What Engagement Means Now for Associations

Your association needs to do more for members than provide benefits and volunteer opportunities. You need to build a relationship with them. Here’s a look at the new meaning of engagement.

Employees make it a daily practice to walk in the shoes of their members. Several times a week, a VIN team gets together to navigate the website from members’ perspective.

Your association needs to do more for members than provide benefits and volunteer opportunities. You need to build a relationship with them. Here’s a look at the new meaning of engagement.

Several years ago, the Maryland-based Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, the world’s largest general aviation organization, saw member concerns rising about mounting political threats to the nation’s 4,800 public-use airports—from curfews and noise restrictions to increasing user fees and encroachment by surrounding residential areas. How could AOPA monitor these threats on a local level and safeguard its members’ freedom to fly?

AOPA did it through a strategic partnership between staff and members. It organized a veritable army of 2,500 member volunteers that evolved into the Airport Support Network—AOPA’s most powerful champions, its eyes and ears at the state and local level. They serve as liaisons to local pilots and airport management. They report back to AOPA on political initiatives that may threaten an airport’s ability to operate. They educate local officials and the public about the value of their community airports.

This is engagement. These volunteers are advancing their own interests, feeding a passion that drives them, and sharing it with peers. They are experiencing the value that drove them to join AOPA in the first place. They don’t need to be persuaded or promised rewards to join the network.

These members are engaged because their relationship with the association enables them to do something they want to do in the first place, better than they would be able to do on their own. As a result, AOPA becomes a partner rather than merely a provider of benefits. Its members choose to become engaged to achieve outcomes that matter to them.

From Participation to Connection

Associations typically treat member engagement as another sales transaction and have come to equate it with mere participation. This perspective obscures the greater value of members as partners and thwarts strategic relationships with them.

When members suddenly make a connection between what the association does and what is critically important to them, they are converted from participants to loyal members, donors, and champions. By focusing on selling and persuading, organizations often miss the potential connection points with members that are at the heart of retention and engagement.

This became clear to me in a series of interviews I conducted with chapter leaders who had antagonistic relationships with their associations. Despite this friction, they were grateful for the value they had discovered and exploited for themselves in the course of promoting the association: building a new business on the basis of an unmet market need and leveraging opportunities to build a customer base, develop a new competency, take on new roles such as adjunct professorships, or make important innovations to association programs on the local level.

Their associations had often dismissed these interests as selfish instead of recognizing their mutual benefits. These paths to engagement did not fit the associations’ assumptions for what “engaged” members should focus on: program attendance and sales, committee participation, annual board and regional meetings, and so on. Volunteers struggled to meet these expectations and found that what truly motivated them was mostly ignored. The results: frustrated volunteers who felt unappreciated and weakened associations.

How do we want our organizations to serve members? What if we reversed our priorities and put the personal, informal paths to engagement first? Getting rid of rigid definitions of engagement and assumptions about what provides value to members will help associations find points of mutual interest with members and elevate relationships over delivery of goods and services.

Becoming Indispensable

The Veterinary Information Network (VIN) did just that: It built an organization around what mattered most to members. It’s an instructive case study for a new, relationship-focused engagement model.

VIN is a virtual, subscription-based community “for veterinarians, by veterinarians,” in which members address a wide range of needs for running competitive practices. Members enter an online environment of continuous learning and innovation, where they give and receive advice, access research, solve difficult cases, and participate in conversations with peers and experts.

How can an organization become indispensable in an age of overwhelming consumer choices? This is what it took for VIN to become essential to its members’ success:

Innovative, relationship-­centered leadership. VIN’s driving force has been its visionary cofounder and president, Paul Pion, a veterinary cardiologist. Instead of first creating an organizational structure and products and then finding customers, Pion started by delving into what kept vets up at night and then built an organization around solutions to those problems. VIN grew organically from the outside in—experimenting, learning from results, adapting, and innovating with members.

Seeing the world through members’ eyes. The greatest “pain” independent veterinarians experienced was isolation. Running their practices left no time or resources for attending conferences, keeping up with research, interacting with peers, or traveling for continuing education. Accessing busy specialists to get answers to unexpected practice questions was another major problem for VIN’s mostly generalist members, and keeping up with fast-changing research meant they needed expensive subscriptions to many different databases.

Technology-enabled solutions. Pion remedied members’ isolation by bringing the world to them. Years before social media became commonplace, Pion conceived VIN as a virtual organization and executed the vision on an AOL platform—the fruit of his collaboration with AOL founder Steve Case.

Community culture. VIN defines its identity in terms of its online community rather than the association, which exists only to serve the community. Staffers use “we” in talking about staff and members collectively, rather than “we and they,” which reveals the mentality of many more-traditional organizations.

“Living” in members’ space. Employees make it a daily practice to walk in the shoes of their members. Several times a week, a VIN team gets together to navigate the website from members’ perspective, identifying glitches and exploring ways to create valuable customer experiences. In brief daily meetings, staffers report what they heard from or observed about members, discuss implications, and look for solutions.

Collaborative development of products and content. VIN didn’t simply build the platform. Instead, it enabled conversations and assigned meaningful roles and responsibilities to both staff and volunteers to ensure development of relevant products and content.

  • Products. At VIN, there are no formal product-development processes, committees, policies, or procedures to block or slow down good ideas. Innovation can stem from anyone in the community at any time. Some of the most exciting ideas for new products have emerged from members. Pion and his team brainstorm with members, identify member innovations and jointly develop them into products and solutions, hire member experts as consultants, and create online prototypes for member feedback and modifications. They constantly learn from the results.
  • Content. Both staff and members are involved in creating, updating, and managing VIN’s extensive content. Consultant-editors and staff contribute, archive, and organize content; they edit and often retitle and recategorize entries to make them searchable and consistent. They may jump into a member discussion to provide answers or expertise or may volunteer to conduct research on a discussion topic, adding value to the group’s collective knowledge. Meanwhile, more than 200 member consultants provide specialized expertise to VIN’s mostly generalist members. VIN identifies and develops the right consultants on the basis of expertise, reputation, and character. Consultants manage discussions and content on the association’s 44 message boards, each focused on a subspecialty or cross-disciplinary topic.

VIN does not market to new members, nor does it need to coax existing members to participate. Five hundred simultaneous message-board discussions per day provide solutions when and where members need them and indicate the organization’s high degree of member engagement.

A New Basis for Engagement

Michael Maccoby, who has studied leadership personalities for decades, found that a new “interactive” personality type has been emerging since the 1980s. These people thrive in shifting roles and identities and prefer shared authority and collaboration to authoritarian leadership.

“Interactive attitudes are spreading throughout the industrialized world,” Maccoby concludes in his book The Leaders We Need: And What Makes Us Follow. This is why co-development and interactivity are growing market trends.

Outside-in engagement is simply the outcome of a relationship that generates value for all parties, a two-way conversation that helps the parties understand one another and, as a result, increases the value they can create together. This means that organizations must be interested in, and capable of, having meaningful two-way conversations.

Such a shift requires a new kind of leader, one who, according to Maccoby, can take on the challenge “to transform bureaucracies in which individuals comfortably played autonomous roles into collaborative communities.”

(Bill Oxford/Getty Images)

Anna Caraveli

By Anna Caraveli

Anna Caraveli, Ph.D., author of The Demand Perspective: Leading From the Outside In (Association Management Press, 2015), is managing partner of the Demand Networks, LLC, in Alexandria, Virginia. MORE

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