Leadership

Five Lessons From One Association's Challenging Year

By / Aug 4, 2014 (iStock/Thinkstock)

A new membership structure. New meetings. A new website. Yoga Alliance has taken on a lot under a new CEO. Here’s what he’s learned.

When Richard Karpel became CEO of Yoga Alliance in 2012, he wasn’t expecting a restful gig. The first order of business was to transform what was founded in 1999 as a 501(c)(3) credentialing organization for approximately 50,000 yoga teachers into a full-fledged 501(c)(6) association, complete with member benefits, events, and advocacy efforts.

The second was building a new website that would function as a kind of Angie’s List or Yelp for the yoga community. Teachers and students are able to grade their schools, allowing potential clients to gauge which one is the best fit for them.

Those are two big moves that the association has pursued in the past year—the new website launched last December—and Karpel has had some frustrating moments during that time. But it’s also been a learning experience. “It’s been instructive for me,” he says. “This is yoga, right? There’s a lot about self-awareness and self-examination.”

“The job now is to turn the gritting of the teeth into happiness.”

Here are a few things he’s learned in the process.

1. Soliciting honest feedback can be tough when everybody’s chasing bliss. Anonymous and vindictive negative feedback are the bugbear of any ratings website, and Yoga Alliance was determined to avoid it. Raters on the new website can’t be anonymous, and to ensure that there’s plenty of feedback, teachers are required to rate their school as part of their registration. (Schools can turn off their ratings and comments, but the website’s entry declares when one has done so.) That’s made for plenty of reviews—11,000 so far—but Karpel is looking for ways to encourage more thoughtful critiques. “People are very nice in the yoga community, so there tends to be people who are conflict-avoidant,” he says. “We don’t want people to be flamed, but if there’s something you can tell us about that’s constructive, the school needs it and the yoga community needs it.”

2. You may have to change horses midstream. Karpel describes the RFP for the website revamp as one of the best and most thorough he’d ever seen. Even so, the first firm  Yoga Alliance selected out of the six that responded didn’t work out, and in September 2013—less than three months before launch—Karpel transferred the job to a consultant who oversees the project with a group of independent developers.

3. The right staff mix is iterative. Yoga Alliance’s evolution into a full-fledged association required a staff expansion—more than doubling, in fact, from 12 to 25. That demanded sorting out how to juggle the new website responsibilities, and pulling back on other tasks as needed. For instance, the association canceled a member meeting to focus on the website, which at the office is handled by two staffers alongside the COO. The entire staff, though, is kept in the loop on what’s happening. “Everybody has some input on the system,” Karpel says. “Everybody on the staff knows how the system works.”

4. However much you think you’re communicating, you may not be communicating enough. Because Yoga Alliance wasn’t a membership organization until recently, the credentialed schools weren’t used to hearing much from the organization. So it faced a double challenge of not just making people aware of the new website, but about its potential impact. “I think if we were doing it again, I would’ve done more up-front preparation, telling people this is coming,” Karpel says. “I thought we did a lot of it, a lot of emails, a lot of information on the website. It wasn’t enough.”

5. Stay optimistic. Though there’s still plenty of work to do on the website—not to mention a so-called “yoga tax” in Washington, DC, that Yoga Alliance is protesting—Karpel sees the organization has having passed the worst of its growing pains. During the process, he’s focused on the privileged position the association is in—the sole trade group for an industry that’s enjoyed rapid expansion. (A Yoga Journal survey says yoga-related spending has grown from $3.04 billion in 2004 to $10.3 billion in 2012.) Karpel says its current challenges have been partly a function of little—or no—expectations among members until recently. But he’s confident the critics will come to understand the upsides of the association’s efforts. “The job now is to turn the gritting of the teeth into happiness,” he says. “Providing value, and that’s what we’re working furiously to do.”

Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. More »

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