Archive for April, 2014

29
Apr
14

Why ‘giving back’ isn’t what you need from volunteers

Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, contributing editor, Associations Now

This month’s guest blog post is by Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now. It was originally printed on April 28, so it’s hot off the press. This is a topic that seems to intrigue our readers, so thanks to Mark for sharing it with us!

As a reminder, if you’re interested in submitting a guest post for our blog, please contact Kristen Parker at Kristen@eventgarde.com.

 

Having volunteers is great, but you need more than people who are looking for a sense of purpose. Are you setting the right standards for them?

What’s your volunteer problem?

The answer is likely different for every association. Too few people raising their hand, or too many. Gaps in the places where you really need help. Lack of engagement, or lack of the kind of engagement you need to get important work done. Regardless of the problem, large or small, it pretty much goes without saying that you have one. (If not, drop me a line and let me know how you’re pulling it off.)

Associations need to emphasize what it is they need done ahead of the personal satisfaction volunteers may get out of the experience.

Last week, Taproot Foundation founder Aaron Hurst pointed to an underlying issue in volunteering that speaks to the problems associations may struggle with: In an essay for the New York Times, he wrote that many volunteers are doing so because they lack a sense of purpose in their own work. On the surface this doesn’t seem like a problem — we like people who want a sense of purpose, right?

Except that a volunteer’s need for “purpose” may not jive with the task you need done. You can be awash in volunteers who aren’t filling gaps but still require care and feeding from staff. As one nonprofit executive told Hurst, “If I get another volunteer I’m going to go out of business.”

VolunteerphotoThe “I want to do good” or “I want to find a purpose” instinct is likely more pronounced in the charitable nonprofit world than at associations. But the same issues are at play in both communities. According to ASAE’s Decision to Volunteer survey, the leading motivation for volunteers at associations is “values” — that is, the sense of doing good. Similarly, the most common source of satisfaction among association volunteers is “giving back to their professional field.”

Hurst’s concern is that such motivations may speak to people being unsatisfied in their jobs — and bringing that dissatisfaction to a nonprofit. “We cannot meet this demand [for meaning at work] by looking to ‘causes’ as the primary driver in our careers and place the burden on nonprofits to fulfill this need,” he writes.

From the board to task forces and subcommittees, engaged volunteers who do valuable work will only show up if you — that is, the association’s leadership — set a standard for what engagement and valuable work is. Short of paying volunteers, associations need to emphasize what it is they need done ahead of the personal satisfaction volunteers may get out of the experience. This isn’t an either/or proposition. But both parts of it are necessary, and when they’re in sync, an association can get an engaged group of people doing important things.

There are signs that associations are moving away from the committee-based form of volunteering, filled with busywork, that may make volunteers feel like they’ve “given back” but do only so much for the organization. Associations that craft ad hoc-style opportunities will attract people who want to work on a particular issue that captures their interests and helps the association too. And micro-volunteering opportunities can help give volunteers a sense of ownership while ensuring that the association is getting practical things done.

I don’t think Hurst was trying to be a killjoy in the nonprofit community by saying that many people who volunteer shouldn’t — or that they’d be better off trying to get that sense of meaning at their day jobs. But he raises the important point that successful volunteer recruitment involves more than just filling seats with people who have certain qualifications. It’s about setting a tone of doing productive work and establishing clear expectations. It’s a good thing to have people knocking on your door saying they want to “give back.” But make clear to them what it is you expect them to give.

How has your association encouraged top-notch volunteers to take part?

 

22
Apr
14

Life goes on…and so does learning

AlbertEinstein-001As some of you may know, in addition to my role with Event Garde, I work for Michigan State University’s central communications office. I love working with students. They’re brilliant. They’re ambitious. They’re overachievers. And some of them are old, well, older.

I’m amazed by the nontraditional students I encounter on campus. Some are undergrads and some are grad students. And others are lifelong learners. MSU, like many universities around the country, offers lifelong learning credits. In fact, I took my first graduate class as a lifelong learner because it was so much cheaper.

