benefit, I think, by bringing knowledge from the "outside" into the board room.

Traci Browne said...

Eric, this is so timely. I recently had my renewal come up for an association and I declined. I give them credit as they reached out to ask why, but when I told them they basically told me I was wrong on all counts. I then asked if my not knowing about any of the options available to me were not a sign of something they might be doing wrong. Or more importantly, if my perception of the lack of networking in any way is more realistic than them thinking they have the best networking in the industry.

I have come to the point where I am letting all my association/industry memberships lapse and will not be renewing any of them until they can prove they provide a value to me I cannot get elsewhere.

Joe Rominiecki said...

Thanks for continuing this discussion, Eric. I have to admit, the phrasing of the title of your post immediately raises the following question in my mind: "If those who understand your members best aren't on your board, then why even have a board? What's the point?"

Obviously the issue is more complicated than that, but that's the underlying question that keeps arising in my mind around this issue of "influencers," which is why I suggested that it really cuts to the core of association governance itself.

Your suggestion that staff might fill the gap is an interesting one. My initial reaction to your use of me as a hypothetical was that I don't see myself as knowing the most about our members. Thinking about it some more, though, I'm not sure if any one person on our staff could claim that title of "knowing the most about our members." And I'd guess that's the case at most associations. How does any one person try to understand the thoughts and beliefs and wants and needs of hundreds or thousands of people?

And that question can apply to online influencers as well. Their influence can't be denied, but I'd guess that even the most influential outsiders still have their blind spots. They have connections among a broad portion of members but likely not all of them.

So this all comes back to finding "a way to get their market intelligence into your strategy discussions." If we accept that capacity of a board of directors to be in touch is naturally limited, then it has to be a priority to inform them as well as possible by channeling knowledge to them from wherever it might originate.

Eric Lanke said...

Thanks for the comment, Traci. You sound like an association's worst nightmare. Can I ask what generation you are?

Eric Lanke said...


One of the things I'm pushing back against is the assumption that Board members are intrinsically in sync with their members and that their decisions are therefore naturally the best decisions an association can make. I'll bet that most association professionals can point to examples (in their own associations or those of their colleagues) where the Board members are completely out of touch with the members, and yet their decisions are given great deference. Indeed, action often doesn't take place until the Board blesses it (and can therefore blamed if something goes wrong).

Staff knowledge is likely not the panacea for this dynamic, but the larger point (as you correctly restate) is finding a way to get the right market intelligence into the strategy discussion, and that, I think, is something staff can help with tremendously.

The Board members are always going to be shooting from the hip, interjecting and basing decisions on their own impressions on what is going on. That's unavoidable and sometimes helpful. But it is rarely enough to ensure that an association makes the right decisions. Staff should be tasked with bringing actionable intelligence to each Board meeting. The Board can help define what that intelligence should be, but collecting and reporting it is a necessary staff function.

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