Monday, September 26, 2011

Volunteers at the Center

Associations rely heavily on the work of volunteers to successful achieve their goals year after year.  Typically this is done by examining a list of open volunteer positions, making a call or directly recruiting potential candidates, and then slotting them into their roles.  We worry about filling these positions, hope that we get the right people in the process, and feel at least a small sense of relief when all the spots are full.

Over the past few cycles I started to notice some patterns in the volunteers we found and the quality of their contribution - applications and backgrounds were not the full picture of how they would serve.  Instead, in the application and on-boarding process there was a large question that we forgot to ask to each member.

Why do you want to volunteer?

Some people volunteer because they feel passionate about a cause.  Others volunteer to get a line on their resume (though this is not an answer that they may share directly).  People volunteer to network and meet fellow leaders and some others choose to volunteer because they are interested in learning more about an organization.  There are dozens of reason why someone may want to volunteer, or want a specific volunteer position.  Though background experience may best explain why someone is qualified for the job, it is only by asking why they want it at all that we can start to understand their own goals for the road ahead.

In the coming year I am focusing more on the individual volunteer experience. What skills do they want to gain?  What connections do they hope to make?  Similar to career counseling, I believe a one on one conversation with volunteers will help define not just what resources they need for success this year, but what potential continued paths of involvement exist for the future. 

Yes, a volunteer is giving of themselves to the organization - in turn we need to act in a volunteer-centric mindset.  As we do, and align the experience a volunteer has with the reasons they raised their hands in the first place, the more each one will be able to accomplish.

Here is a great example of an organization re-framing their offerings to be volunteer-centric in nature:

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Innovation Right Before Your Eyes

Growing up, pictures like this were on my list of most frustrating things:

This is one of those pictures that if you are able to look through it, a 3-D image  pops out at you (a stereogram).  Friends and family alike would take a quick glance, and say oh - of course it is a (I won't ruin this one for you if you can not yet see it) and try as I might, I would still just see a weird picture.  I would stare, turn the picture, cross my eyes - but the harder I looked, the less I saw.  What I was looking for was right in front of my face, but I just did not have the right perspective.

I think innovation is often a very similar situation.  Rarely does innovation mean creating something brand new that has never been done before.  Often innovation is the ability to take a new look at a problem or a structure and be able to suggest and implement a new method or initiative that exists elsewhere, but is new to that association.

As a brief example, I once worked with an association that wanted to connect with a greater number of  students.  They had reduced student membership so it was free, and communicated this change to the chapter advisors.  Wondering what more had to be done, it eventually became evident that to have a stronger relationship with the students, they had to talk to the students and student leaders directly.  Certainly the concept that direct communication builds a tighter connection is not new, yet in this circumstance it was innovation at its finest - simple, new for the association, effective and sustainable.

Yes, innovation takes hard work, planning, execution and evaluation.  For all the effort that goes into innovation, if we do not first have the right perspective, we will never be able to see the problem clearly enough to find the right solution.

After we can see the whole picture, hopefully innovation jumps off the page at us.

They say the best way to see a stereogram is to the same any less true when we seek to innovate?

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Power of In Person

My disclaimer for this post is that I am a firm believer in establishing relationships and friendships virtually.  I have made close connections with colleagues through email, phone conferences, facebook, twitter, etc.  Truly, these technological tools allow us the ability to connect in ways we could not have dreamed just a few decades, if not just years, ago.  With that said…

There is nothing like meeting someone in person.

The handshake. Eye to eye contact.  Sharing a meal, cup of coffee or a drink.  Each one of these things binds us to people in our lives in intangible ways that only become evident as relationships develop – and in the case of a professional setting – as we collaborate on projects and efforts to achieve mutual goals. 
While it is possible to have success and achievements without the in person meeting, I truly believe that the two-way commitment that can elevate a success to higher levels is more likely when both parties have met. 

Recently, I have made visits to our chapters in San Francisco, Memphis, Indianapolis and (as I write this post on the plane back from this latest visit) Milwaukee.  The ease of conversation, the openness to share ideas and the willingness to try new things between those chapters we have visited and those we have not is the difference between night and day.

As associations trim travel budgets, and forge full steam ahead with virtual-only approaches, I believe there is a major opportunity lost.  An in person visit shows commitment – to the individual member/volunteer and the community they represent.  An in person visit allows us to not only discuss the professional accomplishments a volunteer would like to see his overlying area achieve, but also encourages dialogue to learn their personal growth goals and how our associations can invest in them. 

