A successful external strategy needs to be relevant and sustainable. Is your association ready to engage its members, outperform competitors and enhance advocacy outcomes?
A successful external strategy encompasses three key tenets of association relevance and sustainability into the future: membership growth, commercial performance and market impact. This chapter is about engaging members, outperforming competitors and enhancing advocacy outcomes.
A businesslike approach is required to succeed commercially.
On its release in 1997, the movie Titanic achieved critical and commercial success, grossing over $2 billion at the box office and winning eleven Oscars. The fate of the ship itself, as we all know, was tragically the polar opposite. Branded unsinkable, the greatest ship ever built powered through iceberg infested waters on its maiden voyage with an arrogance of invincibility and a shortage of lifeboats. It never arrived. It never delivered on its promise to customers, its commercial potential or its market influence. Its titanic ambitions sunk by poor risk management, questionable strategic decisions and a lack of agility to change course.
The complacency of Titanic’s imagined invulnerability serves as a warning to associations trying to navigate today’s dynamic market conditions. When overconfidence underpins strategy, it creates vulnerability. When the true extent of market threats and challenges are acknowledged, it creates strength and agility in strategy.
A titanic example of commercial overconfidence is Woolworths. Overconfidence cost Woolworths $500 million in losses on its $3 billion investment into its home improvement brand Masters¹. Woolworths launched Masters partly to try and put pressure on Wesfarmers, the company behind Bunnings, after Wesfarmers bought rival Coles in 2007. At the time, Woolworths was clear market leader oozing with confidence, and perhaps a touch of invulnerability. How things can change in a few years. In 2016, Woolworths exited and offloaded Masters, while Wesfarmers expanded Bunnings into the UK². And Coles continued to grow against Woolworths³.
A contrasting example from the association sector is closer to home. Take my story.
In 2013, as the new CEO of an industry association, we were confronted with several challenges. A member action group was conducting a public campaign against the association and board, the future of our flagship expo was threatened with the venue’s intention to give the space to our commercial competitor and new international entrants were disintermediating local markets and members.
Within a year, we had successfully negotiated and resolved the member action group’s concerns, influenced government to overturn the venue’s decision, won a major battle against the competitor to get our event reinstated, broadened the membership to position for growth, launched an online resource to link members with buyers, started an industry knowledge-bank to spread best practice, brought on a strategic acquisition to diversify the association, and helped the president to reform the constitution and modernise the board structure. Over 360 members attended the general meeting, which was filled with an atmosphere of pride, camaraderie and confidence in the future of the association.
The opposite of overconfidence is humility, transparency and courage. If associations can have virtues, these three come with member benefits.
Humility allows associations to accept the vulnerability of a situation, which acts as a catalyst for positive change – the need to do something about it.
Transparency allows associations to communicate openly and collaboratively. Authenticity resonates with members – a small admittance invariably creates a large acceptance. Admitting truth creates engagement because members feel respected and valued
Courage inspires associations to do the right thing and take firm action to protect the interests of members. Action inspires members to reciprocate – once they see their association assertively supporting their needs, they become more inclined to re-engage and help.
These attributes can go a long way to engage, unite and mobilise members. And once members fully support their association, what it can achieve becomes truly titanic.
What members don’t want is spin. Spin is dead. Members can see through it. They turn off when all they hear is noise, personal agendas or a lack of interest in dealing with the things that matter to them.
What members want comes down to three things – truth, clarity and confidence.
Truth – Members want to know that their association is honest and genuine in serving their needs without keeping secrets.
Clarity – Members want to understand exactly what it is that their association is doing to help them, why they are doing it and how things are going.
Confidence – Members want to feel a sense of confidence and pride in their association’s actions and the outcomes this delivers for them.
Truth, clarity and confidence are integral to that sense of belonging and trust that make associations so valuable to their members. Giving members what they want enables associations to deliver on something even more important – what they need. Member needs are a fundamental requirement and every association has an obligation to deliver them.
Eight simple shifts in perspective can powerfully enhance an association’s value and relevance in the eyes of members.
- Collective Needs – Not Individual Demands
- Organisational Values – Not Personal Bias
- Confident Innovation – Not Business as Usual
- Deliver Value – Not Price
- Communicate Clarity – Not Confusion
- Communicate Truth – Not Doublespeak
- Customisation – Not Generalisation
- Consistency – Not Irregularity
Remember Leonardo DiCaprio embracing Kate Winslet on Titanic’s bow, with their arms out and the horizon beckoning as the ship powers forward? How different the future might have been with just a few, simple changes.
Here are the eight simple steps to deliver what members need.
- Collective Needs – Not Individual Demands
Individual members can be difficult. Personal agendas disguised as a sense of member entitlement can tear associations apart. The member mindset that says ‘I pay your salary so you should do what I want,’ can create divisions when an association serves individual preferences. An association’s bias for favourites can serve to disengage other members, but even those who appear uncommunicative can still care – and may just need a different approach. It’s difficult to create value for all when an association relegates the greater good behind individual demands.
Associations must serve the collective need of the overall membership, not individual member demands. This builds unity, pride and trust. Once associations hold themselves accountable to their mission and vision, members have an incentive to unite behind it because it reassures them that their needs are being addressed. When members see associations standing up for what’s right, it becomes easier for them to put aside their individual demands. This provides the perfect justification not to pander to individual agendas – that the association is committed to the greater good of all members. A rising tide lifts all ships. Focusing on collective needs becomes a catalyst to deliver more value in membership, which then scales to become a powerful force to attract future members.
The more reasons associations create to make members feel proud, the better the individual behaviours align with the collective.
- Organisational Values – Not Personal Bias
Individual members can be particularly sensitive to any bias or perception of self-interest in associations and their governing bodies. These perceptions are the cause of considerable membership angst and the genesis of many member action groups. Associations can come undone by the negativity caused by such groups in the market – whether it is deserved or not.
Holding everyone accountable to a set of organisational values upholds a clear standard of behaviour, and requires that no-one can act in a biased or discretionary manner. This sends a powerful message. Externally, it eliminates the perception of self-interest that members can find exasperating. Internally, it provides the clarity to correct the behaviour of any directors, managers or staff acting outside of the agreed values. The very definition of integrity is an adherence to a clear set of values, which is what members look for. It reassures them that their association is (first and foremost) serving their needs, not its own.
Associations that hold themselves accountable to values, communicate that they are committed to fulfilling their purpose – serving members. In turn, this increases their power to hold members’ behaviour accountable to the association and educates them that membership has responsibilities as well as privileges. One of the responsibilities of membership is to behave with decorum.
Organisational values can transform member angst into member support.
- Confident Innovation – Not Business as Usual
As Gary Hamel said, innovation is the only insurance against irrelevance. But innovation cannot thrive in a ‘business as usual’ mindset.
The starting point is to fix the no-brainers, and deliver what members need the most. Sometimes, members may not even know what that is. Before launching the Model T Ford in 1908 and selling 16 million cars, Henry Ford said ‘If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse’.
To share a personal example, when we were looking to launch a new digital resource, we knew it would help members because that’s where the future of the market was heading. Even though some members had not yet embraced online selling or were unsure whether they would want to pay for a new service, we innovated and launched it anyway because it was a no-brainer. We knew it would help members and it was incumbent on us to lead the market into the future. It took a strong communications and educational campaign to explain its benefits, but the outcome was 100% uptake. Members willingly paid for it, and got fresh leads and new orders from the outset. The results they got created trust in us as a successful innovator and market leader.
‘Innovate or die’ might sound like a mantra for the corporate world, but your members will thank you for it. Dealing with the no-brainers upfront is a great way to get started.
Every association knows its own sector in the same way – what is the one thing your members need more than anything else that you could be delivering?
- Deliver Value – Not Price
It’s never about price. It’s always about value.
The digital resource example is a case in point. Before members could see the value, some were adamant they would not want to pay for this. So how is it that they did, and gladly? They realised that for a little extra price, they were getting a whole lot of extra value. And who did they thank for delivering them value – their association! This is a classic win-win.
Members across all sectors want to keep their costs down, and usually try and demand that their associations do the same with their prices. This is not unique to any one association or sector (although it can seem so). It is relevant for all. Focusing on price is a trap – to keep prices down, associations don’t invest in delivering the new value that members may pay for. This perpetuates an image of a low value commodity – and when members don’t see new value created, they complain even more about price. It’s a vicious cycle.
Even more than saving money, members want their association to help them make more of it, or deliver value in other ways. This can be through information, education, training, advice, connections, advocacy and more. So long as the sum total of the financial and non-financial value created adds up to significantly more than the price of the service, then members will buy it gladly. Never be afraid to charge a fair price, if you are delivering value. That doesn’t mean price gouging!
The membership fee is the most evident and often most sensitive price point. So, is the membership fee model dead? This is the wrong question. A better question is whether the fee provides sufficient value. Does it deliver against competitive choices? In a free market where members can get the services they need from alternative providers, the membership fee must offer value for money. A low price alone won’t retain or acquire members. A greater risk for associations is being too dependent on membership fees as the prime revenue source. Without another revenue source, associations can come unstuck – when the fee doesn’t reflect fair value, members drift towards competitors and are often lost forever.
Over and above the fee model, it doesn’t matter where the income comes from, so long as it is in line with mission and vision – call it a portfolio approach. The key is value delivery and a service orientation. Value delivery is competing effectively in the network economy. Service orientation is allowing members to choose what they need, when they need it – and ensuring that the entire association is geared to deliver it. If members can cherry-pick additional services from their association, it gives them even more reasons to join and stay. The more value an association adds in offering optional services, the more power it creates to charge a decent market price on the obligatory membership fee.
Revenue diversity has multiple benefits beyond the obvious financial ones. If an association has introduced new services that members are willing to pay for, it is clearly meeting a need. If it is meeting new needs, it is maintaining relevance – which makes it even more attractive to members.
