Archive for August, 2021

Develop a Volunteer Corps That’s Built to Last

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Association volunteers are more engaged and fulfilled when they’re growing with the organization, not just filling chairs. One model proposes how staff can help them do that.

If you devote any amount of time to the care and feeding of volunteer leaders, eventually you’re going to confront a matrix. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s a good practice for associations to determine which skills it needs from potential volunteers and to codify those needs in a way that’s clear and visible.

But matrices, if not managed well, can turn people into widgets. An association may simplistically plug people into slots to fill immediate needs, when what it needs are people willing to make long-term commitments. And that requires a better understanding of your volunteer pool. “Associations usually ask what a volunteer wants to do but not why they want to do it,” Sarah Garrity recently wrote as part of a fine four-part series at Billhighway on leading volunteers.

Associations usually ask what a volunteer wants to do but not why they want to do it.

The series focuses on a volunteer model developed by Peggy Hoffman, FASAE, CAE, president of Mariner Management, and Kristine Metter, CAE, founder of Crystal Lake Partners. Like most matrices, their model is built on competencies that the association needs for different roles at the organization, from first-time chapter volunteer to board member. But it’s constructed from the assumption that volunteers want an ongoing relationship with the association, building competencies in one area before moving up to the next. Hoffman and Metter have developed a toolkit (PDF) laying out the steps.

The system is gratifying and transparent for the volunteers, who know what’s expected of them and don’t have to scratch their heads and wonder how they’ll get there. (That is, how to get there in ways that don’t require schmoozing. If schmoozing is required, it’s clear your leadership ladder is a little rickety.) The system is a kind of modified choose-your-own-adventure approach: Volunteers identify where they want to go (self-assessments can be handy for this), which helps the association identify appropriate roles, guiding them from ad hoc tactical tasks to more long-term strategic ones.

One important insight that Hoffman and Metter share is that the association has to put some effort into figuring out how to get its volunteer pool prepared to do the kind of work it needs. They propose that associations draw up scenarios of likely volunteers, their competencies, and what skills they’ll require to fill volunteer roles. From there, the association can determine what kind of training to provide for those volunteers. You can’t assume that a mid-career professional and new volunteer who wants a board seat just naturally knows how to read a financial statement—or knows that being able to do so is an important qualification for board work. These folks need to be trained up.

But—and this is an important point too—“training up” is a two-way street. Just as volunteers ought to have skill sets that fit into a matrix, so should the association staffers working with the volunteers.

“The role of committee liaison comes with many association jobs, often as ‘other duties as assigned,’” Garrity writes. “But rarely does an association recognize and help staff develop the unique competencies required for this role.” A “membership ambassador” might be charged with answering immediate questions and getting to know volunteers’ goals, while other staffers would emphasize the leadership training that helps those volunteers rise into more strategic roles.

In other words, it’s a fair amount of work, for volunteers and association staffers alike. But then, so is laboring to imperfectly slot new volunteers into committee roles year after year as other dissatisfied volunteers drift off and question their engagement with your association. Volunteer contributions are essential to an association’s success, and it’s worth the effort to make that experience as valuable for them as possible.

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A Look at Safety, Budget and Costs for Meetings in the Current Environment

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At a recent webinar on getting back to in-person meetings, experts offered tips on communicating safety protocols, budgeting for hybrid, and pricing your meeting as associations try to adjust to the changing landscape of the pandemic.

As the pandemic continues to shift and new variants arise, meeting planners are figuring out which strategies will work best for meetings, especially those with in-person components as rules constantly change. Panelists at the recent AMC Institute webinar, “Navigating the Journey Back to In-Person Meetings and Events,” offered thoughts on dealing with safety protocols, budgets, and pricing.

Sarah Timm, CAE, president and CEO of Parthenon Management Group, noted that in addition to following federal and local safety protocols, communicating those protocols to attendees is crucial.

“We are having all of our groups sign a COVID code of conduct at the time that they register, which basically says they will attest to live by the standards that we put out there,” Timm said. “Usually six weeks prior to the event, we lay out the protocols for the event. We are telling them exactly what to expect when they arrive onsite, what they should expect with food and beverage with their arrival, as well as what we are expecting from them: If we are expecting masks, if social distancing, what those things are looking like, so they can be prepared.”