Lifelong learning seems to be on the upswing as curious minds look for answers. But sometimes, universities don’t fit the bill, which is where associations should step in.

“With the short- and long-term value of traditional degrees increasingly in question, the number of people looking for alternatives will grow,” said Jeff Cobb, co-founder of the consulting firm Tagoras. “As a result, certification programs, assessment-based certificate programs, digital badging and competency-based education are likely to be areas of significant growth for continuing education and professional development providers.”

Why? Globalization.

Even mom-and-pop businesses are dabbling in international business. It’s safe to say that in today’s global economy, employers require skills that go beyond a degree. They want trend-savvy employees, so professional development is a must.

Jeff Cobb and Celisa Steele

Jeff Cobb and Celisa Steele, co-founders of Tagoras

And so, Cobb said, associations should beef up their education staffs. Cobb recommends hiring in-house subject matter experts to address increasingly complicated global issues. Their specialized industry knowledge and stakeholder connections are invaluable to creating lifelong learning materials. Remember this as your association competes with cheap, easy-to-find educational resources a la the web.

That said, associations should capitalize on technology, not shy away from it. For example, if an association offers online certification, it can easily incorporate a YouTube video or podcast. Crowdsourcing is also key. Associations should provide a platform to allow their members to share virtual resources.

At the same time, technology provides incredible tools to measure the effectiveness of your association’s lifelong learning opportunities.

“A variety of tools – from web and social media analytics to e-mail statistics to low-cost feedback systems like iPerceptions – can be used to extend and strengthen traditional, less agile market research methods,” Cobb said. “Organizations need to get more adept at using these tools, testing new ideas quickly and moving to full implementation with decisiveness.”

Tagoras has produced a list of tips for associations that want to compete in a global market for continuing education and professional development.

Simply put: Learning doesn’t stop after high school or college. And your association can easily meet the demand.

So now I’m wondering, where do Massive Open Online Courses fit into this equation? If you know of an expert on MOOCs, or if your association uses MOOCs, please contact me. I’d like to write about this in the near future.

15
Apr
14

Nonprofits struggling to meet demand

brokenpiggybankLast week’s post focused on the economy, and here I am writing again about it.

But I want to foster discussion on Nonprofit Finance Fund’s 2014 State of the Nonprofit Sector Survey, the results of which it released on April 7. NFF is a community development financial institution.

Leaders from more than 5,000 organizations participated in the sixth annual survey. The big takeaway: Nonprofits were hit especially hard when the economy crashed, and recovery hasn’t been easy. In fact, many nonprofits are seeking new funding sources.

Perhaps even more startling is that while 80 percent of nonprofits reported an increase in demand for their services, only 56 percent could meet those needs in 2013. And only 11 percent of respondents thought 2014 would be easier.

“Americans rely on nonprofits for food shelter, education, health care and other necessities, and everyone has a stake in strengthening this social infrastructure,” said Antony Bugg-Levine, CEO of Nonprofit Finance Fund. “The struggles nonprofits face are not the short-term result of an economic cycle; they are the results of fundamental flaws in the way we finance social good.”

Antony Bugg-Levine

Antony Bugg-Levine, CEO, Nonprofit Finance Fund

Much of that “social good” is financed by government grants. But nonprofits that receive such funding have experienced a sharp decline in financial support, which means they’re exploring other avenues for financial stability.

According to the survey, 31 percent of nonprofits will change the ways in which they raise and spend money this year. In addition, 26 percent will pursue an earned income venture while 20 percent will seek funding other than contracts and grants, such as loans or investments.

In the survey, 41 percent of nonprofits reported long-term financial stability as goal. But 55 percent of organizations have three months or less cash-on-hand and 28 percent ended their fiscal year with a deficit.

As a result, nearly half of the nonprofits reported collaborating with others to cut administrative costs. Other strategies: cutting funds and changing the business model. As another cost saving tool, organizations are relying more on volunteers.

The good news, though, is that 37 percent of organizations plan to hire additional staff and 51 percent plan to invest in professional development in 2014.