This may seem counterintuitive but delivering value through revenue diversity so you don’t have to rely on the fee enables you to sustain the fee itself.
- Communicate Clarity – Not Confusion
When things get tough, members don’t want to hear that their association is strong, powerful and flourishing. Just because an association claims it’s strong doesn’t mean it is working hard for members, solving their problems or creating opportunities for them. Messages like this can portray an association as more interested in itself, than helping members – a prime catalyst for member disaffection. Members want to know what their association is doing for them!
Members need to hear that you are listening, that you are focused on their problems and what exactly you are doing about it. They want specific details in order to understand and evaluate how well you are serving their needs.
Think of communications like a virtual progress report for members. Convey to members why every action taken by their association is beneficial to them, and how it helps them by linking back to the mission and vision. Make every message crystal clear, so that they understand why you are doing what you are doing, how it helps them and what your actions are. Communicate in the language of members about things of importance to members. You don’t have to get this perfectly right, and members can easily misinterpret things. But each time you are not as clear as you could have been, learn to be a little clearer the next time. Just because you’ve sent a message doesn’t mean it has been received so use an omni-channel approach to reach members in their preferred mediums. This includes everything from email, newsletters, social media, magazine articles, brochures, trade advertising, partner communications, welcome kits, conference speeches, town hall gatherings and of course, face to face meetings.
It doesn’t take long for members to appreciate good, honest intentions. It doesn’t take long for clear messaging to help members understand the issues – and drive confidence, trust and engagement.
- Communicate Truth – Not Doublespeak
A Victorian association executive, who wishes to remain anonymous, admitted that the policies his organisation had created were designed to obfuscate. They were written to keep members at bay, so they wouldn’t ask too many difficult questions. The aim supposedly was for the association to shield itself from accountability. He said the same about their board reports. Rather than being concise documents to inform the governing body, they looked more like scripts from Yes Minister with verbose obfuscations, circumlocutions and ludicrously complicated sentences designed to keep the board in the dark.
Honesty is an engagement strategy. Never be afraid to tell the truth, or show vulnerability. Best-selling author Brené Brown says that invulnerability is a fake shield that executives use to protect themselves from blame, judgement and criticism. What’s this got to do with association management, you may ask? I was invited by a forward-thinking global hotel group to give a keynote presentation on vulnerability to 60 of their general managers. If one of the world’s most successful service-oriented companies wants to promote vulnerability to its customer-facing leaders, you can be confident this is the future of engagement. They know that invulnerability doesn’t work. When executives buy into the ego of having to be perfect, it’s hard to admit vulnerability – so they have to keep pretending they are perfect. However, members (and employees) can see through this. Here’s the logic: we know people are not perfect, and therefore if they pretend to be perfect, they must be playing a role. If they are playing a role, the inescapable conclusion is that they are inauthentic – fake. And who wants to engage with fake?
Telling the truth sends a powerful message. It reassures members that you are genuinely on their side, no matter what – and that you are real. It is this authenticity that creates the trust that drives engagement. The link between truth and engagement is not well known, but it is a powerful force. Let me give you an example.
In September 2008, we had organised a large expo that filled the (then) Sydney Convention & Exhibition Centre to the brim. Markets were strong and exhibitors were filled with anticipation. On September 15, five days before the opening, Lehman Brothers collapsed and the Global Financial Crisis was here. With the world in shock, and confidence shaken, buyer orders at the expo were significantly down. At the cocktail party with 1,000 customers in front of me, I said sorry. I told them I knew how much effort they had put in to the expo, and how much they had expected to sell, and that for many of them it had been painful financially and disappointing. They were expecting excuses and doublespeak – what they got was truth and vulnerability. 1,000 customers gave our team a huge round of applause. Some of their businesses were riding on the orders they expected, and yet not one customer blamed us for what happened. They knew we had done all we could as an organisation and they thanked us for our integrity. We reassured them that we would redouble our efforts, and for years afterwards, people would tell me that this was a reason they stuck with us. They knew we were real and that they could rely on us.
Communicating truth doesn’t just create engagement – it can retain customers (read members) and generate revenue for the future.
- Customisation – Not Generalisation
Communicating one general message to the market is becoming increasingly insufficient because ‘the market’ is now less of one homogenous identity, and more the greater sum of its individual segments.
Associations cannot be all things to all people. A clearly articulated value proposition will outline where an association needs to operate – whether it can serve all segments or needs to customise. Some segments may conflict with others, so there may be difficult decisions to be made in determining the optimum footprint. Once this is clear, associations need to communicate with members across all segments as if the conversation was a personalised, one to one discussion.
A generalist message cannot engage specialist segments – it is too superficial. Members need solutions to the specific problems facing their specialist segment. By necessity, association messaging must be customised to provide meaningful and relevant engagement.
Technology is simultaneously a cause of this and the solution to it. Technology enables the complexity that creates new opportunities for specialisation. This breaks down general markets into niche segments, each of which has differing constituents and needs. Technology also provides the solution to communicate with each of these segments in a bespoke and mass customised basis – clear, simple messages designed exclusively for each segment.
The foundation for this is a contemporary CRM system filled with highly customised rich data on all member segments, needs, demographics, product and service history, engagement and sociographics. It is at this deeper level of customisation that associations can engage with members in meaningful and relevant ways – and enable it to provide a matrix of customised services appealing to each segment.
- Consistency – Not Irregularity
On one hand, members can complain that they don’t get enough information and feel uninformed. On the other, they can get annoyed with too much communication. How can you strike the right balance?
Consistency and timing are the keys.
- External Consistency – This requires a rigorous attention to detail. The brand and logo usage needs to be consistent, the same colours, the same background, the same positioning. The communication style needs to be the same tone. The spelling and grammar need to be perfect. All marketing campaigns need to be fully integrated and consistent. In other words, everything you put out into the marketplace needs to be seen and recognised as you immediately. No variations to the agreed campaign – unless of course this is a mindful, carefully deliberated change of strategy. Why? The consistency drives awareness, and the professionalism drives trust.
- Internal Consistency – Make sure everyone sings from the same song sheet. When a member has a question about an important service or policy, he or she should get the same answer from everyone, whether that it is the receptionist or the Chair. Socialise the key messages with the entire staff and the governing body. Members often approach board directors personally, so make sure they know and support the specific brand messages. To communicate important changes, get a consultant in to refine the messaging and embed them with everyone. Or at least, send a sheet with FAQs (frequently asked questions) to all staff and volunteers so everyone is informed and can speak with some authority.
- Timing – Integrate all the communications from all of your departments, and schedule them so they don’t conflict with one another. Don’t send an email newsletter, invoice, conference program, policy announcement and Workplace Health & Safety update all on the same day. It’s not so much the quantity of communications that annoys members, it’s their timing. Spread it out.
Then bang home your messages! The members need to hear them, and there is a lot of noise out there getting in the way. Just because an association makes an announcement or sends a message doesn’t mean it has been received, let alone understood – or acted upon! It will take multiple ways, multiple channels and multiple contexts for your message to cut through.
Changing member needs and rising expectations are two of the greatest challenges facing associations today – with 50% of associations admitting they are either poor or mediocre in meeting member needs. Not only are members themselves changing – with baby boomers being replaced by generation Xers and millennials – the manner in which members interact with associations is changing too. This double-whammy has left many associations searching for solutions to remain relevant.
The old are being replaced by the new.
Traditional and relatively uninformed, the old can be loyal, habit driven, activity focused, trusting of institutions and unquestioning. To them, membership of their association was their default setting. It was expected of them, if not an obligation. They relied on their association to inform them. Their world view began small, limited by the information and choices available to them, and grew over time. They are active within their own networks.
Contemporary and digitally informed 24×7, the new are sceptical, opportunity driven, outcomes focused, distrusting of institutions and demanding. To them, membership is merely an option – based on how it helps them. They rely on themselves to get informed, and on peer recommendations from people they know, like and trust. Their world view exploded from an early age, offering limitless choices. They are socially and globally active across multiple platforms, networks and communities.
Associations relying on loyalty will become increasingly disappointed. Oscar Wilde foretold in the late 1800s how loyalty is changing today: ‘What they call their loyalty I call either the lethargy of custom or their lack of imagination’. In other words, associations can’t rely on loyalty anymore. They must re-earn it by challenging their customs and accelerating their imaginations to engage with the changing needs of members. All associations face these challenges, and none have a membership so unique that it can justify maintaining old methods to engage new audiences.
Millennials, in particular, have come to represent the new generation of membership. Thinking of them as forever young is a limiting stereotype. Many of them will expect to reach the ripe old age of 100 as a matter of course, and the generation as a whole will swell the ranks of ‘old people’ well into the future. They are the future, and they insist on engaging with your association on their terms. And all associations will do well to surrender the old and accept these new terms of engagement.
Three things set millennials apart from the old.
- Information Rich – They already have all the information they need. They have googled whatever it is they are looking for, and found the answers online. They are three steps ahead even before they consider engaging directly with you, and they don’t need you to give them more information.
- Socially Active – They are socially active across multiple social networks from Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter and others we probably haven’t even heard of yet. They share information inexhaustibly, and will share yours if there is something in it for them.
- Authentic Relationships – They demand authenticity and seek friendships and relationships not just at work, but with organisations and brands as well. They need to connect on a personal level with your association and grow to know, like and trust you first.
Millennials crave authenticity. It can seem counterintuitive to traditionalists who have been conditioned that associations must be all knowing and all powerful. These ‘rules’ were established generations ago for a different time, and millennials don’t abide by them. When associations pretend to be perfect, millennials can see right through the insincerity. They want truthfulness, sincerity, devotion and positive intentions.
Groucho Marx said ‘The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made’. There’s no need to fake it. It’s easier to be authentic, honest and fair with members. Isn’t that the essence of a member-serving association?
