Save People, Not Associations

A lesson from a conference for journalists offers an important reminder about thriving in the future. In short: Think about your members, not your association.

Are these people bad people because they don’t join your association? Of course not.

Last week, I took off my association-management hat and put on my member hat to attend a conference for my own professional learning. I learned a whole lot that will make me a better journalist, but I also came away with one big idea that transcends the context of the journalism field and applies here in our industry, too.

The Online News Association annual conference (ONA13) brought together about 1,600 media professionals of all stripes to share ideas and expertise on journalism in the digital age. While a lot of the details were different from conferences for association professionals (like Digital Now, Association Media & Publishing, and ASAE events), the context was in many ways the same. Connecting people and knowledge is a fundamental mission in both professions, and they have both experienced a great amount of upheaval with the rise of the web, social media, and mobile technology.

One exhibiting company at ONA13 decked its employees in T-shirts that read “Save Journalism” on the back. This prompted Larry Dailey, a professor at University of Nevada, Reno, to propose a last-minute “unconference” session titled “Save People, Not Journalism.”

He broke session participants into a few small groups and led us on an exercise in brainstorming the identity and life story of a person who consumes little to no news media. It was a crash-course version of the type of design-thinking work crafted by IDEO. Then, each small group shared the person it had imagined. One was a military veteran trying to reacclimate to the 9-to-5 life, one was a 20-year-old college student juggling part-time jobs, and another was a 30-something new father. For being imaginary, they were all remarkably real people with real passions, foibles, and needs.

That’s when Dailey posed a question: “Are these people bad people because they don’t read the news?”

The answer, of course, is no. They’re just normal people with normal lives, in which reading the news simply isn’t atop their very full lists of priorities. This was Dailey’s core message, and it’s why he chose the mantra of “save people, not journalism.” The second half of the group exercise was to brainstorm solutions to these people’s challenges; some of the ideas were indeed media-related, but far from all of them were. Importantly, the brainstorming came from a mindset of solving problems for people, not “trying to get people to read more news.”

Another session attendee captured this shift in thinking:

That’s a mindset that associations can adopt, too. You can ask the same question about your nonmembers that Dailey asked about nonreaders: “Are these people bad people because they don’t join your association?” Of course not. And trying to reach nonmembers must also come from a solutions mindset. We should first aim to discover how our associations can solve the problems of the people in our respective industries, rather than trying to figure out how to get those people to join, renew, or engage.

More simply: Save people, not associations.

I’m sure this isn’t the first time you’ve been urged to focus on members first. (If it is, where have you been?) But the brevity in this case hooked me. Those four words are hard to forget.


Joe Rominiecki

By Joe Rominiecki

Joe Rominiecki, manager of communications at the Entomological Society of America, is a former senior editor at Associations Now. MORE

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