As you well know, nonprofits are crucial to communities, especially those that serve low-income communities. Take Meals on Wheels, for example. In June, Associations Now reported that 70 percent of senior nutrition programs, such as Meals on Wheels, have reduced the number of meals they deliver while 40 percent of the programs have scaled back delivery days. According to the Meals on Wheels Association of America, many senior nutrition programs receive federal funding through the Older Americans Act, which took a huge financial hit as a result of the sequestration.

In short: It seems 2014 will continue to be tough for nonprofits, but they’re coping as best they can.

I’d like to write more about this topic as 2014 unfolds. So tell me: Has your nonprofit been affected by the economy? What do you think of the survey findings?

08
Apr
14

Economically engaging

economic downturnThings were humming along pretty well a few years ago. Gas was, well, relatively affordable, grocery bills were somewhat manageable and people were working.

And then 2007 hit. As the economy came crashing down, many of us lost jobs, houses and much more. Stocks and investments plummeted. Luxuries fell by the wayside.

Fast forward seven years, and the U.S. is slowly coming back, experts say. But consumers are cautiously optimistic and their spending reflects hesitation.

And that’s affecting nearly all industries and associations, according to a new Association Laboratory whitepaper released last month, which discusses the future of association engagement.

Simply defined, engagement is the relationship between a person or a business and an association. It considers touch points, interaction and influence. Measuring it is important for success, but doing so has become much more complicated since 2007.

“The recent economic downturn provided evidence that as the economic situation deteriorated, membership engagement, as measured by anticipated membership revenue, decreased,” according to the whitepaper.

For the purposes of the whitepaper, economy was divided into public and private sectors. In a recent study conducted by Association Laboratory, association executives revealed only minimal hopes for more engagement, mainly because of budget constraints of state and federal governments. The public sector has been hit especially hard by the recession, and professional development – which often includes association memberships – has fallen victim to budget cuts.

The three biggest factors affecting engagement, as reported by association leaders: reduced investment by federal and state governments; business mergers/consolidation; and nontraditional competitors entering the market.

In addition, as companies operate with leaner staffs, people have less time to commit to professional development. Return on investment has become increasingly important as some companies justify their existence in an uncertain economic climate. Also as a result of restructuring, decision-making is becoming more team-focused, and, quite frankly, things like association memberships and dues don’t take precedence.

As a result of tough economic times, government agencies – and the public sector in general – are facing more scrutiny.

So what does all this mean for associations?

engaging customers“To improve engagement, the association needs to identify and develop a deep understanding of the primary audiences, stakeholders or markets it serves,” Association Laboratory said.

Associations should understand the needs and expectations of their industries, especially as some companies contend with new market strategies and trends. They need to concentrate only on essential services and needs, which means legacy programs may have to be cut.

In addition, fostering professional networks will be key to improving association engagement. And relationships will need to become more intimate, which includes developing brand ambassadors.

“The decision-making environment facing associations will be complex and dynamic,” according to the whitepaper. “It will challenge many of the assumptions associations have used to guide membership and engagement strategy. Associations that invest in understanding their market more fully and aligning their strategic initiatives and organizational structure more closely with market needs will have a much higher likelihood of developing and sustaining membership engagement.”

Association Laboratory provides suggestions on how to use the data and recommendations.

Key questions for discussion:

  1. Who are the primary, secondary and tertiary audiences essential to the mission and market success of the association?
  2. What are the leading economic and business or professional influences facing the association’s members and what are the implications of these forces on their attitudes and behaviors relative to engagement?
  3. What is the historical culture of engagement within the industry and profession and what are the implications?
  4. What benefits and goals of engagement do key audiences seek and how are those benefits reflected in choices relative to the association?
  5. How should we define and measure engagement and modify our strategies based on performance?

How would you answer these questions? Has your association been affected by the sluggish economy?

01
Apr
14

Navigating Extreme Association Trends

ASAE held its annual Great Ideas Conference in Orlando, FL last month. During that conference, Scott Oser and I had the pleasure of presenting a session titled, “Under Pressure: Navigating Extreme Association Trends.”