Authenticity has an added benefit. Authentic, honest reflection can reveal the gaps in association performance that must be addressed to maintain relevance into the future. Moving beyond pretending to be perfect is a strategy in itself. Perfection necessarily avoids the critical issues, while authenticity brings them to light, where they can be tackled.
Millennial attention spans are notoriously short. Plus they have multiple electronic distractions on hand at any given moment. Associations must get the message across quickly before they lose interest. Simple is better than complex. Remember, millennials have the information anyway. They don’t want more information. They want to know ‘What’s in it for me?’ Visual is better than verbal – millennials would rather learn through watching a video than reading an article. It’s easier, faster, simpler and clearer for them.
Millennials have no inclination to wade through clutter and are deterred by bureaucracy. Getting a message across in 30 words is more powerful than writing a paragraph because it is clearer. Simplicity forces clarity – it discards the unnecessary to reveal the intrinsic value. Leonardo da Vinci has been credited with saying that ‘Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication’. How right he was.
To attract millennials, simplicity must run through the veins of every association and pump clarity. The membership categories must be simple, joining must be easy and the member value must be clear.
How social is your association? The prolific sharing of content on social media seems inexhaustible and technology surrounds us with constant stimuli. It can be overwhelming. Luckily, even with digital, the Pareto principle still applies – 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.
Associations cannot engage with every conversation online, and they don’t need to. The strategy is as simple as picking the most relevant social media channels and doing them well. It could be as few as two or three platforms, which makes the process manageable. Don’t spread yourself too thin. The key is dialogue, connecting socially and responding to comments. In the same way as you wouldn’t ignore someone face to face, you cannot ignore someone online. You need to respond quickly. Otherwise they think you don’t care. But when you do connect with them, they can carry your message to literally millions of their peers. If they know, like and trust you online, millennials can help you engage with their communities and spread the word. Word of mouth has historically been one of the most important drivers of new memberships – online peer recommendations are the modern version of this. Only they are immensely more powerful in quantity and speed.
Social media is not a public relations mechanism, or a one-way marketing goal. It is a conversation. Facilitating genuine conversations requires letting go of control over content. The aim is less about what the association can achieve in distributing content on social media, and more about what members might achieve if they share and discuss it.
Engagement channels are changing too. Associations that rely on traditional media will reach only traditional users. Associations wanting to target millennials, young adults or new categories of members must connect with their media choices. Just because an association has always used a particular media doesn’t mean that is where it will find its future members. If millennials can’t find you in their media choices, they won’t engage with you.
Getting social has added benefits too. The immediate feedback can be illuminating. Even when it is negative, complaints are a great opportunity to resolve problems and re-engage disaffected members. In building engaged online communities, what often happens is that other members defend and advocate on behalf of their association when it is unfairly challenged. Their support becomes an online peer recommendation, accelerating an association’s positive image.
Trust operates differently between the generations. The trust that baby boomers and the generation before them had for institutions and brands, is not shared by generation Xers or millennials. Take what happened in 1954. The US tobacco industry jointly advertised, to 43 million Americans through 448 newspapers, that research findings implicating smoking as a cause of cancer were ‘questionable’ and promised consumers that their cigarettes were safe. Abhorrent as it may seem, you can imagine that being taken on trust in 1954 – but certainly not today!
Is it any wonder that millennials and generation Xers don’t trust organisations as much as baby boomers did? They feel they have been misled by organisations and have become weary and untrusting of them.
Millennials have different filters on trust than baby boomers. Top down messages from big media, brands and organisations don’t resonate – and that includes associations. Millennials are far more influenced by peer to peer recommendations. The battleground for this trust is an authentic and collaborative relationship developed online through social media.
It changes the entire premise of the membership offering. Previously, associations might have been able to rely on the trust generated by their market position, image and influence with baby boomers. Today, it means little for millennials. Associations literally have to start over and refresh their offerings to engage future audiences. How exciting and a little scary at the same time! But what a perfect opportunity to reinvigorate and create the new value these prospective members demand. What a great excuse to move forward into the future.
What’s in it for me? It’s what all prospective members want to know. Ultimately, it comes down to customer service. Members want to feel as though it’s all about them – their needs, their aspirations. They want their association to service them.
Service costs nothing except time, effort and dedication. If associations should improve one thing, this would be it. Simple things like excellent customer service often make the greatest difference. The most innovative new product will fail if it does not come wrapped up in great customer service. The best strategic plan will stall if members don’t feel valued. Service is the determining success factor for all member-serving associations.
So what does great customer service look like? You can feel it as soon as you engage with a truly service-oriented association. It’s the confidence that everyone really does care. It’s working together to take advantage of any opportunity to deliver great service. It’s not waiting an extra moment more before taking positive action. The tell-tale signs are small but significant. One association I visited in researching this book stood out. When I arrived, their receptionist knew who I was meeting and made me feel welcome. Every single staff member walking past greeted me and checked whether I was being attended to. The CEO was professional, efficient and inspiring. In the meeting, she said she would have one of her colleagues send me some additional materials. Her colleague emailed it to me before I had left the building, with a proactive message asking if I needed anything further. That’s service! A day later, I received a hand written note of thanks from the CEO. The experience gave me a sense of confidence in the association.
Create some internal service level agreements with your team. Define the response times and service levels you would like to give members. Make them realistic, but stretch to make them distinctive. Empower everyone with the responsibility to give the best possible service you can. Make your members feel special. Make them feel loved. Lift up their confidence. Inspire them. Because when they feel your service, they’ll more easily forgive other shortcomings. Doing the basics brilliantly gives you a massive competitive advantage.
It’s all about the member. Serving member needs is at the heart of everything an association does. This may sound obvious, given associations were established to serve their members. But there can often be a gap between intentions and outcomes, between words and deeds, and between theory and practice. All associations want to serve members, and many serve them well. But how many can demonstrate that everything they do prioritises member needs above all else? There can also be a gap between what associations believe they are doing for members, and what they are actually doing. Closing the gap starts with service orientation.
Service orientation is allowing members to choose what they need, when they need it – and ensuring that their association is geared to deliver it. In practice, this means that if there is a conflict between a bone fide member need and an internal process, the process must change to serve the member – not vice versa. It means designing the entire portfolio of products and services specifically around clearly defined member needs. It means setting rigorous internal service level standards that all staff meet and exceed in engaging with members – every single day. This complete, unrelenting focus on members sets associations apart for the future. Why? Membership is a privilege to be earned by associations, not an obligation on members. Associations that know it must be re-earned every year are more likely to deliver better value.
Associations that transform their entire operations to fully serve members understand that members are in charge because they have choices and that their choices dictate the very future of associations.
When this service orientation is extended to the market, membership nirvana becomes a possibility. How many associations strive for 100% membership reach? The answer should be 100%! Why wouldn’t every association want to achieve maximum membership? If an association offers complete service orientation and member value, why couldn’t it achieve total market membership? This ambition transforms a virtuous intention of serving members, into a powerful growth driver. It sets in motion a higher expectation of association performance, which in turn drives the necessity to innovate and improve.
The future of associations is achieved through serving members, not in isolation of them. Commercial performance is enhanced because of members, not despite them. Service orientation ignites this virtuous cycle.
It is unlikely that anyone would dispute the benefits of a systematic investigation in order to establish facts and reach new conclusions. And yet, many associations arrive at conclusions and come to judgements based on little more than gut feel or anecdotal evidence. I am, of course, talking about research. How can associations operating without research know whether they are meeting member needs? Relying on anecdotal evidence is dangerous. Just because a handful of members say one thing doesn’t make it true for all. Human beings are predisposed to prioritising feedback we already agree with. Too many association executives can be quick to claim that their members love them, without the evidence to support it. While we all want to do well for our members and believe that we do, we need research to prove it – or show us where we may have missed the mark.
Research always begins with knowing who to ask. Happy loyal members might seem like a good place to start, but they are more likely to tell you the positives you want to hear, rather than the negatives you need to hear. The latter will help you more in the long-term, painful though it may seem while you receive it. Taking loyalty and satisfaction as the two main criteria, there are four different groups of members within all associations:
- Apostles – Loyal and satisfied. Often the most engaged with your association. Happy to tell you why they love you, and what’s great about your association.
- Hostages – Loyal but dissatisfied. Willing to remain a member despite their needs not being fully met. May feel trapped or lack alternate options.
- Mercenaries – Disloyal but satisfied. Open to offers from competitors and may leave as soon as a better opportunity arises.
- Disaffected – Disloyal and dissatisfied. May have left already, or their membership may be about to lapse. Often openly vocal in their criticism of your association.
In terms of research, they are all equal. Whether they hate your association or are unjustifiably biased towards it doesn’t mean their voice doesn’t count. Talk to them all, especially the disaffected who may be more open to telling you the truth about where your association is underperforming. In particular, seek out new (or younger) members, as they may have more to share about current trends or a new vision for the future. Track changes in each of these groups annually. Are you attracting more apostles or creating more disaffected members? Have hostages or mercenaries increased or declined? The research will point you towards how to address the cause of these changes.
The Net Promoter Score (NPS) is a management tool to gauge loyalty. Most Fortune 1000 companies use NPS, which is widely accepted in the corporate sector. It is based on one simple question, and a 0-10 point scale: ‘How likely is it that you would recommend our (association) to a friend or colleague?’ Those who score 9-10 are Promoters, while those who score 0-6 are Detractors, with the NPS calculated as the former minus the latter – simple. However, I have come across associations too afraid to implement a NPS for fear of what the score may reveal about them, or highlight where they are underperforming! Associations committed to service orientation should be eager to discover their NPS, because it lets them know how well they are performing in the perceptions of their members. It also provides a benchmark for improvement into the future – helping them to perform better. If every association adopted a NPS, it would deliver a comparable benchmark across all associations. That would give prospective members an immediate insight into thousands of associations at a glance. A high NPS could drive new membership acquisition, while a low NPS might spur associations to improve their service offerings. Either way, it would help generate better commercial performance.