While assuring attendees of safety protocols is helpful, it’s also important that meeting staff feel comfortable, said Phelps Hope, vice president of meetings at Kellen.

“We turned to staff, and said, ‘This is what we’re doing. You are not obligated to be there if you are not comfortable with it,’” Hope said. “We’ve had a half a dozen meetings since April, and we’ve had cases where staff just were not comfortable traveling yet. Yet, we had other staff who were very comfortable. We simply switched folks out, but we also, in one case, brought in some local support that we normally wouldn’t hire.”

Matching Budget to Goals

Beyond safety protocols, panelists said budgeting for events in this environment has been tough. Many planners are trying to figure out the costs for hybrid for the first time and whether that will fit within their allotted budgets.

John Rissi, senior vice president for customer and industry relations at event production company Encore, suggested talking to the experts early on about what your budget can accomplish.

“We tell clients, for that kind of budget, here’s what we can provide and here’s what you can expect,” Rissi said. He said asking for three meeting scenarios around your budget—good, better, best—can provide a feel for what can be achieved.

Timm agreed. “We are working on a meeting in Florence, Italy, coming up in early 2022,” she said. “What they thought would fit in their budget—they were able to do so much more. It is all about working with the venue to get prices and things sorted out very early. Not every session has to be livestreamed. Figure out what sessions do [and] what don’t for the virtual attendees.”

Michael Dominguez, president and CEO of Associated Luxury Hotels International, added that costs can come down if planners focus on the goals of the meeting rather than the bells and whistles that can be purchased.

“I’ve seen too many people that are buying a Ferrari when they only needed a Honda,” he said. “I’ve heard this: ‘Virtual is expensive, and how much is it going to cost me?’ That’s like asking me, how much is dinner going to cost? Where are we going, and what are we going to order? Because that really does have a difference in the pricing. Again, we’re not asking the right questions. What are you trying to accomplish?”

Rissi noted that prices for some services may even come down, as staffing levels begin to recalibrate after huge reductions early in the pandemic.

“Before, we were turning down work; we just didn’t have enough people to execute it,” Rissi said. “The thought was, we have to charge a premium because we just don’t have the resources. I think you’re probably going to see some of the prices coming down because we have people now available, and we are not stretched so thin.”

The discussion also touched briefly on how to price events. Organizations held many free meetings in 2020, but the panelists noted free doesn’t work fiscally. When contemplating the right price, focus on value.

“Pricing is based on the establishment of value,” Hope said. “What are we offering, and what value does it offer to that audience? That is the process we go through rather than just saying, ‘Oh yeah, add up your costs, tack on 20 percent, and you’re good to go.’”

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Membership Pro Tip: Foster Better Engagement and Networking

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A helpful and popular added benefit gives members a more in-depth and time-saving connection to their professions—and their peers.

Giving members dedicated content for specialized areas gives them a deeper connection to their professions beyond the big picture, says Melanie Claus, membership director at the Association of Energy Engineers.

AEE offers members “divisions,” which are like special communities geared just for them, as an added member benefit.

How Does It Work?

Each division offers opportunities to get extra member benefits and publications that tie into specific areas of business and gives members the research they need so they don’t have to search for it on their own.

For example, a big initiative for AEE has been to increase the minority presence in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) community. One division, the Council on Women in Energy & Environmental Leadership, provides a network for women in the energy and environmental industries so they can help support career development for professional women and mentor aspiring women to pursue technical education and careers in those fields.

“Each of the divisions makes it easier for our members to find like-minded individuals who have a background in those specific areas of business,” Claus says.

Why Is It Effective?

AEE has positioned itself as a central resource. Members are already familiar with the group, and they know its content and research are reliable and worth their time. Giving members additional resources that are relevant to a project they are working on, like emerging updates on new initiatives by the government or areas where they might be able to get funding, has increased engagement and networking among members.

What’s the Benefit?

