Give Members the Gift of In-Person Conversation

Individual face time feels like a precious commodity these days, which makes it an especially meaningful way to interact with members. This year, one association executive’s “conversation tour” generated new ideas for serving her members better.

Especially at this time of year, there are many ways to say thanks to members, whether it’s a holiday greeting card or an end-of-year video message from the CEO or staff team. But, what if, instead of delivering a simple “thank you,” you gave members the gift of your time and attention with a one-on-one meeting.

That might seem like a heavy lift, but Debbie Trueblood, MS, CAE, executive director of the Illinois Park and Recreation Association, says it can be done if you set a goal and work to meet with members throughout the year.

Over the past year, Trueblood repeatedly packed her suitcase and drove around Illinois in a “conversation tour” to celebrate IPRA’s 75th anniversary. She set a goal of 75 meetings, as well as some rules for herself.

“Each meeting had to be at least five minutes and a two-way interaction in order to count,” she says. “It also had to be a small meeting with only a few, usually one or two, people present. And I tried to meet with as many people as humanly possible.”

In the end, Trueblood visited with more than 130 IPRA members. “For me, this action was about going back to the basics, reinvigorating member recruitment, retention, and engagement,” she says. “Getting out there, especially to the far corners of our membership, and talking to people face to face seemed like a great way to achieve this.”

The conversations helped change IPRA’s member focus in a variety of ways. For example:

Identifying underserved groups. Many associations develop member personas that help them identify which products and services are likely to be most useful and relevant to specific member segments. While these personas often ring true, they can also lead to bias in how members are served.

Before Trueblood’s tour, she thought IPRA had a pretty good grip on members’ competing needs. But as she traveled, she learned that the association was underserving one specific member group—those who work at forest preserve agencies.

“We learned that they were different from our other members and that we needed to change our game up to better serve them,” Trueblood says. “In 2020, we’re going to open a new forest preserve task force to give them a greater voice.”

Removing geographic barriers. Most of IPRA’s learning programs are clustered in metropolitan areas, but that leaves some members without nearby professional development opportunities.

“People, especially rural members, kept saying, ‘You’re not listening to us. You don’t get it,’” she says. “So, we put together a board of regents with two people from each region who intentionally live far away from each other, and we’re using their recommendations for site selections. It’s a more geographically inclusive effort.”

Increasing on-campus engagement. Meanwhile, some of the most accessible in-person engagement opportunities were with IPRA’s student members. Trueblood says scheduling a meeting was as easy as showing up to an on-campus event.

“I spoke at five different universities this year, and I found inroads through certain faculty or students who invited me to meet there,” she says. “Ultimately, this tour was about connecting with a much wider array of people, at pretty much every level of membership.”

Does your staff make time for in-person interaction with members? How do you do it, and how has it helped your organization? Post your comments below.

(Blankstock/iStock/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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