Coaching, Mentoring and Onsite Visits Helps Association Get to Know Members Personally

By Association Adviser staff • May 27, 2014

This month’s Corner Office spotlight shines on Stephanie Doute, vice president of membership and group services for Leading Age California, the state’s preeminent advocate for nonprofit senior living and care.

Association Adviser: Stephanie, tell us a little about Leading Age and the scope of people it serves.

Stephanie Doute: Leading Age California is the primary advocate for quality nonprofit senior living and care in the state. We’re a public-interest association whose members include nearly 450 nonprofit organizations (4,000 collective employees) that provide aging services, such as affordable housing, continuing care retirement communities, assisted living, skilled nursing, and home and community-based care. Those organizations serve more than 100,000 seniors throughout California.


  • Segmentation is vitally important if you want your message to get through. Segmentation goes beyond simply age, company and job title.
  • Get to know the whole persona of your members, not just their professional side. Visit them at their workplaces. Never let them sit alone at conferences.
  • Associations need to send less one-way, one-size-fits-all communications to members that works on any device. If it’s social, it needs to get a conversation started.
  • I like everyone on my team to know what the end goal is and I give them free rein to decide how to get there.

AA: The aging U.S. population must be good for your industry. Is membership growing?

SD: We’ve been in a steady upward growth pattern for the past five to six years, but senior living is not recession proof. Aging in place programs are always a priority and no membership is taken for granted. Also remember that in California, like many states, people couldn’t sell their home during the recession. Under normal circumstances, they would have moved to an assisted living community, but during the downturn, they just couldn’t afford to carry their unsold homes as well as the cost of assisted living.

Stephanie Doute, LeadingAge California
Stephanie Doute, LeadingAge California


AA: What is the biggest thing that many people don’t understand about senior living and continuing care for the elderly?

SD: It’s not a one-size-fits-all service. There are many different types of services for different stages of a senior’s life. They typically move from independent living to assisted living to skilled nursing to memory care (which includes help with Alzheimer’s and dementia).

AA: What is the single greatest communication challenge that your organization faces?

SD: Finding a way to cut through the noise. How do we get members to open what we send them? Email was so great when it first came out, but now it’s so (heavily) used, that it’s backfired on many. We need to send less and make more news and information available to members wherever they are and on whatever device they happen to be using.

AA: What would make the situation better?
SD: I’m a huge fan of mobile. We need to be there and we need to make it easy for members. Also, it would be great to see who is really engaging with our communication efforts and reacting to it. Clicks and opens don’t tell the whole story. Facebook likes aren’t as useful anymore. They’ve changed the algorithms and it’s harder to tell now. Also, we’re very big on segmentation. Instead of blasting out to the entire membership all the time, we’re really trying to target HR people, IT folks, fundraising specialists, nursing people and more. Segmentation is so, so important if you really want your message to get through.
AA: So, which tools and techniques do you use to gauge what’s important to members? 

SD: We use many different things including member satisfaction surveys, member engagement assessments via statistics, conference reviews, focus groups and task forces. There’s no magic silver bullet. We purchased a [sophisticated] database and engagement management system, but also did a lot of customization on our part. The whole staff helped out on the segmentation initiative. We looked at our members every possible way to see how we could better group and characterize them. We didn’t look at age that much, but we did look at things like how long they’ve been a member (especially new members) and which type of training and education they have.

AA: How about your communication frequency?
SD: We have “engagement tasks” for different types of members and try to automate it wherever possible. For instance, new members get a personal phone call from our CEO four weeks after joining. At six weeks, they get a call from a volunteer leader in their region of the state. About eight weeks after joining, they get an email from me, reminding them about all the different membership benefits we offer. About three months after joining, one of our “engagement leaders” reaches out to them. Four months after joining, I send them a reminder about all the lobbying and advocacy work we do on their behalf. You get the idea.
AA: How about on the qualitative side?
SD: We make it a point to visit our members at their workplaces. When you’re with them where they live and work, you really get that valuable firsthand experience. That’s how you find out what the real issues are and what’s important to them. You can’t get that from a survey. Also, you’ll notice we spread out committee members throughout our conferences so no one, especially a new member, feels like they’re sitting alone.
AA: What are the most effective ways for association to use social and mobile media?
SD: There are two pieces. First, so many associations use social media to put the same message out across platforms, instead using it to get a conversation started. Social media is supposed to be a two-way dialogue, not a one-way broadcast. Second, with social and mobile, members may have a different persona than they show in other places. You must acknowledge members as a whole person—as a parent, volunteer fireman, triathlete—not just as a continuing care specialist. So, next time you see them [at a conference/event] you can ask: “How was your marathon?” That’s the personal touch they’ll remember.
AA: How would you describe your leadership style?
SD: I’m a blend of two styles. First, there’s a visionary/coaching style. I like everyone on our team to know what the end goal is, and I give them free rein to decide how to get there. Second, there’s a coaching/mentoring side. I’ve played soccer my whole and I run. My son plays team sports. From my athletic background, I learned how to communicate effectively with lots of different people and work toward a common goal. Yelling at you is not going to make you work harder or better. You’ve got to do it together. We’re on a team. It’s all about getting people working together toward a common goal.
AA: If you could share one piece of advice with your association peers about engaging the next-generation member, what would that be?
SD: View them as a whole person, not just within the context of their professional self. They want work/life balance, and they’re from the experience economy. They want to have an experience with your organization, not just learning, resources and networking, etc. Also, they’re digital natives. You need to show that you’re modern and technologically competitive. They don’t want to join an organization they think is filled with aging members.