It saves members time because they don’t have to conduct their own research, and it also fosters connections with other professionals in their areas of expertise. For AEE, it helps with engagement overall. “When people are involved with multiple divisions of AEE, they’re more likely to be more involved in the main activities as well,” Claus says. “Because they know that who they’re networking with can help them for the long haul.”

Do you have a membership pro tip? Please share in the comments or send me an email.

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Good Reads You Might Have Missed: Emotional Intelligence

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The queen of soft skills is an essential element for leaders to cultivate. Get some pointers from our archives on how to get emotionally smarter.

Tough times call for a strong understanding of your own emotions, and the emotions of others, when making decisions.

So perhaps the trials of the past year-plus are why emotional intelligence (EQ) has been top of mind for many association execs recently.. With remote work and virtual meetings posing a challenge to interpersonal dynamics and communication, it’s worth getting a grasp on the EQ discussion. Here are a few starting points from our archives:

Why Emotional Intelligence Is the 21st-Century Skill Employees Need. Valerie Keels, the head of office services at GAVI Alliance, makes the case for emotional intelligence as a counterpart to artificial intelligence—and as a quality that many leaders require. “Individuals with well-developed EI tend to have a higher sense of personal well-being, satisfaction, and contentment, as well as better interpersonal relationships,” she writes.

Harnessing the Power of Emotional Intelligence as a Leadership Skill. In this recent article, Sheila Amo, chief administrative officer for the American Association of University Women, breaks down ways that EI translates to authentic leadership. “In the last 18 months, the most successful leaders have recognized the importance of authentic engagement and harnessed its power when relating to their staff, membership, and additional stakeholders,” she writes.

For CEOs, It’s an Era of High Expectations About Soft Skills. This analysis highlights a recent study from WE Communications showing that a strong focus on results is starting to fade in favor of a broader purpose—with 89 percent of leaders saying that they “believe purpose is becoming as important as financial results.” The piece offers a lot of food for thought, contextualizing it within the 2021 news cycle.

Recharge Your EQ Before Heading Back to the Office. Executive coaches and KickStart Your Edge leaders Jenn Barley and Karen Sullivan break down the role EQ can play in an office comeback. “We have new perceptions of our work environment, our culture, our coworkers, and the meaning of work-life balance,” they write. “The good news: We can use our emotional intelligence to assess those perceptions, rebuild connections, create opportunity, and avoid falling back on comfortable, but bad, old habits.”

Three Ways Emotional Intelligence Can Help Leaders Lead. This piece, highlighting a recent presentation at the 2021 ASAE Annual Meeting, discusses the value of working with an organization’s leadership to improve their emotional intelligence. “Such assessments aren’t meant to box people into rigid personality types,” blogger Mark Athitakis explains. “Rather, they help explain why others might respond the way they do, which helps reduce conflict.”


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A Surge in Members Is Great, But How Do You Keep Them?

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Figuring out how to hold on to a record number of new members sounds like a good problem, but it requires a long-game strategy. The American Nurses Association shared tips during #ASAE21 about its success in crisis—and how to sustain it.

Crises are not one-offs. They never stop and—just to make it interesting—you rarely get a heads-up on when the next one will strike. This is why it’s good to always be prepared.

The American Nurses Association, like everyone else, had no idea what would happen when the pandemic hit, but a strong existing organizational foundation helped them innovate on the fly and meet member needs in a crisis.

“You can’t react quickly in a crisis if you don’t have the underlying infrastructure in place,” said Carol Cohen, CAE, ANA’s director of membership development. “If you’re trying to build that infrastructure during the crisis, you’re too late, so prepare for the next crisis by building that foundation.”

ANA’s membership team learned a lot during the pandemic and shared some top lessons in a learning lab, “Transforming a Crisis Into a Membership Growth Opportunity,” at last week’s ASAE Annual Meeting. The strategies guided them through the hardest parts of the crisis and will galvanize them against the next storm. “While the COVID pandemic was probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience, there will almost certainly be other types of crises that we will face as association professionals,” Cohen said.