Beyond satisfaction and loyalty research, it can be helpful to conduct a needs analysis. Needs analysis is the process of understanding the goals, aspirations and needs of members, and analysing them in order to find the solutions that satisfy them. Member needs are often complex and conflicting, and without a process to undercover them, they may remain unfulfilled by their association. Ask questions from the member’s perspective – what is it that they most need from their association? Be precise with your wording. Provide some test statements for validation or offer comprehensive multiple choice options. The process may take some time to refine until you have a firm understanding of their needs. Make sure your research can drill down into sufficient member demographics and categories. Member needs can vary significantly between job function, size of organisation, specialist sector, length of membership and any other category. For example, one group may have a core need for education, while another’s may be for networking. Knowing who needs what, helps you satisfy them all separately. Analyse the data for each category separately to reveal their specific needs. This process is more productive than analysing the entire membership, because there will be less conflicting data – so patterns will be easier to identify. Your aim is to create a matrix of needs across all the demographics and categories you have identified. This matrix becomes the building block of the services you need to deliver to satisfy all members.
Gap analysis is the comparison of actual performance with potential performance. It identifies the difference between requirements and capabilities, and can be put to effective use to reveal the gaps where member needs are not being met. Two questions work in unison – based around importance and performance. The first question asks members how important a particular area is, against a predetermined range of replies from ‘essential’ to ‘not at all important’. For balance, the range should include the same number and weight of positive choices as negative choices (preferably two each) and one neutral option in between them. The area itself can be a product, service, need or aspiration – the choices for inclusion are limitless. The second question asks how well the association is actually performing to deliver this. The range of replies is the same, albeit with slightly different wording from ‘excellent’ to ‘not at all well’. Providing each reply with a numerical score enables a net score for both importance and performance. The net gap score is the difference between them. Hypothetically, (an area such as) networking may have an importance score of 4.3 and a performance score of 2.9 to reveal a gap of minus 1.4. These can be ranked across all items to transparently highlight an association’s performance across all areas. The data also serves to rank all the areas based on importance to members. The purpose of the gap analysis is to raise questions around the metrics revealed. For example, what more can be done to improve networking opportunities?
Research insights can ignite internal debate around critical questions, and improve the efficacy of any board or strategy meeting. Every conference, networking function, education session and service will all benefit from research into how well it delivered on member needs. The opportunities to uncover data are limitless, and the more research you do, the more members feel like their needs are being heard. So long as you take some action towards delivering them, of course. Knowing what your members need is directly linked to developing your own competitive readiness in the market, which in turn drives your commercial performance.
If all this research sounds expensive and time consuming, it isn’t. There are times when investing in an independent research organisation is beneficial, but all of the research outlined in this section can be done in-house, so long as you stick to best practice questions and methodology. Survey Monkey is an accessible, cost-efficient resource that requires no formal training to use, and delivers easy-to-understand data insights at the push of a button. The Australian Associations Research Survey was conducted through Survey Monkey at a total cost of less than $500.
Provide all of the services members need, and nothing else but these services. This simple, powerful rule can guarantee relevance into the future, but it is not easy to deliver.
It’s much easier to roll out last year’s offering than to conduct a full review and create the optimum portfolio of services. Perhaps this is why many associations continue to sell ‘membership’ rather than ‘services’ and lack the innovation required for effective portfolio development. Overwhelmingly, 62% of associations admit that they are poor or mediocre at Maintaining Relevance. What does this say about the quality of their services?
Associations can try promoting a large shopping list of products and services, but this practice has shortcomings. Unless they deliver value, they remain simply a list – often unused or unwanted. They can waste precious resources of time, money and effort. The tell-tale signs that the shopping list strategy is not working include reducing membership numbers, diminishing engagement levels and low satisfaction ratings. These are three good reasons to ditch the shopping list, and identify the core services that will form the basis of an effective portfolio. Shredding non-core services also strips back the confusion of having too many unrelated offerings to reveal an association’s compelling value proposition – making it clearer to members why they should engage. Less is more, and powerfully so.
The top two reasons for not renewing membership often come down to being unable to justify a return on the investment, and a lack of engagement with the association itself. Two questions point towards portfolio development – What do members need? What level of uptake can be achieved?
Research provides the answers to the first question. Even the simplest gap analysis will reveal which services members clearly don’t want. If the majority of members rate a particular service as unessential or not very important to them, what justification is there for holding on to it? Why waste time and effort supplying services members don’t want? Delete these services and focus on more valuable ones. Your members will thank you for it. The very act of cancelling an unwanted service can increase member confidence – members don’t want you wasting funds. Research can also reveal which services need to be improved. That said members are often poor in articulating what they really need. It’s an association’s role to find out exactly what members need by questioning, prompting, prodding, discussing and debating. However, research can only point the way – decisions have to be taken. It is the action that research prompts that delivers value, and helps create an effective portfolio. The actions don’t need to be perfect. Each one simply needs to be better than the previous one to create the impetus for continuous improvement. When associations ask members what they need and then take action to deliver it, they cannot lose. They either win, or learn. Either way, they grow by earning the respect and confidence of their members.
You can benchmark how engaged your members are, in order to set realistic goals for the future. Associations can look outside their own sectors or even their own countries, because a benchmark is only a gauge. It doesn’t need to be exact. It does, however, require associations to stop thinking that their members are somehow unique, special or different to the millions of members of other associations. They are not. Associations share similar threats, challenges – and therefore similar solutions. One benchmark is the Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report from an organisation called Marketing General Incorporated in the US. It lists engagement levels across services like attendance at events, participation in social networks, visits to the members-only section of a website, attendance at professional development meetings, webinar attendances, maintenance of certification, purchases of non-dues services, mentoring programs, membership upgrades and the purchase of ancillary services such as insurance. Just because the data is American doesn’t make the benchmarks any less practical. They provide a simple gauge of where your engagement levels could be, and provide a target for the improvement required to rise to that level.
When engagement levels are tracking significantly below the benchmarks, it prompts the question why. If other associations can achieve a certain level, why are we performing so poorly in comparison? What can we do to improve? The answers could point towards many solutions, from improving the service to improving the marketing. Sometimes members might want a service, but when you deliver it, engagement levels remain low. Some things may be slow burners that take time. So long as there is continuous improvement in engagement, there remains justification to commit further energy and resources. There are no easy answers. However, if you can put your hand on your heart and honestly say that you have given a service the best possible opportunity to connect with members and they still don’t want it – perhaps it’s time to let it go?
Understanding what members need and innovating to deliver relevant products and services is the essence of a portfolio approach. It’s difficult to go wrong with when you deliver what members need with a service orientation.
However, sometimes things do go wrong.
A member crisis can signal both a time of intense difficulty and the need for an important decision to be made. The Chinese language sums up the word crisis with two characters – the first representing danger and the second, opportunity. Perceiving a member crisis as an opportunity rather than an inconvenience can dramatically affect the way it can be tackled and resolved. It can also be a turning point to steer an association towards progress, change and influence.
On my first day as CEO of an industry association, I inherited a loud and vocal member action group that had been conducting a public campaign against the association and board for many months. They had printed a brochure on what they felt was wrong, bought an advertisement in the trade press highlighting their concerns and created an online newsletter to articulate their manifesto to anyone who would listen. My first action was to arrange a meeting with the leader of the action group and to fly down and talk with him personally.
The advice I give to association leaders with whom I work is to do the same. Member action groups don’t generally arise without a reason across all association sectors, so it is not unreasonable to assume that something significant may have occurred in the past to cause them. The first step is to listen with an open mind, and fully understand what that is. It takes empathy to allow what might seem like a combatant to speak their mind openly, but it is a necessary step towards a resolution. Instead of making judgements about who is right or wrong, the aim of listening is to try and get a sense of the unmet need of the member action group. Invariably, underlying needs are well founded, although the tactics to achieve them may not be. The need will differ from group to group. It could be a need for belonging, a need to be heard, a need to be respected, a need for progress, or a need for help from their association. Associations must focus on member action group needs, not tactics.
Listening to the needs of members is a priority for all member serving associations. It may take time for members to fully express their feelings of frustration, anger or disappointment. Once they have, it becomes easier for the real tangible issues to be revealed. Keep the conversations positive, and on common ground. Agree that while the problem may have been in the past, the solutions necessarily lie in the future. Going over the past does not serve either party and can only accentuate the conflict. Agree to focus on needs, so both parties discuss opportunities for getting both member needs and association needs met in the future. The resolution must not be ‘zero sum’ – we have been falsely conditioned that in a conflict, there must be a winner and a loser. This is a fallacy. Why can’t both sides win? There can be a synergy of mutual ideas for the benefit of both.
As for my example, pretty soon after our first discussion, we developed a mutual respect and the beginnings of trust. The upside for the member action group was that they could see key issues being tackled and the association moving forward assertively. The upside for us was the resolution of what had been a distraction and the creation of a more united association, with more engaged members and new collaborative ideas for the future. Everyone wins.
Every member action group can provide valuable feedback, information and ideas. If they didn’t care about the association, they wouldn’t be acting. Association leaders can find valuable new suggestions for future progress and re-engage members to support the association’s goals. This is what makes a member crisis an opportunity.
It is however, important to remember that all members have a voice, not just the vocal ones.
With 77% of associations citing Insufficient Resources as their biggest operating challenge, and 80% self-ranking as poor/mediocre on Commercial Growth, it seems clear that improving commercial performance should be a priority.
And yet, not all nonprofit associations have embraced income as a key enabler of success, even though every association must make regular profits to sustain itself into the future. The only difference stipulated by its nonprofit status is how this income is invested – going back into member benefits, rather than shareholder returns.
To commercially savvy associations, improving financial performance is a no brainer. So why do some associations see growth as contrary to their aims or as a distraction from their more altruistic activities? Certainly, traditional mindsets and resistance to change play a part in these perceptions but there are other factors.
