Leadership

How One Leader Encouraged a Board to Make a Big Move

By / Oct 20, 2019 (Gabor/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

When the American Astronomical Society had a chance to acquire a magazine earlier this year, the price tag was hefty. But it opened a conversation about opportunities and mission.

Sometimes the perfect idea for improving your association just lands in your lap. Then comes the part where you have to convince the board how perfect it is.

That’s the situation that Kevin Marvel, executive officer of the American Astronomical Society, faced earlier this year. AAS has recently begun to implement the recommendations of a governance task force, and one of them was to expand its member base from professional astronomers and related scientists to backyard stargazers and other amateurs. The challenge, Marvel says, was “to establish how we might draw them in to be members and provide them with services or information that they would value.”

We had never made a bold, sudden decision to purchase something like this.

The spring of 2019 provided a possible answer: A large media company had entered bankruptcy, and one of the assets it was shedding was Sky & Telescope, a long-lived and much-loved general-interest astronomy magazine. AAS had had its eye on the magazine for a while, having heard its owner was in financial trouble; with the bankruptcy, it had the chance to own the magazine relatively affordably. (Marvel recently explained the nuts and bolts of the purchase process in an essay at The Scholarly Kitchen.)

Still, the purchase price would be north of $1 million, a not-insubstantial lift for AAS. Marvel’s goal was to show the board the cost was worth it. “Our meetings budgets are on the order of $2 million in expenses, so they had seen numbers that big,” he says. “But we had never made a bold, sudden decision to move to purchase something like this.”

To ease concerns, Marvel framed the idea at a board meeting as an opportunity to put some substance to its strategic goal of expanding membership and promoting its members’ work.

“I was able to walk them through a narrative, without really telling them what the end point was,” he says. “And then I got to the end point and said, ‘Maybe we should buy this magazine, which happens to be at auction.’ Then I went into the details of what the numbers looked like. But at first I tried strongly to connect the goals that we had started to formulate around more outreach to the public and more connection with the amateur community.”

The approach worked—perhaps too well. Now that Marvel had a board that was supportive of acquiring Sky & Telescope, it was also overly eager to get into the weeds of how the magazine should be run and whether it should be more of an AAS house organ.

“They had all sorts of specific ideas about modifying the kind of content that Sky & Telescope produces,” he says. “The argument I gave them was that this magazine has been operating successfully on its own for a very long time, it knows its community, and we should trust in the experts who have been running it successfully. Then, over time we can provide advice on how to expand what the magazine is beyond where it is now. And that’s not about dictating content.”

To firm up that point, Marvel established an advisory committee composed of the magazine’s readers as well as professional astronomers to help guide Sky & Telescope’s staff without setting editorial direction for it. In the early months, he says, it’s enough for AAS to focus on getting to know the magazine’s staff, repair some of the operational issues lingering from the previous owner, and build a rapport with readers, some of whom expressed skepticism about the new relationship.

But AAS also attracted a lot of people who were fans of the idea: Immediately after the purchase was announced in June, nearly 100 subscribers signed up as amateur affiliate members. AAS has reached out to those new “early adopters,” as Marvel calls them, to solicit their input about what they want from their membership in AAS.

But converting subscribers into members isn’t the goal, Marvel says. Ultimately, AAS has a new revenue-generating asset that helps it meet its goal of championing astronomy to both the scientific community and the public.

“We’re hitting the mark on achieving our mission better simply by making the acquisition, even if we made no changes to how the magazine operates or had zero additional amateur members,” Marvel says. “Just by owning and publishing the magazine, by enabling it to exist, we’re achieving our mission.”

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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