ANA had a decade of steady membership growth—above 5 percent since 2012—and expected that to continue. Then the pandemic hit. Nurses on the frontlines of the crisis needed information, stat. ANA wasted no time developing a COVID-19 webinar series free to all nurses—not just members. (Spoiler alert: The nonmember part is key.) They also repurposed existing webinars to deliver targeted content and then quickly developed new ones to address COVID-19.

This led to an unprecedented surge, with 23,000 new members joining during April and May 2020 alone. ANA capitalized on that access to new members and created a registration process that captured their contact information with an agreement that allowed ANA to reach out to them for more information. But how to sustain that growth?

Play the Long Game

A lot of ANA’s success was due to its rapid-response approach to helping members when they needed the organization most. But they also knew the demand wouldn’t last. Although ANA braced for a hit to retention rates, the group managed to sustain its retention rates at the same levels for all of 2020.

But there were still nurses who could not afford to pay annual renewal rates. One solution? In 2020, ANA accelerated its long-term strategy to drive new members by offering them the ability to make smaller monthly payments, not one larger annual one, which led to a record percentage of nurses who opted to pay monthly.

Playing the long game and thinking ahead is essential for setting yourself up for future success, said Stephen Fox, ANA’s vice president of membership and constituent relations. And that means working on behalf of an entire profession, not just current members. For ANA, doing that in a crisis amplified the value of the association and caught the attention of its prospect bubble.

“There’s an opportunity to specifically connect the relevance of your work to support the profession that benefits the welfare of each person in that profession,” he said. Having high-profile engagement for nonmembers and connecting with the entire market—through free education, or accessible information on the organization’s website—engages the entire profession. This was critical for ANA: It showed both members and nonmembers what ANA could do for them, not only in crisis, but for the long haul.

“Every association must provide a compelling answer to the question: Why should I join?” Fox said. “If you can’t answer that question effectively in a crisis environment, you probably never will.”

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What to Know Before You Travel Again

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As association pros head back on the road, it’s important to understand that things won’t be exactly as you left them.

Plenty of industries have missed business travel over the past 18-plus months. But with associations reliant on making connections at meetings, conferences, and other gatherings, they might be feeling it more than most.

As in-person events pick back up again in this new normal, you might be traveling for the first time in quite a while. And getting back on the horse won’t necessarily be easy.

Nonetheless, people are raring to go. An American Express Travel survey found that 64 percent of respondents were so ready to travel again that they would give up a month of social media to do so.

If you do travel, what should you expect? A few thoughts worth keeping in mind:

Be ready for a mix of new and old rhythms. Flying right now might feel a bit disorienting, but the process is functionally the same … with some updates. That was something Associations Now’s publisher, Karl Ely, CAE, learned during his own return-to-business trip, which he wrote about in June. “Hands free at precheck: Slip in your ID and away you go,” he recalls. “No more license exchange with TSA, and the agent did not require me to show my ticket. That’s an improvement born of necessity.”

Don’t forget your vaccination card. Although proof of vaccination is not required to board most forms of transportation, some public venues (and some meetings) are asking people to verify their vaccination status. It’s even getting picked up at airports, as the security screening program Clear begins to account for it in its offerings. A New York Times piece in June notes that many venues are expecting attendees to carry either proof of vaccination or proof of a recent negative test. “With some destinations, cruise lines, and venues already requiring travelers to provide proof of vaccination against COVID-19, keeping that record is key,” writer Concepción de León explains.

Be aware of inconsistent international travel regulations. If you’re trying to visit another country as part of your travels, now might not be the ideal time—much of the world is in “wait and see” mode. The Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) warned in recent weeks that the inconsistency of border reopenings could dampen any recovery. However, the situation is gradually changing: Recently, Americans were allowed to visit Canada for the first time in more than a year. In comments to Travel Weekly, GBTA CEO Suzanne Neufang emphasized that the industry is aiming for “risk management versus risk elimination in travel.”

Don’t expect rental cars to be easy to find. If you’re flying somewhere, you might be taking an Uber or public transit when you get on the ground, thanks to a rental car shortage that has been going on since at least this spring. (One side effect: the growth of peer-to-peer car-sharing services such as Turo, which have gained popularity in recent months.) This might be a problem for regular business travelers, whose schedules might depend on being able to drive to where they need to be.

