From the Corner Office: Catching Up With Our 2010 Association Luminaries

By Association Adviser staff • November 5, 2012

By Association Adviser staff

This month’s Corner Office spotlight shines on the remarkable leaders we profiled in 2010 who are not just leading their organizations forward, but are changing the association landscape. Here are some of our favorite take-aways that should help you navigate 2011.

Patricia Dameron, executive director of the Dallas-based Professional Retail Store Maintenance Association (PRSM)
John H. Graham, president & CEO of the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE)
Tom Hood, CPA, executive director of the Towson, MD.-based Maryland Association of Certified Public Accountants (MACPA)
Phillip E. Russo, CAE, executive director of the Princeton, NJ-based NAFA Fleet Management Association

Jim Singerling, CEO of the Club Managers Association of America (CMAA)
Joe Syrowik, director of membership, marketing and member service for ASCD, formerly Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development

Association Adviser:  What are the biggest changes you’re seeing in the association world now?

Graham: Three drivers come to mind: First, the biggest game changer has been the advent of social media and mobile technology. This will alter the landscape in ways we haven't even been thinking about yet. It's all about: “I want what I want, when I want it, and how I want it.”

Second, we're still digging ourselves out of the worst downturn in a generation. I don't think we’ll ever be able to go back to the days of automatic dues renewals just because you send out a nice magazine and put on a few conferences.

Third, there's been a continued migration from print to digital of content and distribution. The last recession, combined with amazing advances in technology, are really driving members (and advertisers) online.

Syrowik: It’s a renewed focus on keeping first-year members engaged. They’re really busy. They’re generally not aware of all the benefits your association has to offer them and they’re not trained to know where to look for those benefits. Once you have a member on board for two or three years, there’s a significantly higher probability that they’ll renew.

Remember, younger people aren’t joiners in the traditional sense. They need to find something that speaks uniquely to them and they need a fellow member or a peer to help them make it worth their while. You’ve got to get inside their heads and find out what makes them tick.

Singerling: There’s a continuous need to go out and actually show verifiable, quantifiable results so members can justify placing their confidence in you and their resources at your disposal. Reacting and explaining after the fact why you’re so valuable (as an association) just isn't effective anymore. You have to go to into an initiative with the confidence of your constituency behind you. Trying to go forward without that base of support is a very difficult thing to do.

Dameron: Make sure members always think of your association first as the place to go for answers and educational resources. Our Best Practices resource section is a great example of this. Even in this digital, social networking age, facilitating member-to-member interaction is a big part of the value you bring.

AA: Associations are facing unprecedented competition for the attention of their members and prospective members. How do you keep your organizations nimble and agile enough to compete in this era?

Russo: Whatever the opposite of “duck and cover” is, that's how you've got to operate. There are great opportunities in all economic climates. If you put the pedal to the metal when everyone else has the brakes on, you can come out of the downturn with a full head of steam while everyone else is just getting back on their feet. A difficult economy almost forces you to have the courage to make changes. Whether you're a large or small organization, you've got to be nimble.

You've got to try everything. That not only goes for your staff, but for your board, your vendors and your partners as well. I try to surround myself with people who are good listeners, who ask good questions and who try to figure out ways to get things done.

Dameron: We tell members we're going to empower them. We tell our staff we're going to empower them. PRSM is a very fluid organization. Good ideas can come from anywhere and anyone in the organization and also from our members. If it's a good idea, then we'll make it happen. We always want to be nimble, but steered in the right direction.

Hood: We use a lot of MBSN (Management by Sticky Note). Seriously, I agree with Patricia. Great ideas can come from anyone anywhere at any time. We promote open forums where anyone can feel comfortable suggesting ideas for new products, services and ways to run things here. We put big sheets of butcher paper on the wall with various ideas and concentric circles. Everyone’s encouraged to put their thoughts about each idea on a sticky note and pretty soon you can see where the peaks and valleys are. Not very high tech, but surprisingly effective for gaining consensus.

AA: Is it tougher to recruit and retain younger members?

Graham: We live in an instant gratification “experiential economy,” to borrow a phrase from author James Gilmore. Younger people are not blindly jumping to join associations when they have so many other ways of networking with their peers and obtaining information about their profession. They're pickier and they don't like a one-size-fits-all membership experience. They really want to customize the relationship they have with you and it's got to be on their own terms.

Singerling: The average age of our members has dropped from 57 to 44 over the last 15 years. That shift ensures we have the leaders of tomorrow continuing to join and become a part of the work that we’re doing.

I would suggest that embracing [prospective members] as we have at the undergrad level through student chapters has probably been the most significant factor to bringing the average age down. Making [prospective members] aware of who and what you are before they have developed an opinion instead of trying to change their opinion after the fact is a much stronger approach.

Dameron:Younger members are more distracted, less attentive and more likely to be multi-tasking when we try to reach them through our various communications channels. They've got an awful lot of information coming at them all day long and we try to recognize that and respect that. We've known for a long time that we have a diverse membership and you can't be one-size-fits-all. We're getting a lot better at building out and promoting our member sub-communities.

Syrowik: We have a special e-mail series just for first year members and we have a personalized “welcome call” to new members timed for their three-month anniversary. Plus, we’re offering a 90-day free trial membership that gives potential members a ways to sample our benefits online. Finally, we’re encouraging longstanding members to “mentor” the new members.


AA: What are the most important things associations should be doing in terms of member service?

Hood: We only have a staff of 30, but we've created a full-time position for customer relationship specialist and we have five people who go out to our largest members' workplaces and help them with on-site training and professional development. That's been a huge member retention benefit for us—and members don't pay anything extra for it.

Syrowik: Simple. Own the problem. When a member calls our service department, we don’t just take the complaint; we assign an owner to the issue and make sure it gets personalized attention from someone who’s accountable for its resolution.

Graham: Agreed. Having a culture in which people own a problem and then follow through with a solution is key. Members have more of a self-help mindset now. They go online for general information. They tend to contact member service only for special requests and real problem solving. If done well, it's where real relationships get built.

AA: So, what's keeping everyone up at night?  

Russo: I'm always worried about staying ahead of members' radar. Is anyone beating us to the punch? What's our quality level? Are we doing things that don't suck?

Dameron: Are we staying relevant with members? Are we anticipating a need that they haven't specifically asked for? If you’re not staying relevant, you’ve pretty much signed your death certificate.

What's our business model going to look like during the very slow economic recovery? It's the worst economy most of our members have ever experienced and we generally don't have a precedent for this kind of long-term anemic two to three percent GDP growth. How are we going to compete with India and China at that rate? How are we going to balance the present with the future?

Singerling: Within the last 10 years, we’ve seen attacks on our personal lives that cause the greatest anxiety because we really don’t know collectively what we could do to change them. Those personal threats are probably the things that have waned a bit now, but there’s the reference that there is a new normal today that carries with it a greater degree of anxiety than previous generations had. The good thing is young generations will grow up with that anxiety being part of their daily lives and they won’t see it as abnormal.

Graham: It's all going to evolve. We're learning what we know and what we don't know and it's anyone's guess as to how Washington policy is going to affect the tax exempt status of many associations. But, with all this technology and the pressure for non-dues revenue, we've still got to keep our core competencies top of mind—and that's all about educating and serving members and helping them connect.

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