An in person visit means that when we ask a question, we will be more likely to get an answer.

Since many of these benefits are subjective, and difficult to support with data (at least on the short term) I imagine that fewer staff visits and trips will be an ongoing trend – but I hope those associations that are visionary realize that virtual, while amazing, is not the end-all be-all.  Putting a computer/phone/camera in place as a tool to connect two people still amounts to putting SOMETHING between them.

In the end, the relationships we forge are the forces that drive success.  Why would we put anything in the way of developing those relationships?

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Annual Conference Time Warp

Those days XX'ed off in bright red on your calendar.  The furious writing in day boxes leading up to it in stark contrast to the empty slots following.  You can see it coming - your association's annual conference.  Other programs and initiatives come to a screeching halt as all hands come on deck to prepare for 3-5 days of sessions, shmoozing and seriously long hours of 5am-midnight.  And what happens to all those great annual plans we have been working to execute?  The local programming that needs assistance?  Volunteer guidance and diverse streams of marketing?  It goes into what I like to call the Annual Conference Time Warp.

Annual conferences are typically the star of an association's year.  For many they are a significant source of revenue, a hub of learning opportunities, and a group of professionals together in the same place who are looking for something that your association is offering.  In order to pull out all the stops to make these conferences as successful as they are each year, association staff know that in the weeks leading up to the gathering they will be pulling longer hours, take on responsibilities outside of their department and be in 'conference mode' 24/7 that last week.  Attendees get an amazing experience at their conference because of these efforts, and the positive reflections and participation help drive the association into the coming year.

But what about the 70--85% of members who do not attend the annual conference?  With the diverted staff priorities and efforts in the weeks leading up to (and recovery week after) the conference, are they really getting only 11 months of value for their annual membership? For many associations this is just fait accompli.

As we strive to become member-centric, part of our efforts have to focus on providing the same stellar experience all year long.  We can pre-set programs and messages to be in place before we get to conference crunch season.  We can avoid putting a moratorium on local chapter programs.  We can continue having dialogue and building relationships.  Not only can we, but we must.  Otherwise, every year we will have the same few weeks that just fall into the Annual Conference Time Warp.....

it's just a jump to the left -  

Sunday, September 4, 2011

A Recipe for Association Success

I will admit it - watching Top Chef is a guilty pleasure of mine. I have been able to learn my amuse-bouche from my mise en place (at least enough to not embarrass myself too much). Living in the suburbs of Maryland, I have made it to Frederick to have brunch at Volt - Chef Bryan Voltaggio's restaurant that I could go back to again and again.

Relaxing at home, perusing the twitter stream I was stopped in my tracks by one of Chef Voltaggio's tweets:

"Interesting...Just served a table in my kitchen and overheard "foam is so in now" Menu changes coming VERY soon ;) "

First, I am impressed that as top chef of his kitchen, Chef Voltaggio makes it a point to not only read evaluation cards or surveys filled out after someone has eaten in his restaurant, but also interacts directly with his customers getting their thoughts and feedback. From my own experience, I believe it is just as important that we do the same in the association world. Yes, we need to survey to find out the needs and trends of our members - but we also need to take the next step and talk to them. Whether that is by visiting our components and conversing with program participants, running focus groups or providing a place for conversational feedback at our face to face meetings and conferences - we must be talking to our members if we want to hear what they need and want.

According to the diner, Chef Voltaggio is serving exactly what is popular right now (and I can attest that the foam is indeed delicious). Yet, upon hearing that he is providing what is 'in', Chef Voltaggio's immediate reaction was not a sense of satisfaction, but a sense of urgency. It is not enough to serve what is popular - for Chef Voltaggio if Volt is not ahead of the curve, it is behind the curve.

Reading Race for Relevance this summer, I believe our associations are in the same place. Yes, for a long time we have served what has been popular - and have really done it well. Are we looking at what's next? Not just in our offerings - but in our model. In order to provide the highest quality of service for our members, and to help them create the communities they need to succeed, we have to do more than become forward thinking - we have to become forward acting. Yes, not everything we try will work - but can we learn from our successes and setbacks to continue to grow and not stagnate? I think we can, and I think we must if we are going to best serve our members today and tomorrow.

When you look at your 2012 annuals plans - are your menu changes coming VERY soon?

[Sidenote: If you are in the DC area and have never been to Volt - put it on your to do list. Food is amazing, and the Sunday brunch deal is really reasonable!]