Look for a stronger focus on environmental impact. Some travel concerns that were gaining momentum before the pandemic are growing in popularity. A recent study from the marketing resource WARC [subscription] reported that sustainability concerns are increasing—which might lead some travelers to avoid flying, depending on the trip. “The pandemic has given people time to re-evaluate their relationship with travel, and they are now more mindful of the environmental impact,” the report states. A recent Deloitte survey suggests that half of respondents plan to optimize their business travel policies to limit their environmental impact, through measures such as cutting back on frequency. That might also mean a more regional focus for in-person connections.

Don’t be surprised if service is slower than usual. As tough as your association may have had it during the pandemic, your industry’s challenges might pale in comparison to those of the travel industry. The WARC study reported that airlines, hotels, and other arms of the travel industry ran into a trust deficit that many are not yet working to resolve. “During COVID-19, consumers are clear that companies must put people first and profit second,” the study states. “And yet, the sweeping perception among consumers is that the travel industry’s response was precisely the opposite—leaving many consumers feeling betrayed.” The travel industry is working on this, but one challenge it might face is the tight economy and staffing shortfalls—something particularly visible with airport concessions.


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The Key to Better Accountability

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Associations often get mired in the inability to meet particular goals—leading some to play the blame game. According to one expert, the secret to getting a handle on accountability might involve taking a higher-level look at your processes.

When a project goes off the rails, leaders and stakeholders are often eager to point fingers.

But the truth is, if a project has gone wrong, it might just be a sign that your approach to accountability isn’t working.

Accountability was one of many points of discussion in the recent “Association Apocalypse” report from the consulting firm Propel. The report noted, among other things, the ways that accountability often collapses in organizations. According to a Partners in Leadership report cited by Propel, 93 percent of surveyed employees struggled to align their work with an accountability strategy at all.

Part of the reason for that, says Propel Cofounder Jamie Notter, is that the view of accountability is often quite limited—and not really correct.

“I think most associations are still stuck on viewing accountability as blaming people for not doing what they said they could do,” Notter says. “And if you want to blame people for not doing what they said they’re gonna do, that is fine. Just don’t call that accountability.”

Clearing the Air on Accountability

Instead, organizations should treat accountability as a way to ensure that results are happening based on stated goals. The challenge, of course, is that goals often change midstream, leading to confusion and making it hard to figure out how much progress has been made.

One way to manage moving goal posts, as Notter wrote in a recent blog post, is to think in terms of broader models that work across years and can be adjusted as needed. Basically, by considering the work that you’re doing in a long-term context, you can ensure that a project is working in the spirit of a broader model rather than a narrower plan, even if things change in the middle.

“So, stop obsessing over whether your 13-week plan is the exact right plan and just say, ‘Well, this is my model for how we’re going to get there. And then we’ll adjust,’” he says.

To put it another way, accountability should be about the big picture—represented by your overarching model—not just narrower goals.

Don’t Think in Terms of Failure

One thing that can lead to a poor accountability practice is an approach that seems focused on blame rather than organizational results. In this context, Notter says metrics can help lead the way to broader goals. Some organizations will use those metrics to figure out where their weaknesses might be when finishing a project—but there’s a real risk of “having a culture where the metrics are about failure,” as Notter puts it.

“If you get a culture that’s defending whether you’re behind as opposed to learning from when you’re behind, then you’re kind of in trouble,” he says.

Think Systemically

Ultimately, the solution comes from treating accountability as an organizational process in which everyone has a role to ensure that things are working. One way to achieve this is by giving people ownership of specific processes. There’s a real distinction between ownership and blame, Notter notes. He says ownership is a matter of knowing that “someone has got this.”

“Knowing that someone is paying attention to the trajectory of this particular goal does not mean that person is the one in charge, or can be blamed for it,” Notter says.