More than 50 association executives hailing from across the country attended our session. We were pleased so many of our colleagues were willing to take the plunge, as this session required an extensive amount of audience participation.

Ultimately, the goal was to openly discuss three apparent trends in the association community. They are as follows:

  1. Membership is dead
  2. The demise of face-to-face meetings
  3. The social media imperative

Attendees were led through a series of exercises that allowed them to reflect on what they thought about each trend, how they believed the trend related to their organizations and any action items they might want to explore upon returning home. Fortunately, our colleagues were not shy. Following is a summary of their insights.

sprint-unlimited-my-way-undead-zombie-commercialMembership is dead; or is it?

This so-called trend has been heard loud and clear throughout the association community for years now. Although it’s received a lot of press, there are a number of recent studies indicating that membership in many associations is, in fact, growing.

After reviewing facts supporting both sides of this trend, attendees did not believe that membership is in a desperate state of decay. Rather, attendees agreed that the membership life cycle is changing and lapses in membership, when members leave for a period of time before returning, are becoming more common. They also discussed the need for more personalized membership experiences, requiring more membership data and a more targeted marketing approach. Finally, nearly all participants agreed that if associations understand the needs of their members and have a strong value proposition, the existing membership model is a viable option so long as tweaks are made based on industry needs.

conferenceThe demise (or rather reduction) of face-to-face meetings

Everyone’s professional development budgets are strapped these days and time is limited. We’re all busy; there’s simply no going back. So while our participants indicated a necessary reduction and consolidation of face-to-face meetings to right size the number and type of meetings planned each year, there’s simply no evidence they’ll be canceled altogether (at least not in our lifetime). The reason is simple: networking. In fact, in a global survey of 2,300 Harvard Business Review subscribers, 95% said that face-to-face meetings are both key to successful long-term relationships and to building strong relationships.

We did, however, determine that this shift in the professional development landscape has rightfully encouraged many of us to re-evaluate our face-to-face meetings to ensure exceptional attendee experiences that focus on learning research, supporting the styles and preferences of our attendees. Moreover, there’s a renewed emphases on identifying and offering quality topics and facilitators that meet attendee needs (vs. wants). This has resulted in tighter value propositions and more thoughtful marketing collateral. Many had also explored hybrid conference models (including live streaming, virtual expos and the like) as a means of opening up their associations to new audiences.

Social-Media-Manager-Job-DescriptionThe social media imperative; are you crazy?

The introduction of social media has had a profound impact on the way associations reach their members and customers. In fact, there’s been so much talk about social media and its benefits that you might think failing to allocate marketing resources to social media would justifiably harm your organization. While a good number of associations are using social media to their advantage, there are an equal number of associations that are not. And believe it or not, they exist to tell the tale.

When presented with points and counterpoints to the use of social media, our colleagues did not easily reach consensus. What they did agree on, however, is important: If you are going to use social media, you must have a strategy in place that leverages best practices and you must allocate the appropriate resources to effectively implement your plan. If you are not using social media smartly, or if you are unnecessarily pulling your staff away from other essentials products or services, you may be doing more harm than good. That said, participants seemed to concur that most organizations should have some form of social media presence. At the very least, if a member or a prospective member searched for your organization on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn, they should find a link to your website for more information.

Final thoughts

This session was held on the very first day of the conference so we were able to follow-up with participants for the next couple of days. Time and again we heard from our colleagues that they appreciated hearing both sides of each trend. They also enjoyed having the opportunity to discuss with their peers how each trend applied to their unique situations. Many attendees told us that far too often only one side of the issue is presented. Moreover, it’s often implied that going against the grain would somehow result in dire circumstances. Both Scott and I believe this is rarely the case and are very happy we were able to bring attendees together to discuss a number of the most “controversial issues” facing our profession – if only for 75 minutes. More conversations like this need to happen in our organizations before new ideas are implemented if we are to remain viable, solvent organizations in the future.

Tell us: Where do you fall on each of these issues?




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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