Want Your Members’ Opinions on Strategy? Ask Them.

Facing major strategic decisions about its future, one association shared options with members via in-person meetings, online webinars, and even direct mail to solidify momentum for future change.

In October, members of AIGA, the professional association for design, got a nice treat in the mail: an 18×24-inch poster to hang on their walls.

AIGA poster

But the poster was really just an attention-grabber for the reverse side, which carried a detailed explanation of AIGA’s vision for its future and a call to action asking members to share their comments and vote on a path forward.

AIGA poster (back)

The poster/pamphlet was one part of an effort to inform members and involve them in discussions about major changes that AIGA’s leadership envisions, says Richard Grefé, AIGA executive director. Like many associations, AIGA (once the American Institute of Graphic Arts) finds itself needing to adapt to change driven by technology and society. In short, it wants to focus on becoming more of a “membership participation platform” and to put greater emphasis on engagement through its 67 chapters. “The national organization should very self consciously reduce its sense of self-importance,” Grefé says.

We can do things that will benefit chapters and members, but if they’re with us when we do it, everything’s a lot stronger.

Enmeshed with this vision for change is the question of what to do with AIGA’s biggest financial asset, a five-story headquarters building in Manhattan (see map). AIGA received an offer for the building for $20 million, which could be used to establish an endowment to fund some of the large-scale changes AIGA wants to make.

“It was our sense that to have a building on Fifth Avenue with a gallery on the street level is inconsistent with the strategy we’re proposing,” Grefé says. “In other words, it would make our statements about lowering our profile at the national level inauthentic. So, let’s consider selling the building, which would also allow us to have a much deeper financial endowment and base and also provide us with a little bit of seed capital for the cost of change.”

The prospect of selling the building made the possibility of change much more tangible, and Grefé says AIGA knew it had to open up the discussion. “We know from experience that we can do things that will benefit chapters and members, but if they’re with us when we do it, everything’s a lot stronger. And if what you’re doing is saying that you’re trying to transform the organization to strengthen the role of members and chapters, you certainly want engage them in the discussion,” he says.

Thus began a multichannel effort to inform and engage members around the question of incremental versus transformative change, which included

  • an in-person presentation to chapter and volunteer leaders at AIGA’s leadership retreat
  • webinars for chapter leaders
  • a series of posts on the AIGA Insights blog directly from Grefé and the AIGA board
  • six webcasts for members at large
  • a town-hall meeting at the AIGA Design Conference
  • the 18×24 mailed poster.

Over the past couple of years, Grefé says, the Insights blog “has become principal channel for communicating about the organization.” Through all these various tools, Grefé estimates AIGA directly interacted with or heard from about 500 members, while chapter leaders shared the message at local meetings to extend the conversation further.

All of that discussion drew a range of opinions, as one might expect, and the most vocal concerned members made their case public outside AIGA’s communication channels. In “An Open Letter to AIGA: Status Quo or Transformation? A False Choice” on a blog hosted by The Design Observer Group, nine current and former AIGA volunteer leaders co-signed their opposition to AIGA’s plans, generating a discussion with more than 100 comments. Grefé responded on the comment thread once to share links to details about the potential plans and to correct some factual information, but otherwise he let the conversation evolve on its own.

Grefé says that conversation helped the AIGA board clarify its plans and refine its strategy as it worked toward a decision, but he also expressed a frustration that likely many association CEOs and communications chiefs have felt in the age of communicating online. “Every member was informed and every member was invited to vote, yet probably the most passionate discussion occurred in this separate channel,” he says.

The at-large member vote, though, remained largely positive, with about 80 percent supporting the goals for “transformative” change. (About 2,000 members voted, four times the usual participation rate in AIGA member votes.) The vote itself was “advisory,” in that AIGA’s bylaws did not require it, but it served as a culmination of the member-engagement effort on the issue and a way to quantify the voice of the membership body. Afterward, Grefé summed up all the input received in an Insights post titled “What We Heard: Your Voice on AIGA’s Future,” and the board is set to make a decision this week.

Assuming it moves forward with plans to sell its building and embark on its transformative strategy (UPDATE: The AIGA board voted to proceed, per an announcement on the AIGA Insight blog on November 20), the member involvement will continue in 2014, Grefé says. January through April will be the initial period for forming an action plan, which would then be shared and discussed with its chapter leadership in May. Then come refinements based on chapter and member feedback, with a goal for beginning to execute on the changes beginning next October.

It would mark the second significant change AIGA has made in three years. In September 2012, AIGA instituted a tiered, “pay what you want” membership structure. So far, that has been a success, with membership up from 24,000 to about 27,000, and 80 percent to 90 percent of members renewing at essentially the same dollar level they had paid previously.

For associations looking to make significant strategic changes—whether in anticipation of a new future or to simply to keep pace with the world around them—AIGA provides a helpful example of how to seek a balance between a governing body’s duty to make decisions on behalf of an association’s members and the need to understand and build a collective will among them. (It also mirrors similar efforts at the American Horticulture Association, whose merger I profiled here last month.) Grefé says AIGA got the input it needed and also learned how valuable the process itself is.

“Moving forward, one of the principles I think that is important in the organization is to be as transparent as possible,” Grefé says. “We’ll bring most issues to the members, these fundamental, transformational issues.”

How has your association worked to involve members on setting strategic direction? What communication and engagement efforts have worked best? Or what hasn’t worked? Please share in the comments.


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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