Language is one, because it shapes our behaviours. The very term ‘nonprofit organisation’ can imply an unhealthy relationship with money. It can incorrectly define profit as contrary to the purpose of an association, and put it in opposition with operational and strategic aims. While profit is not the aim of an association, it is a critical strategy to further its mission and vision. Nonprofit can suggest a distain or an entitlement to money. Both are dangerous. I’ve heard large nonprofits openly admit they got complacent about money because they were too consumed by their cause.
The word profit is glaringly absent from many annual reports, and often replaced by the word surplus. Does calling something a surplus make it any different to a profit? I was at a meeting of a local community organisation at which I volunteer on the executive while the President was addressing members about the potential for a small ‘loss’. One member jumped up in indignation to correct him: ‘It’s not a loss, it’s a shortfall!’ Some words are so taboo they are hardly used – like sales and marketing – even though they are critical functions for any healthy organisation.
Fear is another factor. For associations unaccustomed to having to compete for relevance, knowing how to drive commercial performance can be a challenge. Embracing growth requires confidence and strategy. Is that why nonprofits use different words and did the vernacular evolve as a way to distance associations from the crudeness of financial reality? Is language an attempt to elevate altruistic nonprofits above the seemingly more selfishly motivated commercial companies – and at the same time excuse them from the fear of having to perform commercially?
Whatever the truth of these origins, money deserves much more respect in how it is generated and invested. The receipt of a membership fee is not the end of a transaction, it is the start of a reciprocal journey for the association to deliver commensurate (or more) value in return. A government grant is not a right but a privilege that comes with the accountability to deliver real outcomes. A charitable bequest can represent the life savings or deepest desires of an individual who has passed on – what a huge responsibility to be a diligent custodian of these funds. Future income from commercial activities cannot be taken for granted. It has to be hard fought and won against so many other competitive options. Taking revenue for granted is offensive.
Every dollar earned, invested or donated counts towards the mission and vision, and should be given the respect it deserves. Every dollar deserves a return on investment of some kind, either financial or non-financial – and a transparent account of how it was spent and what the outcome was. The best way to give money the respect it deserves is to put rigour and discipline around it, and use it wisely as a strategy.
Let’s use language that empowers us, not limits us. Let’s shake off the nonprofit misnomer and call ourselves self-funding organisations, or industry/professional/community development organisations. Let’s shake off our fears about growth and commit to robust strategies to drive commercial performance.
Commercial size and scale will help every association to better tackle market issues, deliver on member needs and ensure future sustainability. Commercial performance is critical for associations because it is integrally linked to furthering member benefits. This passion and knowing that every dollar generated will help members makes it an altruistic activity. Getting seriously businesslike about commercial performance is a good thing!
Size matters. The revenue and resource challenges differ for each tier of associations.
Micro Associations – Commercial growth is business-critical for associations generating less than $1 million annual revenue. Their revenue and resource problems can make it difficult to achieve mission and vision. Their balance is in choosing to deliver what they can now or focusing on assertive growth to deliver better and more sustainable services tomorrow.
Mid-Tier Associations – For associations with up to $10 million revenue, the focus is on maintaining efficiency, guarding against complacency and using available resources to innovate consistently for future relevance. The drive for commercial performance grows their capacity to innovate and improve their value proposition and service offering.
Mega Associations – At the top end of the scale for associations with revenue between $10 million to $100 million or more, it’s about being bolder and even more ambitious to grow their pre-eminent positions. Their size makes them massive targets for commercial rivals, member breakaway groups and global association brands looking for new growth markets.
Members want their associations to succeed financially, so they can deliver more value back to them and their markets. Employees want their associations to succeed financially, because it opens up new opportunities for career development and fulfilment. Commercial growth benefits members and staff.
The implicit messages of not striving for commercial success are dangerous. It suggests that the status quo will prevail, that competitors can be ignored and that members will always be loyal. The opposite is true – the status quo does change, new competitors do take hold and memberships don’t get renewed. Associations must deliver commercial performance to remain relevant.
But nothing beats a robust strategic plan, which includes a focus on innovation and new revenue models to grow commercial success and meet member needs at the same time.
There is a caveat. There are absolute limits to commercialism for associations. All commercial strategies must help associations deliver their mission and vision. Every revenue or growth initiative needs to serve the overarching purpose. If there is no correlation to the mission or vision, further growth is questionable. And if a commercial decision detracts from the association’s mission or impinges on its good governance principles in any way, it should not be pursued.
Associations have a purpose beyond profit, and the profit must always serve this purpose.
The word ‘competitive’ is another term linked more with the corporate lexicon than associations. In some nonprofit circles, it can evoke negative connotations of being ruthless, fierce and aggressive. However, it also has a beneficial definition – being better than others of a comparable nature – and it is in this context that the word is used throughout this book.
Being competitive is about your members choosing you over others. Being competitively ready means knowing what they need, knowing what your competitors are doing and successfully delivering services that add value. It means offering your services with confidence because you know they will benefit from them. Before anyone invests in a service, they want to see and feel the commitment of the provider – and members are no different. Members need to be nudged along with an appropriate level of account management (sales and marketing) that is focused on helping them achieve their long-term objectives. This includes educating them on features and benefits, and instilling the confidence for them to purchase. Competitiveness is the foundation to serve members, grow markets and remain relevant.
Being uncompetitive is not having the right products or services available, or not delivering them with quality, price and speed. It also includes leaving members alone to choose from a list of services without interacting with them, or not having the confidence in them to market them properly. Associations not assertive enough to prompt members into action can leave them feeling underserviced or underwhelmed. Many factors can cause an association to become uncompetitive, but complacency often plays a role.
Corporates take competitive readiness for granted, as it is integral in acquiring new customers. It is less ingrained in the DNA of associations, who are traditionally less focused on competition. Harrison Coerver and Mary Byers’ Race for Relevance describes associations as tradition-driven, slow and risk averse. Stephen Covey’s The Speed of Trust describes high-trust companies as fast and efficient. This puts associations who are less engaged in applying their strengths to winning commercially, at a disadvantage against corporates who are highly geared for competition, fighting fit and battle ready.
My own experience running a corporate highlights a highly competitive approach. We used to track every aspect of the market’s movements, and we knew which of our customers and prospects were doing business with each of our six major competitors. The head office scrutiny was intense, as it usually is with growth oriented companies. Any movement on dozens of growth and market share metrics demanded an explanation. It might have been acceptable not to achieve a revenue figure every now and then, so long as we could demonstrate we were outperforming the market. But there were no excuses for ever losing market share against a competitor. It kept you very focused to say the least, and it certainly stimulated growth.
Unlike corporates, market share analysis is unusual in associations. An association’s position can be to accommodate the prevailing market demand from members, rather than to track or grow the overall market. Some define their role as responding to member needs, not accelerating them – although the two drivers cannot be precisely separated. Many do not have sales teams – although ethical account management can benefit both members and the association to grow. Beyond membership, many associations do not track where new demand for services comes from or where lost business goes to – so they may never know if the member stop purchasing or took his business to a competitor.
Associations are not exempt from outside competitors, and member loyalty is not guaranteed. With 36% of associations facing Increasing Competition and 50% facing Changing Member Needs, competitive readiness can help them tackle both.
Competitive readiness is the antidote to complacency. It takes a dose of humility to acknowledge the strengths of competitors and the threats they pose. Why focus on your competitors? Their market share gains and losses are an indicator of the behaviours of your members. So your real aim is to better understand the needs of your members through the products and services they choose to buy. If your competitors are growing 6% a year, while your membership is declining by 6% a year – it begs some obvious questions about your own competitiveness. Why are members leaving and what alternative products are fulfilling their needs?
Market share analysis for membership as well as competitors like magazines, exhibitions and conferences is easy to compile. The quantity of members, advertisers, exhibitors and delegates are available on websites. If not, they are self-evident when you subscribe to a magazine or attend an event. It can be as basic as counting heads manually in the keynote presentation, and comparing it with the delegate attendance the year before. Entering this competitive data into a simple spread sheet will disclose market share gains or losses from one event to another, one edition to the next or one association to another. It’s an easy job for an office junior, volunteer or intern and will reveal insights into your association’s true performance. Member research can help uncover more hidden competitive data including alternative providers of education, training, digital and corporate services. The key is in knowing which competitors to track, and to ask the questions in a consistent way from one research survey to the next, so that you can identify movements. This kind of research may not provide absolute market share data, but can be invaluable in identifying changing trends.
- Is the overall market expanding or declining?
- How are we performing against our competitors?
- Which competitors are growing and why?
- What do they offer better than we do?
- What do we need to do to compete more effectively?
- Which competitors are declining?
- What opportunities exist for us to attract new members from our competitors?
- Who has entered the market recently?
- Where have our lapsed members gone and why?
- What are our weaknesses?
- What do we need to do to retain more members?
- How can we improve our products and services?
- What gaps are emerging in the market?
The next step in competitive readiness is what you do about it.
Be honest about your situation. Find the things that your competitors do better than you. Embrace your weaknesses, and look to improve on them. Assess your features, your price, your quality, your service, your speed to market against your competitors. Innovate with new products. There is no time for complacency.
The United States Commissioner of Patents is famous for purportedly saying in 1898 that ‘Everything that can be invented has been invented’. Put into the context of the massive change that has erupted in the digital era, the quote seems even more ridiculous today. And yet, it is so easy for associations to slip into that kind of thinking. To keep doing what they have always done. To think that they don’t need to strive for progress through innovation. The notion of what has always worked in the past is no longer true. The speed and ferocity of change has made it even more urgent for associations to innovate.
