Why these things matter

Get involvedChances are that if you are reading this, you consider yourself an association professional and you appreciate the tremendous good that associations do for society. You are probably also concerned about some of the issues impacting associations, and maybe even support advocacy by groups like ASAE to address them.

But do you ever involve the boards and membership of your own association in these matters?  Probably you consider these issues too much “inside association baseball” for that.

But wait a minute.  If your association’s ability to interact with the agency that regulates your members were curtailed, wouldn’t that have an impact on your association’s ability to meet your members’ needs? If the net dollars your association has to spend on association programs were reduced by taxation, wouldn’t that impact the level of service you deliver to your members?

Recognition of the positive impact that associations have upon society and what constitutes the appropriate level of taxation and regulation upon their activities matters to more than just association professionals.  They matter — or at least they should — to your association’s membership, too.

Read more in my latest Association TRENDS commentary, here.

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Just because it’s easy and you can, doesn’t mean you should

That was the common thread from the presentations and discussion at TREND’s Annual Communications Legal Update on October 26th. Among the high level takeaways was the need to remember that most of the arcane web of political communication, intellectual property, privacy, and commercial law that governs our digital world was written decades before digital was a reality.  But that doesn’t excuse us from having to conduct our association communications activities (particularly our online and social media communications) in compliance with those rules.   In other words, it doesn’t need to make sense to apply to you.

Read more in my latest Association TRENDS commentary, here.

The social media dog that didn’t bark

In the Sherlock Holmes mystery “Silver Blaze,” the solution turns on “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”  Scotland Yard Detective Gregory can be forgiven for his confusion when he protests, “the dog did nothing in the night-time.” “That,” Holmes observes, “was the curious incident.”

There are a number of dogs that didn’t bark in Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant’s 2012 Social Leadership Survey.  As Joe Rominiecki points out in ASAE’s coverage of the survey, the most deafening silence came in how low “participates on social media in his/her own voice” ranked in the survey’s list of desirable traits in a leader.  For all our talk about the importance of engagement in social media, that characteristic ranked tenth out of twelve in the survey.  And it came in behind such old school, low-tech characteristics as “brilliant strategist,” “holds others accountable,” and “leverages best practices.”

But before that segment within the association community that insists social media is just the latest fad diverting our time and attention from our real work gets too comfortable, the lesson to be learned is more subtle, but just as challenging to the status quo.

Reading the data, I would consider acceptance, or more precisely, overt recognition of the need for fluency and authenticity in the leader’s social media voice to be a lagging indicator.  It comes later.  But it will come.

Why do I say that?  Look at the leadership characteristics that did rank high in Notter and Grant’s survey: “transparent, shares information freely;” “comfortable with conflict;”  “open to diverse perspectives.” These are certainly capacities that are demanded of a social media-fluent association leader.  But they are also leading indicators: factors that are driving associations to social media, regardless of their level of comfort, fluency or expertise in that environment.

Now I can already hear the Twitter-resistant among you protesting that these same leadership characteristics have relevance and importance in the “real” world, too.  True enough.

But there is no question that social is the increasingly dominant medium for the general population.  And I, for one, find the fact that we recognize the importance of being strong in the very areas that will make us successful in both cyber and more traditional communications venues a very encouraging sign.  It is a basic requisite for survival in a multi-media environment that is changing rapidly around us —a world where we can ill afford any all-or-nothing media strategies and have to (at least for a while) keep our feet in multiple camps simultaneously or risk disenfranchising some portion of our constituency that is moving at a different speed toward social, or has different communications preferences.

I sometimes get irritated with some of the prophets of social media.  They can be just a little too insistent that “social media is the answer,” regardless of the question1.  Social is a means to an end, not a goal to be pursued for its own sake. If the data had merely indicated popular enthusiasm for social media as social media, I would have been unimpressed.  That would have just recognized an already obvious trend that might even be open to the charge of being a fad.

But the data didn’t do that.  It provided validation that the underlying skills necessary in effective social media are increasingly recognized as means every association leader needs to master, regardless of how far they have gone down the social media path.

That suggests we’re moving the right direction, whether we realize it or not.

