You've read the employee handbook, reviewed your predecessor's files, and reached out to key staff and volunteers. But as a new employee, you can still be tripped up by an invisible barrier: the unwritten rules that are unique to each association. In this month's Associations Now case study, a new membership director tries to recover from an early mistake.
Editor's note: See guest commentary by scrolling your mouse over the speech bubbles that appear in the text. This month's commentary provided by Aaron D. Wolowiec, CAE, and Kristin Witters
You really hit your stride in your third month on the job, Holly thought.
The first month was all about figuring out who sat where and how to find the office kitchen and bathroom. In the second month, you start putting the pieces together—getting your basic job tasks down, learning the specialized vocabulary and needs of your new association's members. But in the third month, you were ready to pick up the pace.
Holly had been with her last association for nearly 10 years; she'd known all the ins and outs of working there. She hadn't enjoyed feeling completely at sea in her first few weeks in her new job as NSTS's membership director. But now she was feeling much more confident. She'd met with her membership committee chair Really? I'd think meeting with my boss and reviewing the board's current goals and initiatives would be my first action as a new employee.—Aaron D. Wolowiec and determined his expectations for how they could best work together; Establishing a good working relationship with the chair of the membership committee is important. Without his or her support, it can be difficult to move forward on large membership campaigns.—Kristin Witters she'd had lunch or coffee with the staff she would be working with most often; she'd worked out a list of priorities with her boss, NSTS's COO. She was ready to move things forward.
First things first: The biggest challenge she faced was fulfilling the board's goal for growing membership two percent by the end of 2010. It didn't sound like much, but after three years of declining membership numbers, two percent was probably going to be a stretch. Holly's right. A more reasonable goal might be to simply prevent further hemorrhaging.—ADW Engaging board members in membership recruitment is a helpful tool. This is only possible when you have a willing membership committee/board members. They are a selection of your most active and dedicated members. Possibly engaging them in peer-to-peer communication will help Holly achieve the two percent increase.—KW
She pulled out a binder her predecessor had left for her. It was time for more detailed research.
Ideas and Proposals
Three weeks later, Holly was polishing up a two-page memo. After combing through her files and speaking with a number of staff and members, she was starting to get a picture of what had led to NSTS's membership decline.
One thing really stood out to her: Volunteerism had declined first, then membership retention and recruitment. To really get at the root of the problem, Holly felt, she had to address both opportunities to participate as well as the overall portfolio of membership benefits. But that was long-term stuff. It's never a good idea to develop portions of a membership recruitment/retention strategy in isolation. I would recommend working on short- and long-term goals simultaneously.—ADW Today, they needed to focus on more immediate steps.
Her memo outlined the ways volunteer engagement could affect membership numbers and proposed a number of ideas for consideration: ways to engage members on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn (where a number of NSTS members and former members were active); a trial member-get-a-member campaign; a young professionals Actually, a number of these recommendations appear to target young professionals. Care should be taken to adopt strategies that include more seasoned professionals, as well.—ADW task force to look at engagement opportunities for younger members. Not to ignore more formal membership marketing—Holly saw a radically stepped-up marketing plan as phase two of her efforts. But before she started to reach out to potential and former members, she wanted to make sure she had mechanisms Definitely a good strategy. No use putting the cart before the horse.—ADW in place for them to get involved.
After a final spell check, she sent her memo and the cover note she had composed to her membership chair, Hank, and her boss, Patricia. Associations are a place for collaboration, especially as a new employee. I would have recommended a once over by Patricia before communicating with Hank.—ADW Then she stood, stretched, and headed out to grab a well-earned latte.
An Unexpected Reaction
Holly sipped her coffee as she walked down the hall. Refreshed by the walk and the caffeine, she started considering what she'd like to cross off of her to-do list next. Then she paused, hearing someone call her name.
"Yes?" she said.
"I'm glad you're back," said Patricia, emerging from a nearby office. "I wanted to talk to you about your memo."
"Sure," said Holly. "Would you like me to come to your office?"
"Yours is closer," said Patricia. Holly smiled and led the way.
As they both sat, Holly asked, "So what did you think?"