When we think of innovation, we often think of Apple, Google and Tesla – multi-billion dollar technology companies that bring us the most incredible and earth-shattering products. Or creative visionaries like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk – individual geniuses who changed the world. Yes, that’s innovation and perhaps at its very best. But these are extraordinary exceptions. Thinking about innovation this way creates real problems and a limiting perception of innovation as being the exclusive domain of genius creativity. If innovation is just about being super smart, super tech and super agile then, how are you going to get everyone to engage with it? What impact is it going to have on association employees, stakeholders or boards who may already be scared about change? Or on those who may be worried they don’t possess those attributes? It’s no wonder so many people are intimidated by innovation when it’s defined in these inaccessible terms.
The reality is that innovation is much less glamourous, and far more accessible. Innovation doesn’t have to be one massive new product, service or program launch. Innovation is also continuous improvement – new systems, strategies and structures. Thinking about innovation as an everyday activity builds an innovation mindset throughout the association, makes it easier to implement and improves your capability to actually discover what your next big thing is. These subtle shifts throughout the association are just as powerful. It is this commitment to continuous improvement that drives progress, change and influence.
The greatest threats and challenges facing associations can all be tackled with innovation. Traditional Mindsets and Resistance to Change can be solved with internal innovation to change culture. Imagine how much more progressive and open to new ideas every association would be if there was no resistance to change, or holding onto traditional mindsets. Board Capability can be immediately improved with governance innovation and reform. Changing Stakeholder Needs can be addressed by resetting objectives and innovating in the delivery of relevant new services. Government Funding/Policy and Insufficient Resources virtually force the need for innovation in search of new ways to deliver programs and solutions, better advocacy outcomes or new, replacement revenue streams.
One stimulus for innovation is disruption, and vice versa. You need innovation to create disruption, and there’s nothing like a bit of disruption to force you to innovate to push back against it. Or rise above it. Innovation and disruption have a relationship like yin and yang – how opposite or contrary forces are actually complementary. One can give rise to the other, and strengthen it.
Innovation can be either yin or yang. Yin is defined as female energy: soft, nurturing and sustainable. Yang is defined as male energy: hard, fierce and often short-lived. Yang innovation is a big new product launch. Yin innovation is continuous improvement, cultural changes and efficient new systems and processes.
Disruption can also be both. Yang disruption is the government cutting your funding, or new competitors stealing market share and influence. Yin disruption is the quietly changing needs and expectations of your members over time, or the stubborn resistance of traditional mindsets.
With 100% of Australian associations agreeing they face disruption, it would make sense that all of them would be innovating to push back or rise above it, especially as 47% said the disruption affecting them was extreme or high! Any yet, 72% of associations self-rated their own innovation as poor or mediocre. It’s fair to say that associations need an innovation roadmap to help them navigate the future.
Think about Kodak. A company formed in 1888 and worth $31 billion at its peak with 145,000 employees, filed for bankruptcy in 2012 in an age of plenty while people were taking more photographs, not less. There are over a quarter of a trillion photos on Facebook and 60 million new photos are uploaded onto Instagram every day. So what happened with Kodak? It wasn’t that they didn’t innovate digitally. They did. In 1975, 26-year old Kodak engineer Steve Sasson presented his prototype digital camera to the company’s technical, marketing and business development departments. The latter two hated it¹¹. Their ‘Kodak Moment’ was not having an innovative culture internally as the future zoomed in on their lens.
The Kodak lesson teaches us that it is people who innovate, not organisations. And it is people who also resist, or block innovation. The implicit messages of not innovating are exceedingly dangerous – that the organisation can sustain itself without doing so. Employees who have not previously worked in an innovative environment can find it fearful and become resistant. So what can associations do today to innovate for future progress? Enable and help your people to get started. Encourage them to try new things, and let them know that it really is OK to fail trying, because innovation necessarily comes with some risk. Embrace and manage a comfortable amount of risk in innovation, because associations that take no risks make no progress. The hallmarks of innovation are empowered employees and a tolerance for failure.
Innovation can be collaborative. An example is the alliance we created with the Fair Trade Association. Some of their members were looking to break into the mainstream retail arena to market ethically produced wares. So we created a dedicated and cost-efficient exhibit for them within our large retail expo. The Fair Trade Association brought the exhibitors, and we shared the marketing. The win for us were new members, a bespoke feature to attract more expo visitors and the satisfaction of helping aspiring businesses in the sector to succeed. The win for them was exposure to new markets and growth for their members. Together, we helped an intrinsically good cause by encouraging more support of the ten principles of Fair Trade which include poverty reduction, fair pricing and a safe and healthy working environment. It is particularly fulfilling to collaborate with other associations in order to deliver better value together. An African proverb carries a universal wisdom: ‘If you want to go fast, go alone but if you want to go far, go together’.
Three predetermined factors make simple innovation projects easy – start small, invest comfortably and know when to pull the plug. Failing fast and moving on is always an option. Often you won’t need to if the response is strong and there are opportunities to grow the following year. Nothing beats having a go.
Members want their associations to tell them what the next big thing is. They want to know where their markets are headed, what the opportunities are and how to get there. This is where innovation gets more complex, because there are no easy answers. The good news is that associations don’t have to have all the answers. What every association can do is ignite debate around the key issues, and bring members together to discuss how to find solutions together. This debate, plus robust research on member needs, market trends, competitive forces and future threats and opportunities will reveal the data and insights that point towards the innovation required.
In the meantime, start where you can – internally and externally. Look for opportunities to collaborate. Empower your people by giving them the confidence and skillsets to innovate, and the trust they won’t be punished if they try and fail. Talk to your members, especially the disaffected ones. They will tell you more directly what you need to change to engage them. Talk to new members and millennials. They will educate you on future trends that have already arrived. Develop a pipeline of innovation and commit to investing in at least one new major project every year. Make sure your innovation is fit for purpose in that it meets the core needs of members. Get out into the market fast, remembering Sheryl Sandberg’s maxim that ‘Done is better than perfect’. If you wait for perfection, the market will move on. Speed of execution is critical. Remember, you can always refine and add features in version two when you define innovation as continuous improvement.
Most importantly, enjoy the process. Innovation is supposed to be fun.
Do associations have different perspectives on business development? The answer comes down to which aspects of their performance they pride themselves on.
Associations that see themselves as being friendly, community-minded, cost-efficient and caring may not be as commercially focused as those that pride themselves on being businesslike market leaders that generate results for their members.
The associations that imagine themselves as the best choice based on criteria other than business development are perhaps the ones needing it most. For three quarters of Australian associations, better business development is critical if they are to survive into the future – only 23% are confident of Financial Sustainability into the future!
So what exactly is business development and how does it differ from sales? The difference is scalability. Sales teams sell directly to members to help account manage their growing needs. Business development is a larger remit, often working through partners and alliances to grow the market, increase revenue, acquire new members and improve an association’s brand, awareness and reach. In that respect, it overlaps with the marketing function. One or two major business development initiatives can dramatically improve an association’s financial sustainability.
Commercialising association operations begins with effective new business development, and a mindset of what’s possible.
- How can we expand the market?
- How can we improve our awareness, reach and influence?
- How can we best position our brand?
- How can we increase revenue?
- What alliances can we create to attract new members?
- Which associations can we partner with?
- Which sponsors or corporate partners can we attract?
- Which media organisations can we work with?
- Which commercial providers can we partner with?
- What new services can we launch to meet member needs?
- What sectors can we grow into to diversify our offering?
- What opportunities are there for joint ventures or acquisitions?
Advertising guru Leo Burnett once said ‘When you reach for the stars you may not quite get one, but you won’t come up with a handful of mud either’. Burnett was included in Time magazine’s 100 most influential people of the 20th century.
It is this striving for progress that leads associations into the future. Not every business development initiative will succeed. Some will fail. It only takes one or two to work in order to scale growth. Basketball great Michael Jordan says ‘I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life and that is why I succeed’. One of corporates I worked for created a separate fund, outside of the profit and loss statement, for major business development initiatives. They expected many of these to fail. Their view was that if some didn’t fail, you weren’t thinking hard enough. They also knew that those that did succeed would drive the future success of the company.
But, how can you get started if you don’t have sufficient resources? The insidious link between Insufficient Resources and poor Commercial Growth is a vicious cycle that must be broken. At some point, one or the other needs to be tackled to break the deadlock. Is your commercial growth poor because you have insufficient resources – or do you have insufficient resources because your commercial growth is poor? While there is some truth in both statements, the former viewpoint negates your ability to respond or take action, keeping you stuck. The latter perspective offers you an opportunity to break the vicious cycle. Take it.
All mid-tier or larger associations should be able to find some investment to get started. Nothing beats reviewing the income statement (P&L) for savings, inefficiencies or wasted expenditure that might be better directed. The corporate sector teaches you how to find savings without destroying value. At one company, we were given a Tiffany magnifying glass to help us look more efficiently! I loved the sentiment behind this intriguing gift, and it certainly got the message across. I found that the savings are there, certainly on the first few rounds of looking – but perhaps not the tenth! Sometimes, it can take the cancellation of an expensive and resource-intensive product that has stopped delivering for members to release new opportunities. Done smartly, deleting services members don’t want can have double benefits – it opens up resources to launch new services, and promotes the association as efficient.
If micro associations find themselves in a position where investment funds are unavailable, time and effort are free resources they can call on.
- What more can you do personally if you focus on business development?
- What connections or introductions can the directors bring to foster new alliances?
- Who might put their hand up internally for a fresh challenge?
If you can get people inspired about why new business is critical to sustain the future of your association and that they can play a part in this, you can tap into their passion to help. Asking for an extra effort in the short-term, in return for the prospect of long-term benefit can get you started. The same three criteria holds true for business development – start small, invest comfortably and know when to pull the plug. It may take a gargantuan effort in the short-term for resource-poor micros, but ensuring future financial sustainability must surely be worth it.
Some associations have the opposite problem – a retained surplus, and what to do with it. Although this can hardly be defined as a problem, it must be managed carefully in order to balance the needs of members with the development of the association. There is nothing wrong with a healthy surplus (profit) – even into the millions.