 

1  And let me be crystal clear, I do not consider Notter and Grant to be included among those faux prophets of social media.  To the contrary. They are among the most clear-headed analysts of social media and associations out there today.  And if you haven’t read their book, Humanize, stop reading this blog and get it.

The myth about ‘special interests’

Much of the public thinks of associations as “special interests” who do nothing but lobby the system to game advantage (even though U. S. government data shows that associations spend many times more on educational activities than on lobbying).

In my opinion, “special interest” is a pejorative only when applied to a group whose interests we don’t share. No. If we were to be honest with ourselves, we are, each of us, members of dozens of special interests, based on our jobs, the communities we live in, the needs of our families, our beliefs and our passions.

And when individuals with a shared interest come together to advance their own cause in a way that also serves society, it is a thing of beauty.  It is perhaps ironic that a quintessentially Washington evening in celebration of “special interests” did such a powerful job reminding us of that fact.

Read my latest commentary in AssociationTRENDS to learn why I think it so important for events like ASAE’s 13th annual Summit Awards Dinner last week to showcase how much good associations do.

The myth about ‘special interests’

Looking into the congressional crystal ball

Associations have garnered their share of attention from the Hill in the last year, but no one expected a thoroughly gridlocked Congress to actually get anything done about it … at least until after the election.  And after that?   Read my latest commentary in AssociationTRENDS to learn why I don’t think any of the association issues already in play will be the headline legislative issues for associations in the year ahead.

Looking into the congressional crystal ball

What the world needs is more association executives

Closing the ASAE annual meeting in Dallas, author Dan Pink argued that, regardless of profession, we are all in sales. But the characteristics, skills and traits he described as essential for success sounded to my ears like precisely the attributes that distinguish effective association leaders, and differentiate us as a profession.

Read more in my latest commentary in Association Trends: What the world needs is more association executives | Association TRENDS

GSA, optics, over reactions and glass houses

I didn’t exactly go through the five stages of grief when the public furor over the GSA Las Vegas retreat first erupted in the media. But I did go through something like that process.

Stage one is denial: I am a “benefit of the doubt” kind of guy. If there is an innocent interpretation, I will go there first, rather than buy in to the most damning explanation.

I don’t know all the details, and I am sure at least some of the outrage was justified. But I am equally sure some of it was unfair. A friend of mine in the association field, who ought to know better, was offended that “tax dollars went to putting up GSA staff in a luxury suite.” Now, I don’t know for sure, but it is a safe bet the GSA didn’t actually pay anything like the retail rate for that suite. It was certainly deeply discounted, if not actually comped as part of the total meeting package. And just possibly the group actually saved money by hosting social activities in that space rather than renting a separate venue.

Then came stage two, anger, as it became clear that even if things weren’t as utterly reprehensible as the press coverage and righteous indignation wanted to paint them, this was bad. In this sound bite and visual image driven world, the facts don’t matter. The GSA’s choices couldn’t be explained away, even if all the facts were on their side (and I seriously doubt that is the case). The whole thing just looked bad, and once you are forced to explain yourself, you’ve already lost the battle[1].

The congressional overreaction was equally predictable and anger inducing Over broad “solutions” (which no one on the Hill is willing to take credit for authoring and which were unanimously approved by legislators who didn’t even bother to read them) will create problems where none existed before and won’t fix the problem that stirred a thoroughly gridlocked Congress to actually take action in the first place.

Bargaining is stage three. The formal legislative response being spearheaded by ASAE is appropriate, sound and absolutely vital to the association community. It deserves all of our support. We need to defend our meetings from being unfairly painted with the broad brush of scarlet that the mainstream media and Congress are applying to all meeting events. We need to roll back the asinine restrictions that will hamstring even the purest of pure, publicly beneficial educational, development, networking and information exchange events.

Stage four, depression, follows. The occasional bad actor’s black eye is a cross we all are going to have to bear. For a long time. And it is going to be hard to defend the defensible without sounding like we are making excuses for the indefensible.

Where I part with the classical Kübler-Ross model is stage five: acceptance. I am not prepared to do that.

But now that the initial furor has begun to die down, I feel safe offering a word of warning.