What it does mean, however, is that someone can help look at the project at a higher level and ensure that it’s moving along, building trust in knowing that someone is owning the process. There’s room for systemic thinking at lower levels as well. One example: Notter and fellow Propel Cofounder Maddie Grant help encourage accountability in their day-to-day tasks by using a software application that flags where in a project something gets “stuck.” The idea is that the lack of completion might be holding up the overall project, but the terminology avoids blame and instead contextualizes the hold-up in the larger scope of the project. If someone missed something, it treats accountability as a systemic issue to solve, so that “stuck” gets unstuck and the project keeps moving. Eliminating blame from the process can help move things along, Notter says.


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Leadership Pro Tip: Find Your Thought Leadership Comfort Zone

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The hard part about generating thought leadership content is committing to it and devoting the time it takes to do it right. But leaning hard into your comfort zone might help you speak up.

Leadership isn’t necessarily what you’re doing strategically but how you’re influencing a broader sphere—perhaps within your industry, but also among your colleagues and peers.

Thought leadership is one way to do just that, but it can feel nerve-wracking to put yourself out there in a public medium. One way to make things easier? Lean into a platform you’re already comfortable with—and make it your organization’s vessel for thought leadership.

What’s the Strategy?

A lot of this is on you as a leader to decide. But ultimately, building a content strategy that highlights the way you think could prove a great way to share a message. And when you flex that strategy on a platform that already has your personal stamp, all that’s left to do is to find your thought leadership voice.

That voice could look like a lot of things. Maybe it means posting on social media more, as high-profile business figures such as Richard Branson (and, regrettably, Elon Musk) do; perhaps it’s contributing to a content site driven by other leaders writing for it, along the lines of Forbes; perhaps it’s a podcast. Ultimately, it should create ample opportunities for your organization to tell its story in a more casual, approachable way than, say, a press release.

Why Is It Effective?

For one thing, platform-specific thought leadership content creates an opportunity to set a broader discussion on topics you think the sector should be having while helping build trust in your organization at large.

It could offer potential business benefits as well: Edelman’s 2020 B2B Thought Leadership Impact Study found that 59 percent of decision makers said an organization’s thought leadership could be an effective way to assess an organization’s value when considering a business deal.

Just be mindful that any thought leadership effort you start needs to be built for the long haul. The Edelman study also found that organizations that have been doing it for a while are far more likely to report that it’s an effective way to get your message into the world.

What’s the Potential?

Of course, merely leaning into forums in which you’re comfortable might limit your potential in the thought leadership game, but there are ways around that. Bill Sherman, the chief operating officer of Thought Leadership Leverage, suggests going for a dual approach:

The stuff that’s new you’re going to feel less comfortable with because you’re still thinking about it. The stuff that you’re very familiar with, that’s old hat. What I’d recommend is choose a modality where you’re comfortable if you’re working on new ideas. And then, for the stuff that you’re experienced delivering, you can use a modality which might feel a little bit more of a stretch for you.

By experimenting with new ways to present your thought leadership, you might get better at it over time.


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How to Assess Emerging Risks—and How to Respond

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Integrating risk management into your association’s culture will help you work smarter as your drive toward your mission.

Accomplishing bigger goals with increased efficiency often means taking a risk on new technology, processes or people. It would be great if your association could know the result of every strategic choice in advance. But your association’s strategic documents aren’t a choose-your-own-adventure book you can replay a dozen ways. Assessing your association’s risk tolerance as business and social risks evolve is essential.

First, you must understand your industry’s regulatory and operational landscape. Some industries can tolerate more experimentation. Others, such as healthcare or finance, cannot. Know how innovatively and quickly you can ethically respond as you assess your risk tolerance.

Next, examine the complexity of your organizational structure. How many divergent teams or systems does your association have? The more interconnected your departments or networks, the more likely an adverse event—even a small one—will affect some or all of your association’s operations. Your association’s risk threshold decreases as your departments’ and initiatives’ dependencies increase.

Closely examine how your teams operate. Emerging risks magnify weak or corrupt roles and processes in your organization, in addition to causing other issues. Correct any off-brand practices according to your strategic plan. Your association will tolerate disruptive change better if there are no unacceptable association practices covertly happening.