A surplus is a sign of an association’s financial health. It can provide a lifeline in times of a crisis, for example if an association needs to engage a law firm, barrister or reputation management firm. A war chest can come in very handy, at exactly the moment you need it.
Members are entitled to question both the size and usage of the surplus, but those that demand cash returns back to members are missing the point. Even if the surplus is invested in a prudent (low risk) growth environment, the income generated already reduces the cost of services delivered to members.
A healthy surplus can also provide an opportunity for strategic revenue diversification. Lessening an association’s reliance on any one single revenue source reduces its risk profile, increases its capacity to deliver value and empowers itself towards financial sustainability. Revenue diversification counters the threat of diminishing membership fee income, and the single biggest threat reported by associations – changes in Government Funding/Policy.
There are challenges for associations needing to diversify revenue but unaccustomed to how.
- What do you do if you don’t have the skillsets yourself, or within your board?
- How to grow a business?
- Which areas to diversify into?
- How to assess the risks and returns?
- How to buy a business?
- How to conduct due diligence on target acquisitions?
Corporates often have these skillsets in-house, with commercial directors, chief financial officers and head office executives to provide guidance and templates for business development, mergers and acquisitions (M&A), and due diligence.
Often, associations have little choice but to work through these challenges alone. The board needs to ensure it has the right expertise to drive the association’s future strategy. That means appointing directors with business development, M&A and due diligence capabilities. The CEO needs to have (or develop) these skillsets, or appoint a Chief Commercial Officer (CCO) to effectively commercialise the association’s operations.
When it comes to business development, associations need to stop thinking like associations, and start thinking like professional sales and marketing organisations. They can replicate the success of corporates in commercialising operations to grow revenue and members – within the responsible confines of the nonprofit sector model. The association sector needs to refrain from spin marketing, or any dubious or questionable business practices, and uphold an ethical approach to commercial success.
Look for commercial opportunities in the needs of your members, not your operational capabilities. Don’t limit yourself to services you think you are capable of providing. Look for services that will be competitive in the market – if you deliver value, members will pay you for it.
- What opportunities or white spaces exist in your market for new services?
- What services do your members really need or want?
- What are your competitor’s weaknesses?
- Which of their customers might be unsatisfied with them?
- Which services can you deliver faster, better or cheaper than an existing provider?
- Who can we partner with to deliver these more effectively?
Sales also play an important role. Whether it’s called sales or account management or member services, members appreciate having a single point of contact at their association. Someone who knows their needs, and helps them make the best choices within the range of services offered. Hire those who are motivated by a genuine desire to help members thrive in the long-term, rather than by short-term financial incentives. Associations need their account managers to sell win-win solutions for both members and the association. Leave the zero sum salespeople for the commercial world. Good account managers are self-funding, in delivering incremental revenue that covers their costs. On a new, speculative project, I hired a sales temp on a casual basis with a view to offering her a fulltime job if business uptake and satisfaction reached a predetermined target. We monitored progress, not only in terms of sales but also in terms of the integrity of communications and engagement. Within a few months, we had a new service offering and she had a new job. That’s a virtuous cycle.
True commercial performance is delivering outcomes for both members and your association.
Advocacy is difficult. It’s no easy task for associations to engender the change required to gain public or government support for a particular cause or policy. It’s similarly difficult for government to prioritise all the positions, recommendations and demands they receive from every conceivable sector. The sheer volume of association advocacy would be mind-blowing if anyone was game to try and quantify it. Advocacy is usually long-term and relationships matter, so the cumulative time, energy and resources put into it can be staggering.
Notwithstanding all the good work and intentions of so many, one question repeatedly comes to mind: What are the outcomes of all this activity? How many associations can justify their efforts based on a return on investment?
Advocacy in and of itself is merely an activity. And until any activity delivers a result, it necessarily drains resources without creating value. Advocacy must be defined as a measurable objective, not as an ongoing activity.
It is easy for associations to generate advocacy activity and arrange meetings with government. Government bureaucrats are paid to listen to the voices of the community, so it is equally easy for them to hear the causes put forward by any number of associations.
- How much of this work comes to nothing?
- How much does this cost associations, government, members and taxpayers?
- How many associations have delivered tangible outcomes for their members?
Some associations list this activity as a member service on their websites. Does the activity itself represent an intrinsic member benefit, or is it a means to an end? Associations reporting back to members on these meetings can appear to be worthy. Details of submissions made, and positions articulated can seem relevant. But until there is a tangible outcome, has the association actually delivered any value for members? Similarly, it does not help move any of these causes forward if government simply listens passively or procrastinates in the hope the issue may dissipate over time. In an ideal world, government should take action, provide constructive feedback, or be forthright about their intended position. But you can understand why they may be reluctant to do so, given the unintended consequences. When people hear ‘no’, they often fight back even harder. It’s easier for them to try and keep all associations placated with words of encouragement, even if they lack actions. How many associations leave government meetings feeling confident they have been heard, but never hear back?
The usual riposte is that government advocacy is a long-term relationship, and a work in progress – implying some future value is being formulated. There is truth in this statement, but it cannot be the whole truth. At some point, the relationship needs to progress towards a clear outcome in order to justify the time, effort and expense incurred by all the activity. Members don’t need associations to tell them about their advocacy activities, they need them to deliver real influence.
Influence is generating active support or recommendation for a policy or cause. Influence is advocacy with outcome.
- It seems unlikely that everything is a work in progress that hasn’t yet come to fruition?
- Do some associations demonstrate a perception they are fulfilling their roles by taking a message to government?
- Does government reciprocate a perception that it is doing its part by listening?
- Does some advocacy activity consist of a series of box ticking on both sides?
- Are some associations simply ineffectual or lack the critical mass to influence government?
- Are other associations so powerful that their outcomes are hidden for fear of scrutiny, or simply not communicated?
Whether these questions point to the truth is immaterial. What matters more is for advocacy work to be transparent and accountable – both in its successes, and its shortcomings. Members don’t join associations for them to be ineffectual or to waste resources. Defining clear measurable outcomes for all advocacy work will enable associations to reduce resource wastage, improve outcomes and focus on delivering real benefits.
Associations must become clearer on their advocacy focus. Specifically, what is your point of difference and what can you realistically influence. Narrowing down the purpose and objectives will at least create efficiencies to manage scarce resources, and keep the focus on potentially achievable outcomes. Associations must speak the language of government. ‘What’s in it for me?’ applies as much to government as it does to members. Just because you care passionately about something doesn’t mean the government has to share that passion. Perhaps it has a duty to listen, but there is no entitlement that says it must act on your interests.
Association advocacy generally falls within three broad categories – Activity Focus, Relationship Focus and Legacy Focus. Each one is sequentially more difficult and challenging than the next. But each one successively offers the potential for greater outcomes. Advocacy, like any other aspect of association performance, needs a strategic framework with clearly defined objectives, supported by tactics and key performance indicators. Clarity, measurement and accountability on advocacy are as important as any other business critical activity. Perhaps even more, given the massive investment in resources many associations commit to advocacy efforts.
Virtually all associations can elaborate on their advocacy activities. When you measure activity, all you get is more activity. This activity may be well intentioned and supported by a real passion to make a difference, but if it does not create value for members or influence change in markets, then it is wasted. What is the purpose of this ‘busy-ness’ if not to produce outcomes? Repeatedly moving the intended outcome into the far distant horizon is not justifiable. It needs to be within an association’s three year strategic vision, and preferably within its annual operating plan. Associations with extremely busy advocacy units that are unable to point to any achievements will do well to re-assess their resource allocation, and set some clear benchmarks for the short and mid-term.
A tell-tale sign of advocacy inefficiency is a long list of policy wish lists without realistic objectives. I have seen mid-tier associations with over a dozen policy ‘initiatives’ of both industry specific and macro-economic longings. While this may look superficially impressive, it begs the question of how the association can muster sufficient resources to get all these done. How on earth does a mid-tier association think it has the clout to influence national macro-economic policy? Were these policy statements created to be achieved, to send a perception of influence to members or to make the association itself feel important? The first intention will ignite real outcomes, while the latter two perpetuate inefficiencies.
Never choose policy initiatives because they look good on the website. Choose only those you can realistically influence.
And given most associations are starved of sufficient resources, the advocacy advice must surely be to prioritise – pick the top one or two policy objectives, and make them happen! Let the rest go. Pick the causes you can win, and deliver them for your members.
Many associations can articulate some advocacy benefits for their members without proving causality. It is within this focus on government relationships that much of the good work of associations gets done. And a lot of associations do good work, both overtly and under the radar.
Fitness Australia is one example. When fitness professionals began outdoor commercial programs, they encountered local regulatory issues including the usage of council space, insurance and qualification requirements. Members complained to Fitness Australia, who in turn approached local councils nationally to help them draft up appropriate policies. This created a win for members, facilitating the expansion of their businesses. It also created a win for councils, in the creation of a best practice template that they could use, rather than try and draft up policies individually. The guidelines also benefitted residents. Councils now approach Fitness Australia directly for guidance. ‘It’s an ongoing relationship,’ says Joel Perricone, Fitness Australia’s Manager Advocacy & Partnerships.
Fitness Australia’s focus on collaborative relationships is coupled by their commitment to advocate on behalf of all stakeholders, not just their members. This ethical balance enabled them to encourage their members to grow their businesses in a fair and reasonable way, maintained consumer protection and enabled government to share best practice in legislative requirements on changing trends. Fitness Australia is also extremely clear on its mission and vision, and how this links to their choice of advocacy issues. ‘If you don’t get the support from members, there is no point lobbying,’ adds Joel. This focus keeps their advocacy efficient, and generates buy-in from stakeholders.
Many associations can deliver results for their members in this fashion. For them, a robust process of continuous improvement with the introduction of appropriate benchmarks and key performance indicators can heighten the efficacy of advocacy work, and prevent complacency from seeping in. Leveraging incremental change through effective relationships is an admirable achievement.
