By virtue of their position, association board members can be key players in member engagement and recruitment efforts.
Our topic today is a year in the making. In a post here last February, I posed a question: “What do you tell your board about membership?” Several readers posted interesting comments, so we decided it was a topic worth exploring more deeply for the next Volunteer Leadership Issue of Associations Now, due out next week. (Update, February 2, 2015: The issue is now online, including “Membership Mode: A Crash Course for Volunteer Leaders.”)
Aimed at boards of directors, the article is meant to be a 1,500-word intro to the membership model for volunteers who come from different lines of work and are suddenly dropped into the role of guiding the direction of a nonprofit association. I spoke with six different association professionals from a variety of types and sizes of associations to get their take on how boards should be involved with the membership operation. I heard a lot of different perspectives, but there was one response that was common among them all:
They are your champions. They love the organization the most, so they’re naturally going to be the most passionate people about the organization.
They all said they see the board as a valuable pool of “ambassadors” for recruiting and engaging members.
To be sure, this is a secondary role for the board, coming after its primary roles of strategy, financial stewardship, and oversight. But, by their nature as an association’s most engaged volunteers, board members are simply too good a resource to not put into action when possible.
“Board members, just by their title, I think naturally convey this successful status in their trade or profession,” says Jay Karen, CEO at Select Registry, an association of inns, bed and breakfasts, and boutique hotels. “And so they’re naturally the right people to be using when talking to new members or member prospects.”
The association staff role, then, is to give board members the tools to talk about the association in a way that resonates with members and prospects. “It’s not their responsibility to go out and recruit members; we just want them to be prepared to be able to do it,” says Carolyn Hook, director of membership and operations at the New Jersey Society of Certified Public Accountants.
Hook’s strategy is to help board members “tell the story” of membership at NJCPA. At one meeting, board members complete a brief worksheet to identify how the association has benefited them, so they can talk firsthand about the value of membership. They’re also given business cards printed with the NJCPA mission that they can hand out to prospective members they meet.
Board members often interact with other members more frequently than headquarters staff can. Kay Fitzpatrick, CAE, co-owner of association management company Virtual AMC and content leader for ASAE University’s online Principles of Membership course, says board members can be a sounding board for feedback.
“They can be taught to ask the members about their own experience, to get some oral feedback from members that they can then bring back to the membership department,” she says. “They interact with members in a whole different way than the staff does, and somebody might be willing to say to them, ‘I was kind of disappointed in this or that or the other thing,’ or “I had this great idea but I’m not really sure who I should talk with about it.'”
The San Antonio Chapter of Associated General Contractors of America, meanwhile, asks board members to join Executive Vice President Doug McMurry on recruitment visits to potential member companies. McMurry says the combo of board member and staff pitching the value of membership works “about 85 percent of the time.”
“They’re most effective when they just talk off the cuff and explain to the prospect, ‘Hey, this is why I belong, these are the things that benefit me and my company, and I think they’ll be a benefit to you too,'” McMurry says. “If they do nothing more than just that, they’ve almost closed the deal.”
Even at an association following the Carver Policy Governance model, in which a “bright line” separates board policy-setting and staff execution, the ambassador role for boards can be valuable. At Select Registry, where Karen and his board practice Policy Governance, the board’s direction of the membership operation goes no further than requiring Karen to have a three-year membership plan, leaving the details of that plan to him and his staff. But even in that context, the board members play a role as faces of the association.
“They are your champions. They love the organization the most, so they’re naturally going to be the most passionate people about the organization,” Karen says.
The association pros I spoke with offered two caveats to the membership recruitment and engagement role for the board. One is that not all board members may be comfortable playing an active outreach role, and, because it’s not what they’re primarily selected to board service for, you can’t demand it. Jenny Holliday, membership and desktop publishing assistant at the International Association of Diecutting and Diemaking, suggests “playing to people’s strengths.” When one IADD board member wasn’t comfortable making thank-you calls to members, for instance, he was able to help out in other ways, she says.
The other danger comes from a dynamic identified in ASAE research, “the likelihood that elected leaders will see issues and priorities differently than rank-and-file members.” As Mark Golden, FASAE, CAE, executive director of the National Society of Professional Engineers, put it, board members “make a lousy focus group.” That means, before they’re deployed into any face-of-the-association activities, they need to be grounded in the wants, needs, and perceptions of the association’s membership at large, which staff can provide through member data and feedback, Golden says.
Does your association put board members into action to engage and recruit members? What info or training do you provide them to succeed in that role? And how else is your board of directors involved with membership? Please share in the comments.