Don’t let your justifiable outrage over how unfair and misguided the press coverage and legislative response to “GSA-Gate” was lull you into a false sense of complacency or moral superiority. Let’s be honest: this wound was self-inflicted. Albeit, inflicted by one organization’s meeting, But nonetheless self-inflicted. And all of us who do meetings take a hit when one meeting’s atrocious optics capture headlines.

And as long as we’re being honest, let’s take a good hard look at our own meetings.

Sometimes what looks like a boondoggle is just that. A boondoggle.

We need to be absolutely above reproach in how we structure and promote our meetings. That means living up in full to the claims we make about them. Do they truly match the brochure’s promise to deliver real value, regardless of who is footing the bill? Do they actually serve our particular, parochial interests in a manner that also advances the public interest?

And how would they look if they showed up on YouTube?


[1] In my more than thirty-years in the profession I have never spent a dime of my association’s money for first class travel. But I travel enough that I occasionally score a free upgrade. Ever try to explain that when the chairman of the board trudges past you in first on his way to a middle seat in coach?

What’s in a word?

Association Trends data indicates a majority of associations do not include bonuses in staff compensation structures.  Perhaps part of the resistance is simply a matter of language.  “Bonus” sounds gratuitous and unearned.  But performance based compensation can be a critical element in achieving high staff performance.  Read more in my commentary in the July 19th Trends.

What’s in a word? | Association TRENDS

The extent (and limits) of a board’s authority

The rich “are different than you and me,” F. Scott Fitzgerald famously observed.  (“Yes, they have more money,” Ernest Hemingway is apocryphally reported to have cynically added.)

In the same vein, non-profit boards are different from corporate boards.  They have less latitude to lead.  Even when they have the clear legal authority and are acting entirely consistently with their duties and obligations, they sometimes lack the power to actually execute their decisions.

These thoughts have run through my mind these past days, as I followed the drama over the firing and re-hiring of University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan. As an alum of the University, I care about what occurred, but I don’t pretend to have any inside knowledge or unique insight into the Board of Visitor’s actions. But observing the process I couldn’t help but recognize something that is a fact of everyday life for every association executive working with his or her volunteer board.

I don’t know, but it is very possible that the UVa Board of Visitors was objectively correct and perhaps even obligated by their duty to serve the best interests of The University to take the action they did in forcing Sullivan’s resignation.  Perhaps she was failing to perform her duties in a satisfactory fashion, or failing to act in a manner consistent with the direction set by the duly authorized board.  If that were the case, the board’s action was not only legally correct, but the only responsible one for them to take.  On the other hand, perhaps it was a political or personality thing, which would make the decision more questionable.

But it really doesn’t matter.  Where a for-profit corporation’s board can take an action and implement it with little need to explain or justify itself, a non-profit board faces thousands of stakeholders who feel they have a right to be fully informed if not directly involved in every decision “their” association/institution’s leaders take, and who are not slow to exert what they perceive to be their right of veto.

Like I said, I don’t know how valid or justified the UVa Board of Visitor’s initial action dismissing their “CEO” was.  But thirty-plus years in the association business has taught me that a board needs more than just the legal authority to take action … it needs to get buy-in from enough of its constituency to make the decision stick, and the UVa Board of Visitors clearly failed in this regard.

Having led trade associations, whose boards are made up of individuals accustomed to serving on corporate boards, this can be a particularly hard lesson for association board members to learn.  They sometimes fail to appreciate the difference in governance realities between their own company’s board and the association’s.  I can easily imagine the surprise and genuine confusion of members of the UVa board (from such companies as Morgan Stanley and Google) to the reaction of faculty and students.  “They don’t have all the information we do … why do they think they know better than those of us with all the facts and data in front of us?” Or more angrily, “What gives them the right to usurp the authority we were elected/appointed to exercise as a board?”

The lesson to be learned, is that in the not-for-profit world, position power, legal authority, even being right are insufficient.  Leaders and boards need credibility and stature and trust sufficient to bring those they lead along with them.  Or they face embarrassing failures.

Just ask UVa’s Board of Visitors.

The Generation Gap in Lobbying

There is a generation gap between lobbyists and the lobbied that requires rethinking established GR tactics.  Read my commentary from this week’s Association Trends.