New Consulting Specialties Help Associations Face New Trends

Athitakis Associations Now Fall 2019 Issue By: Mark Athitakis

New trends in association management have created niches for consultants. Three speak about what it means to help associations get ahead of the curve in addressing new challenges—and then stay there.

A few years ago, Sherry Marts began asking association executives about what plans they had to respond to sexual harassment at their meetings.

“The response I would get was, ‘Well, we don’t have a problem with it because no one’s ever reported anything,’” she says. “So I would ask them a rapid-fire series of questions: Where do you publish your code of conduct? Do you even have a code conduct? Did the people at your meetings know who to report the incidents to? And of course the answers were no, no, no, no.”

Fast-forward to the present day. As the #MeToo movement and conversations within the association community have drawn increased attention to harassment at conferences and events, Marts, founder of S*Marts Consulting, finds herself increasingly in demand as a speaker and facilitator on the subject.

Progress has been slow. “The organizations that have a really good code of conduct—and that also enforce that code of conduct effectively—are definitely in the minority,” she says. But the work is no longer dismissed as unnecessary.

As associations evolve, their needs inevitably change, which means that new consulting niches emerge to help solve new problems. Many of these new specialties are rooted in technology, which is ever-shifting, of course. But they also include work like Marts’, which focuses on improving the old-fashioned business of meetings that’s at the heart of what associations do.

Order From Chaos

Joseph A. Busch, founder and principal of Taxonomy Strategies, describes his firm’s work as straightforward: “At the highest level, we help people organize their stuff,” he says.

But the job isn’t Marie Kondo-simple. Organization has always been a difficult task for associations, and it’s become more complex as data has proliferated across a host of platforms: email, intranets, websites, social media tools, AMSes, and more. Corralling all of that data has become both increasingly important and increasingly difficult.

As the firm’s name suggests, Taxonomy Strategies focuses on developing common terminologies that associations can use across platforms to help them highlight themes or simply to find relevant material. “Associations are trying to get their arms around how they can take advantage of all types of digital information,” Busch says. “That's not just their transaction systems. It’s their document repositories, whether it's SharePoint or shared drives or something else.”

The business benefit comes from time saved figuring out what information an association does and doesn’t have. “There is this situation that happens in all organizations where you just do the same thing over and over again,” he says. “And that's not necessarily lost effort, but we're all busy and we're limited in terms of our resources. It can really become a drain on our ability to be effective.”

The pace of change when it comes to data might be matched only by the heightened concern about data privacy and security. The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the California Consumer Privacy Act have established new rules around how associations use and protect member and customer data, which has sparked more engagement with consultants serving those needs, says Bill Rankin, manager, compliance and privacy services, at American Technology Services. “Relevance and prevalence are definitely on the rise for privacy,” he says.

But Rankin notes that conversations about privacy shouldn’t exclusively be about how to keep data out of the reach of hackers. They should also explore ways to ensure that members and customers have access to data that’s important to them.

“Privacy is about the use of the data, making sure it's used appropriately,” he says. “But it's also about a kind of loosening up of those restrictions. Giving somebody the ability to actually access the data you have on them is a big part of privacy. Giving them the ability to manipulate that data to correct things that are incorrect: name changes, email changes, address changes.”

But the first step is to make sure you know what data you have, he adds, and many associations need help with that. “The whole point of all that is making sure that associations are really taking a comprehensive approach to looking at all of their data stores: your AMS, your CMS, Google Analytics, anything you outsource to marketing companies, or data you’re bringing in from other sources.”

As associations evolve, their needs inevitably change, which means that new consulting niches emerge to help solve new problems.

Start With Conversations

Projects relating to technology and meetings aren’t one-size-fits-all affairs. The taxonomy and security needs of smaller associations are less complex that those of larger organizations, and the diversity of challenges related to meetings can require an individualized approach based on an organization’s unique situation.

Eventually, specific engagements must be outlined in a scope of work, and Busch says early conversations with clients can clarify what outcomes are most essential and identify the best way to accomplish them. “The work can be done in a very broad and widespread way, but it could also be done with smaller groups in ways that are much more focused,” he says. “Projects can be chunked up in pieces.”

When sorting out the scope of work, “a lot of what we do is a combination of talking to people to understand what they're trying to do and finding out where there may be some problems and recognizing what might be amenable to improvement,” Busch says.

Those conversations with a consultant can be especially helpful when it comes to responding to new regulations, says Rankin.

“One thing I always have to remind people is that you have the answers,” he says. “As a consultant coming in, my job is to have conversations with you and try to extract those answers and maybe fill in some blanks. You should work with somebody who's good at having those conversations.”

Marts tries to engage with organizations by meeting them where they are---which is less often in response to a particular incident of alleged harassment at a meeting and more often out of eagerness to prevent one from happening.

“I love framing this in terms of inclusion,” she says. “A lot of what I'm hearing about now [from associations] is less on the sexual harassment side and increasingly racial harassment, harassment on the basis of perceived immigration status, harassment on the basis of perceived sexual identity or gender. So if your organization has been paying lip service to inclusion, this is one way to make it concrete and actually make it happen at your meeting.”

Empowering Clients

Marts, Rankin, and Busch agree that the goal of a consulting relationship should be to empower the association to handle problems on its own as much as possible. Privacy consultants, for example, can assist with compliance, but organizations can then set their own internal standards.

Even if your organization is not subject to GDPR, Rankin says, you can use it as a framework. “Use it as something to strive toward, so that in the future, if you do fall under California Consumer Privacy Act, you've already made strides,” he says. “Or if there is federal omnibus regulation [in the future], you've already made steps to comply with that as well.”

“We try to help people by transferring some knowledge so that they can continue to do this work” of better data management, says Busch. “It's a continuous improvement sort of thing, learning how to work better. We sometimes talk about it as information hygiene, learning how to keep your files.”

Marts recalls working with one association where she trained volunteers on how to be helpful allies to people who have been harassed at meetings. At a conference, she served as a liaison for the volunteers, but the upside was watching the organization become empowered to take the lead.

“The feedback they got was tweet after tweet of people saying, ‘This is so fabulous, every meeting should have this,’” she says. “I think it did make a big difference. It’s really remarkable how quickly behavior changes once you put it out there that no, we're serious about this.”

Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis is a contributing editor to Associations Now.