Innovation: A committee function or a member service?

It seems reasonable to assume that association members, especially if they pay dues, would have a strong interest in the mission, goals and objectives of the organizations to which they belong. Moreover, it seems these same individuals would be in the best position to generate a menu of products and services that would serve their unique needs and business plans.

In many associations, committees are formed around specific functional areas to engage association members, to allow members the opportunity to provide input on a regular and ongoing basis, to develop innovative strategies for reaching annual association goals and to recommend, as appropriate, the allocation of association resources, both human and capital.

At least, this was my conclusion seven years ago when I first entered the association community. Today, I’m more inclined to believe that association professionals drive innovation (rather than members). After all, you don’t know what you don’t know. And that’s my assessment of many member communities. They simply don’t know what’s possible and they aren’t privy to the opportunities that exist.

This is where we come in – and why we have jobs during these otherwise bleak economic times. As good association professionals, we have our ear to the ground. We harness our networks, social media channels, professional development opportunities. We’re on the cutting edge of member services and are constantly connected with people who have great ideas and are trying new things.

As the staff liaison to my association’s Quality and Education Committee, I look forward to next month’s committee meeting when I present a recommended agenda for two of our upcoming conferences, complete with topics and speakers, as well as a completely redesigned and much-overhauled annual convention agenda, including suggested keynotes and special events.

Plain and simple, it’s important for our association to be competitive, innovative and dynamic this year. With a number of recent organizational changes, the status quo is no longer an acceptable benchmark for success. Now’s the time to step it up with renewed focus, energy and enthusiasm.

It’s not to say committee members won’t have input. In fact, our agenda will contain many more topics than those listed here; however, any agenda item the staff believes could benefit from substantive change is receiving special attention prior to the meeting. We’re developing the fresh and innovative recommendations we think will best serve our members. At the meeting, we’re simply looking to committee members for feedback and approval.

So, my question to you is this: Do you agree with my strategy? Does staff drive innovation at your association? Should they? If member-driven, does staff even have the opportunity to bring new and innovative ideas to the table? Are your members truly in tune to the needs of their colleagues? How are problematic ideas/recommendations handled?

4 Responses to “Innovation: A committee function or a member service?”

  1. January 15, 2010 at 7:46 pm

    I think your observation about you don’t know what you don’t know is a very accurate one, so staff often does drive innovation because of the additional exposure or knowledge they might have.

    That being said, I think staff also need to build the capacity of their volunteer leaders to “know more” so they can help drive innovation instead of just presenting innovative ideas and options to the leadership to consider.

    I’m working with a committee right now that is redesigning an annual conference. I’ve sent each a different short reading (blog posts, etc.) and sent them all a list of about 20 blogs, web sites, conference links, etc. to explore before our first design think tank. This way they get a broader sense of the possibilities others are pursuing and can come to the meeting ad advocates for fresh thinking they want the conference to reflect.

    • January 15, 2010 at 8:17 pm


      Great point! I suppose we’re doing our committee members a disservice by not encouraging their informed participation in the innovation process. It reminds me of the adage: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

      Any thoughts about how to effectively gain buy-in to the meeting prep you describe when volunteer leaders consistently show up to meetings without even having read the agenda?


      • January 24, 2010 at 6:22 am

        No Earth-shattering insight here Aaron, but just a reminder of the basics on how to get them to follow-through:

        1. A clear explanation of the purpose of their advance work (it’s not just busy work)
        2. Making it easy for them to do the assignment (15-30 minutes of time max)
        3. Having them be the reporters for their assignment at the meeting

        The latter is a bit of peer pressure, but also incentive, since they will be sharing what they learned from their assignment with their colleagues. If they don’t do it, everyone will know.

        As a last resort, if I don’t think people will sufficiently complete the task, I bring the short readings on-site and have them do them together for 10-15 minutes, then share.

  2. January 24, 2010 at 8:07 pm


    Great ideas! I especially appreciate your advice about encouraging volunteer leaders to report on their learning. I’ve actually been doing this more and more during an ongoing virtual education course I moderate. In many cases, the feedback and insights of our participants far exceeds my expectations, affirms their understanding of the material, serves as a great benchmark with which to evaluate the progress of other participants and encourages meaningful discussion. All positive outcomes when you don’t have the luxury of seeing participants face-to-face.


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meet aaron

Association learning strategist & meetings coach. Founder & president of Event Garde. Passionate about cooking, running, blogging, old homes, unclehood & pet parenting (thanks to Lillie the pup).

meet kristen

Writer, editor, public relations professional. Digital content manager. Proud mom of three. Total word geek. Spartan for life.

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