Associations are always trying to do more for their members, but with limited time and money, sometimes the best way to move forward with new projects is to stop doing old ones.
Most people talk about having a to-do list. However, if that list gets too full, it’s probably time to consider a stop-doing list.
The same is true for associations: They are at their best when they are working efficiently on programs and services that members highly value and that contribute to the organization’s bottom line, which means they also need a stop-doing list to eliminate things that are no longer working.
“Associations, no matter what their size, have limited budgets and limited time,” said Elena Gerstmann, Ph.D., FASAE, CAE, a principal at Avenue M Group. “If they don’t stop doing some of the things that used to be important, they can’t invest in new programs, products, and services.”
While stop-doing lists are important to ensuring effectiveness, they are hard to develop and implement, because people are often wed to programs that have worked in the past. “Typically, it isn’t about working on things that weren’t successful; these were products or services that had a value 30 years ago or 20 years ago, or 10 years ago,” she said. “They were successful in the past, but they might not be a part of the association’s future success.”
Gerstmann estimated that “some associations have at least 10 percent of their budget and 10 percent of time that could be saved without really breaking that much of a sweat.”
So, how does an association figure out what it should stop doing?
First, you have to know everything that you are doing. Gerstmann suggested viewing the association like a sack and all the things it does as potatoes that go inside. “They’ve added all these potatoes to the sack. The staff and budget and volunteers can handle 10 pounds of potatoes, but they are now carrying 15 pounds of potatoes,” she said. “And they want to add new potatoes for 2025 and 2030. But they can’t. You can’t put 20 pounds in that sack.”
This is where analyzing what you’re doing comes into play. “Some of the potatoes are really rotten and in the middle of the bag,” Gerstmann said. “You need a really transparent process that is deliberate so you can figure out which potatoes stay and which potatoes go. You can then put some new potatoes in that bag.”
The process of evaluating all your programs must also start from the top down. “When it starts at the top, it can be comprehensive,” Gerstmann said. “All products and services can be involved.”
In addition, the association’s leadership needs to be committed to following through with the list once it’s complete, and it is crucial for the evaluation process to be transparent and include everything, even the sacred cows.
“You look at all those potatoes, even potatoes you know you will never cut,” she said. “If you didn’t put it in at the beginning, it could really kick the legs out of the process. People may say, ‘Hey, they didn’t do the newsletter, so I don’t care what they are saying about my program.’”
Gerstmann said the review process she described typically takes a few months, which allows the evaluation team to come up with a set of criteria and benchmarks to use to assess all the programs. “It’s important to take the time,” she said. “You don’t want to rush through it. It’s not going to be deliberate and transparent if you’re rushing.”
When the evaluation is done, leaders should share the results with staff and make the necessary changes. If a sacred-cow program is recommended for cuts but ends up staying, Gerstmann said, just getting it on the list is a win, as it takes things in the direction of eventually cutting. “You can say, yes, we should divest of this, but we will look at it in three years,” she said.
The most important thing about implementing the stop-doing list, is reminding people that it is really about what you’re trying to start doing. “Make this a good-news story,” Gerstmann said. “Yes, we are cutting this. This was successful in the past. We are going to free up your time and money to look at this new product.”
How has a stop-doing list improved your association and its programs, products, and services? Share your thoughts in the comments.