One of my favorite descriptions of an association is that it is “essentially a conglomerate of small businesses, all targeted at a highly focused market, with a consensus-based governance model slapped on top.” In that context, it’s easy to see how silos form and staff lose sight of the big picture. They focus on their business lines and not the overall wants and needs of the association’s members.
So, it has to be someone’s job to keep everyone connected and keep membership always in mind. Dan Ratner relishes that role. Maybe even a little too much.
“I am the guy staff members don’t want to make eye contact with in the hallway. I’m constantly pestering staff about what they are doing for members,” Ratner wrote last month in a discussion in ASAE’s Collaborate forum [member login required].
Director of membership development and industry outreach at the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), Ratner says “pestering” only half jokingly. I spoke with him last week to dig deeper on his thoughts on promoting a member-centric mindset at an association, and he says the first step is “being nosy,” so he can see how every part of the association factors into the member experience.
One year, Ratner bought small mirrors for the entire association’s staff with the words “remember retention” printed on them.
“In membership, at least in my current organization and in previous roles, you really have to know everything about what’s going on in the organization as the membership leader, because how does it affect your membership? What’s going on that really ends up impacting the membership experience? So, the nosiness is really about just making sure you are aware of those things, because a lot of times I’m the one getting the call from the members,” he says.
Ratner shared a few methods he has used for getting staff at ANSI and previous associations where he’s worked to put members first:
A monthly update on membership. He picks a few data points, works up some charts, and sends it out via email to staff at the same time every month. It’s short: two pages, with minimal text. Ratner says the reports spur conversations with colleagues. “The executive director or the other C-suite folks are coming to my office, saying, ‘OK, I’m not understanding why the numbers look like this on here,’ or ‘How can sales be up but revenues be down?’ So, I’ll explain the nuances of membership,” he says. “These data points at least give them the baseline and the foundation to ask other questions.”
Presentations in all-staff meetings. These are good opportunities to talk about membership themes, perhaps pulling quotes or lists from books and articles on membership, Ratner says.
Membership talks in staff orientations. Ratner says one of his previous associations developed an organization-wide retention plan, and a key part included a 10-minute visit from Ratner in mandatory staff orientations for all new employees. “We’d always talk through the main points of how they’re connected to membership, so on a daily basis they wouldn’t wonder. They would know they have an impact on our members,” he says.
“Remember retention” mirrors. One year, after member-retention goals weren’t met, Ratner bought small mirrors for the entire association’s staff with the words “remember retention” printed on them. “We handed them out to everyone and said, ‘OK, now, whenever you’re wondering who’s responsible for retention, you know, because it’s sitting on your desk and you can look in that mirror and know it’s you.’”
Ratner says he has also spent time listening in on customer service calls, asking IT for walk-throughs on fulfillment processes in the association’s database, and even volunteering to contribute to strategic planning, all in effort to understand as much as he can about the association and, in turn, spread the membership perspective throughout.
He also emphasizes the importance of data in changing staff minds about membership. (See item 2 in an article Ratner wrote for ASAE in 2012, “3 New Wakeup Calls for Change.”) Of course, that requires having good data about members, whether through surveys, engagement tracking, or both.
Despite carrying the flag for membership at the associations where he’s worked, Ratner has a measured take on how an association’s revenue should be generated. The discussion in Collaborate that he responded to had originally asked whether an association’s dues should be at least 50 percent of its overall revenue. Ratner says he thinks a good mix is roughly one-third dues revenue, one-third meetings and/or education, and one-third other nondues revenue. Balance is the key. “They should be interacting well together to boost each other’s growth,” he says. “The hard part is when one of the programs or one area goes off and ignores the membership side of things.”
On a basic level, every association employee knows his or her work affects and is affected by members, but it can be easy to forget in the course of day-to-day work. Ratner’s ideas for changing that dynamic are a great place to start. You could also focus on shifting the culture at your association, adopting staff incentive plans for improving member satisfaction, or even simply avoiding overloading your staff to the point that their work and the member experience suffer.
This is a challenge most association membership pros are familiar with.