3 Ways to Involve Members in Innovation

A new study says associations are developing better practices for pursuing innovation, but it’s often a top-down effort. Here are three ways you can generate change that starts with your members.

Would you call your association innovative? According to a recent study conducted by Marketing General Incorporated (MGI) in partnership with the National Business Aviation Association, more association professionals say their organization is moving ahead with innovative ideas that can be implemented and measured for success.

In a survey of 234 association professionals conducted earlier this year, 31 percent said they had begun a formal program geared toward innovation in the last five years. That’s a 4 percentage point increase from two years ago, when the survey was first conducted.

However, there’s still room for growth: 70 percent of respondents said their association was only slightly or moderately innovative, and most often it’s a top-down effort driven by a CEO or other executive leader, says Tony Rossell, senior vice president of MGI and the report’s author.

“While it’s good for a CEO or the board to grab hold and drive innovation, I think the focus of innovation is to meet members’ needs,” he says. “And typically your members and membership team are most sensitive to those needs.”

He advocates for a bottom-up approach to innovation, where association staff and members feel empowered to participate and contribute ideas. Here are three examples of how this approach might look in practice:

Listening tours. Staff at the American Dental Association routinely take time to meet with members as part of listening tours. In these regularly scheduled meetings, the member relations team gets out of the office and into dentist offices to hear from members with a wide range of backgrounds and experiences. Sometimes they’re tapped to participate on member panels, where they test and provide feedback on new product and service offerings. That approach—where staff play the role of fly on the wall, listening and then engaging—helps ADA to think critically about unmet member needs. So far, it’s led to the launch of new content offerings, including a Facebook Live video series.

Hackathons. Recently, I witnessed how association professionals and members can be turned into hackers (the good kind) to rapidly problem-solve and potentially build something new. Hackathons are quick-sprint challenges popular with coders and software developers. Usually, it’s team-focused work that takes place over a 24- or 48-hour period, resulting in a new product or service offering. This year, at the ASAE Annual Meeting & Exposition in Chicago, component relations professionals became “hackers” who developed four distinct ideas for useful chapter relations practices and tools. One was a blueprint for how chapters can serve as innovation incubators [PDF] in their profession, trade, or industry.

Masterminds. At the American Council of Engineering Companies, “uber members” are tapped to participate in specialty groups organized by practice area or firm size. For these “mastermind groups” to work well, they need to bring together highly engaged members capable of thinking and functioning in mutually beneficial ways. ACEC’s groups typically meet about once a month [ASAE member log-in required]. They help plan new events and seminars and produce content for a series of publications.

Does your association include members in your efforts to foster innovation? If so, how? Post your examples in the comments below.

(JamesBrey/E+/Getty Images Plus)

Tim Ebner

By Tim Ebner

Tim Ebner is a senior editor for Associations Now. He covers membership, leadership, and governance issues. Email him with story ideas or news tips. MORE

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