With Government Funding/Policy being the biggest future threat to associations, there is clearly more work to do, beyond just good government relations. What are the critical policy challenges associations must tackle to secure a more sustainable future for their members? What legacy will association leaders leave? Very few associations seem to be able to establish a direct causal link between their advocacy efforts and a successful outcome. Why is this? Is it that good government relationships are all that can be expected? Or can associations stretch themselves further?
Take a look at the membership offering of associations, and note how many include advocacy as one of the top reasons to join. If advocacy is as important as so many associations make it out to be, then is it not incumbent on them to generate outcomes? Alternatively, if it is less important, would these associations be better served to find a better value proposition and deliver that instead? Proactivity is the key.
Often, advocacy issues can be better delivered collectively. Collaborating with likeminded associations or stakeholders reinforces greater community support for a particular issue, and creates a collective critical mass that may be lacking separately. Generating compatriot alliances is easier said than done because each association may have a competitive agenda against the other. There are two main reasons to put these aside. Firstly, if the benefits of the policy change sought outweigh the impact of the individual position. Secondly, if the value generated for members is significant. The basis for collaborative decisions should always return to the purpose of the association – to serve members, and benefit markets.
Advocacy should not be confused with entitlement. The fact that a policy change may benefit members is only the starting point – not the end point. The cap-in-hand approach does not work. Advocacy is not a charitable function. Associations must demonstrate the sustainable value that will be created by the advocacy positions they take.
- Why should government act on this?
- What are the benefits for them?
- What are the greater ramifications?
- Which other stakeholders will be affected by the policy change?
- What might be the unintended consequences?
- Is there an alternative view?
- What are the risks and costs involved of implementing this?
- What is the price of not acting?
- What are the opportunity costs?
- Where else has a similar approach worked?
- Why should this be prioritised over other pressing needs?
- What innovative new solutions can this create?
- Where does this sit in the hierarchy of priorities?
Associations unable to answer these questions will be equally unsuccessful in resolving them.
Finding a case study of an association that could validate a direct, causal advocacy policy success was one of the most difficult parts of writing this book. My own experience leading an association to successfully influence government to overturn a previous decision in favour of our members demonstrates that it is achievable. In approaching government directly, we answered all of the questions above. But for us, an important driver was mobilising the membership to write hundreds of letters to their local MPs in an effort to influence the party room. It’s quite humbling how literally a handful of letters in each constituency can leverage the power of a mid-tier association. It is also validation that the government does listen and act. We can all certainly be grateful for living in a democracy where we have access to government to present our positions.
The questions that every advocacy campaign needs answered include:
- What is the specific intended outcome of the advocacy?
- Who is to be influenced?
- What do you want them to do?
- What is the timeframe?
- How does this link with the mission, vision or objectives?
- What are the tactics to achieve this?
- What benchmarks need to be achieved?
- How can we leverage the collective power of our members?
- What is the contingency plan?
Establishing all these parameters provides the framework for advocacy to move from being an activity, through good relationships into outcomes to create a legacy. It begins with committing to tackle the one key challenge that will deliver significant future value for your members.
There is a process for engaging government. You’ll need to follow due process otherwise you won’t get heard. But don’t get bogged down in the process. Your objective isn’t to engage in activity on the government’s terms. It is to create outcomes by ensuring that both sets of needs get met – yours and the government’s.
You will need to apply appropriate pressure to get things done otherwise your issue may stagnate, but take care not to apply too much, or too soon. Start by understanding the government’s needs – including their concerns and priorities. Government has a time poor culture, so get your messages across fast. Present the facts, outline community support, highlight the lack of opposition, generate vocal support and be transparent on the costs of your proposal. Get the timing right, and plan your initiatives around sitting times for efficacy. Government officials are human too, so engage in a joint conversation. Never complain or ask for hand-outs! It is a privilege, not a right, to receive support from the government.
Target the right people. These could include Ministers, Parliamentary Secretaries, Shadow Ministers, Backbenchers, Independent MPs and Senators, Your Local MP, Parliamentary Committee Chairs, Senior Department Officials, Policy Advisors, the Press Gallery or other public servants. You may get more out of the advisors if they can speak more freely than ministers who need to toe the party line. Engage your local MP. It’s often easier to secure a meeting there and work your way up.
Don’t try and do it alone. Ask your members to leverage their contacts. On critical issues, mobilise them to write letters of support to their local MP. This is a great way to influence the party room, or at least bring its focus to your issue. Once they start hearing the same message consistently across different constituencies, it reinforces the community support it is generating. Develop your relationship with the media, and feed them proactive and professional content – news, insights and perspectives that outline your solutions towards a win-win outcome.
Keep the government informed. Try not to embarrass them or put them in a corner, but leverage your influence step by step so that it makes sense for them to move towards an agreement. For some extra support, engage a reputation management firm. They can help you with strategy, implementation and maintaining a balance of process and pressure.
How does a small volunteer secretariat transform itself to create a world leading training product that generates a sustainable new commercial model and influence a change in government policy?
Michelle Blicavs, former CEO of the International Association for Public Participation Australasia (IAP2) says they had to change, after members told them their old training modules were outdated and not providing sufficient value. It was IAP2’s openness to accept feedback and its boldness to innovate and create its own training model that sparked its transformation. Membership increased 386% from 700 to 2,700 members in four years and the new revenue growth enabled them to recruit a full complement of professional staff.
IAP2’s incisive research found that Australia’s public participation requirements had already outgrown the internationally developed training modules they were using, and that the future needs of members demanded a product that didn’t exist anywhere in the world. Following intensive research and collaboration with members to create the required content, IAP2 Australasia launched its own training product with a new model for engagement. The process took six months and totally revised the training curriculum that is delivered through facilitated learning rather than the usual lecture style. IAP2 also created a professional pathway for members with accreditation, and articulated a vision for communities leading engagement not just councils or governments enforcing centralised policies. The effect was to transform public participation from a practice into a profession. Reflecting this shift in mindsets, the Premier of South Australia announced the 2015 ‘Reforming Democracy Policy Launch’ which outlined how citizens can play a truly decisive role in the participation process and how the State Government will engage communities in the future.
The quality assurance standard IAP2 developed also generated a robust new revenue stream for funding diversity. It eliminated the greatest challenge that most small associations face, a lack of resources. The new income enabled IAP2 to focus on continued value delivery, and membership is now increasing an average of 15% a year and event attendance has tripled.
The catalyst for IAP2’s transformational success came from a clear need to change, and the commitment to do something about it. In addressing member needs so directly and genuinely, IAP2 created a world’s best training module in their field. It is this value delivery that drove income, membership and influence.
It’s sobering to remember that Australia, as the world’s twelfth largest economy, still has a quarter of a million people receiving homelessness services. Many more in need of shelter are turned away from services working beyond their capacity, or simply don’t know these services exist. The commercial challenge for associations like Shelter SA, that represent vulnerable communities, is the inability to draw on them for substantial membership fees. Membership fees account for just 2% of Shelter SA’s revenue. Other obstacles included a lack of resources to chase commercial opportunities, difficulty aligning relevant corporate sponsors and the possibility of reduced government funding should their own fundraising efforts meet their income needs.
Despite these obstacles, Executive Director Dr Alice Clark is determined to serve the entire community, and not just the organisation and its paid members. She cites new thinking around ‘un-membership models’ as her inspiration, in serving both formal (paid up) members and informal members who also have important connections with the organisation. ‘Many associations don’t communicate well outside their paid member base, which translates into limited visibility in the community and less influence with governments’ she says.
Previously, paid memberships had dwindled significantly and with them, so had visibility and credibility. Shelter SA committed to broader communications by targeting wider society to increase its supporter base and relevance, embraced social media as an opportunity to reach new constituents and created a community radio show to enable serious debate on key issues. Shelter SA generated 17,300 impressions on Twitter in support of the 2015 Federal decision on the continuation of the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness. Paid membership has increased and stabilised. And Shelter SA continues to support the voices of citizens and groups who are not usually included in public policy debate.
‘When peak bodies represent the interests of people living on low incomes, there are barriers to collecting paid memberships from them so it is critical to demonstrate a wider supporter base to achieve fairer and more equitable policy outcomes’ says Dr Clark in summarising Shelter SA’s work in contributing to civil society.
Shelter SA has also launched a new framework to measure and evaluate advocacy outcomes.
Governments must be able to measure the effectiveness of their public spending, and yet it can be difficult for advocacy organisations to show direct cause and effect. Dr Alice Clark, Executive Director of Shelter SA has embraced the challenge of delivering this critical performance metric. The Advocacy Progress Planner is an online evaluation tool based on academic research from the Aspen Institute, an educational and policy studies organisation based in Washington, DC. In 2016, Dr Clark launched a discussion paper highlighting how Shelter SA has used the planner to assist members, supporters and stakeholders with a framework to measure real outcomes. ‘Until recently, there was no universal standard of best practice, and traditional outputs and outcome measures were a poor fit with policy and advocacy work’ she says.
The Advocacy Progress Planner defines short, medium and long-term outcomes as performance measures to demonstrate progress in real time. The evidence-based and theory-driven tool allows for measureable benchmarks, supports quality improvement and Shelter SA has integrated it to support three separate strategic initiatives designed to deliver profound, aspirational changes in society across housing and homelessness. ‘When clarity and focus on impact is strong, we can create mutual understandings and expectations, good communication and accurate evaluation,’ adds Dr Clark.
Dr Clark has taken a bold initiative in rolling out the Advocacy Progress Planner to specifically assist their members, supporters and stakeholders. It holds Shelter SA more accountable for outcomes and encourages debate on efficacy and measurement.
This initiative also raises important questions for all peak bodies. Is it time for a consistent framework to assess all advocacy work and measurement? Would this assist governments in funding more effective work that benefits civil society? Would an industry-wide debate on the topic encourage associations to become more accountable, transparent and efficient with their advocacy programs?