Observe who makes decisions about risk and reaction. Many organizations have a risk assessment board that regularly meets to review risk factors and plans. Empower everyone in your association—from volunteers to board members—to raise potential risk issues and be taken seriously. The more agile your association is about risk, the more effectively you can respond.

Resolver suggests a few tools for assessing your association’s risk appetite:

  • Know which risk categories would impact your association the most. Prioritize your planned response(s) to them.
  • Set Key Risk Indicators (KRIs) specific to your industry and goals.
  • Create and follow a risk management framework. This document lays out your risk appetite statement, plus who is tasked with responding and how.
  • Integrate risk management into every strategic or operational discussion. Make risk management part of your association’s culture and internal education.

“We all want to work smarter and drive toward our mission,” says Annette Homan, COO for RIMS. “Defining your risk appetite and tolerance—how much adversity your organization can concede—will prepare your teams to quickly adapt to changes.” Associations can choose their adventures just once, but if those choices are made in a risk-tolerant, innovation-minded way, once is enough.


Naylor Association Solutions provides innovative association tools and services for strengthening member engagement and increasing non-dues revenue. Our offerings include member communications, management of live and online meetings and events, online career centers, Association Management Software (AMS) and Member Data Platform (MDP), full-service association management and online learning. A strategic partner to professional and trade associations in the U.S. and Canada, Naylor serves more than 1,700 associations across 80+ industries. For more information, visit


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Why Updated Membership Models Are Key to Ongoing Success

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Member engagement weathered the storm of the pandemic, but retention did not fare as well. Revamping stagnant membership models that are more responsive to the changing needs of your members should be a priority, according to an association expert.

Member engagement is up, which should be good news, right? After all, 45 percent of associations showed an increase in membership and 71 percent said the level of member engagement increased this year, according to Marketing General Incorporated’s latest Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report.

The flip side is, 47 percent of associations reported a decline in membership and 45 percent saw a renewal rate drop, compared to only a 24 percent drop last year. Members turned to their associations during the pandemic to get immediate help and information to navigate the crisis, which was a main factor in increased engagement. But the situation is more complicated: Engagement isn’t enough, and there has to be a focus on retention and renewal.

“The pandemic was globally disruptive across sectors, relationships, organizations, and professions, and any business assumptions you had prior to the pandemic have to be reinvestigated and revalidated,” said Dean West, FASAE, president and founder of Association Laboratory.

He goes further: “I call it the end of history,” West said.

Time to Revamp Membership Models

It sounds ominous, but maybe not. West sees it as a “tremendous opportunity” because now that traditional boundaries and relationships have been disrupted, associations have the freedom to reinvent themselves in ways no one could have imagined. First up? Membership models.

Associations Laboratory’s latest study, Looking Forward Solutions 2021 [registration required], shows that membership is the most serious area of concern for the global association leaders who participated in the report.

Before the pandemic, 81 percent of CEOs said that younger members were not interested in traditional membership models, according to the group’s Looking Forward 2020 report. Between 2019 and 2021, most associations did not substantively change their membership models, West said.

That means the membership model that was a problem before the pandemic hasn’t changed, but members’ needs are changing. That’s why, when they came back to their associations after the pandemic subsided, West said they found an old model that was not relevant to their needs, which is why retention is going down.

Understand Your Members

“Most membership models are designed around an offer that doesn’t take the pandemic into account,” he said. One of the most important themes that emerged from Looking Forward Solutions 2021 is that associations are going to have to invest in understanding—or re-understanding—their members and other stakeholders.

“Associations have to invest time, money, and energy on understanding how members’ lives are different and what the implications of those differences are on their relationship with the association,” West said.

And how do you do that? “Simply by putting a group of diverse people around a coffee table and asking them how their world is different,” he said. Or you can go a more sophisticated route through integrated qualitative and quantitative research.

“But at the end of the day, it’s a market-facing strategy,” he said, which should be designed to discover how the personal and professional lives of members have changed. Members want benefits and services that are directly relevant to them based on their changing needs.

“Membership as an offer is suffering because, overwhelmingly, most associations don’t have a different model now than they had a year ago, but their members’ needs are different,” West said.

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