Patricia nudged the door closed. "I think there are some great ideas in there, Holly—I know you and I had talked about some of your thinking on young member outreach before. But, just so you know, Hank probably isn't going to react well once he reads it. I wanted to warn you." From Patricia's reaction, this seems like a pretty big issue and something that should have been addressed in her initial meetings with Holly in regard to membership campaigns. Member-get-a-member campaigns are very common and effective.—KW
"What?" asked Holly, startled. "What did I say?" She turned to her computer and moved the mouse enough to turn off her screensaver. She'd thought her tone had been fairly innocuous.
"It's the idea of a member-get-a-member program. Once he gets that far, he's going to tune the whole thing out. The point of no return. We've all been there before. From this point forward, it's all about rebuilding trust with Hank.—ADW I'm really sorry—I should have thought to warn you, but to be honest it didn't cross my mind that you'd be proposing anything like that quite yet."
Holly stared at Patricia. "He has some kind of aversion to member-get-a-member programs? I mean, they don't seem particularly offensive. Did I miss something?"
Patricia sighed. "This was years ago—long before your time. We had a member-get-a-member program, and one year we decided to up the ante with some really nice prizes. But unfortunately, there was an issue …" Patricia paused, clearly considering what to say next. "Please keep this confidential, but the membership director at that time mismanaged the program, which is why he ended up leaving. We ended up with no accurate records of member referrals for the year, which we didn't find out until after the prizes had been awarded. It was a mess, Culture, norms, and even controversies are some of the most difficult lessons to learn at a new job. It's always a good idea to seek these out early in the acculturation process to prevent history from repeating itself.—ADW and the committee took it very personally."
"I didn't see anything in the files …" began Holly.
"I know, Millie wouldn't have known much about it," said Patricia, referring to Holly's predecessor. "Most of the details were kept confidential, because of the personnel issues."
"And it's still such a sore subject that just mentioning it will cause problems?"
Patricia sighed. "Some of our volunteers have long memories. I'll certainly run interference for you, but I didn't want you to be surprised if Hank calls or emails and sounds angry." Now's the time for Patricia to right this wrong. If she's so concerned about this issue, she should immediately call Hank to discuss this matter with him.—ADW
Holly nodded. "All right. I'm really sorry to have caused such a problem. I honestly had no idea."
"You had no way to know," said Patricia. "I should have thought to tell you." She stood. "I really do think the other ideas you listed are good ones and worth pursuing. Heck, the member-get-a-member idea is a good one too. I just don't think we're going to be able to pursue it anytime soon."
"I did make it clear that the ideas were just proposals, right?" said Holly. "I wasn't saying that we were definitely pursuing any of them. I thought I made it clear that I was just providing a strawman document for initial discussion."
"I think that was clear," said Patricia. "This is just one of those strange sensitivities. Every association has them." She smiled at Holly. "Don't worry. I'm sure we can ride this out."
Holly's first meeting of the full membership committee It may have helped Holly to have outlined some of her marketing ideas in her initial or follow-up conversation with Hank. She may have been able to squash any concerns he had with the proposed ideas and discuss problems he saw with the member-get-a-member campaign. She would establish a basic level of trust with the chair of the committee.—KW was not going well. No one had mentioned the member-get-a-member campaign idea—after all, Holly had never sent it to the full committee. But Hank's lack of confidence in her was coming through loud and clear. Ever since he read that strawman memo she'd written, he seemed to be convinced that Holly had no idea how to do her job. And every time he objected to her comments or suggested she might want to rethink something, other committee members seemed more likely to jump in and agree. If you've never experienced this moment—when you know you've lost control—consider yourself lucky.—ADW
They were currently 20 minutes into picking apart her summary of the new membership marketing plan—a discussion that was supposed to be at most a five-minute part of the meeting.
"I don't know, Holly," said Mike, a long-time committee member. "Maybe we should check with Patricia or Craig about this."
Holly resisted the urge to scream or point out that as CEO and COO, Craig and Patricia weren't nearly as involved in day-to-day membership activities as she was. Instead, she offered, "Patricia and Craig I would assume that as senior-level staff at the association, they would be of the same mindset where membership growth is integral to the association strategic plan.—KW approved the budget numbers tied to the marketing plan. Assuming the board approves the full budget, we'll be in great shape to move forward in the first quarter of the new fiscal year."
Kathy, another long-time member of the committee, shook her head. "I just don't think these projections are realistic. There's no way we can manage such large increases in membership numbers." With the board already asking for a two percent increase in membership, they would have had to have taken into consideration the need to increase budget.—KW
"That's actually a goal set by the board," Holly said. "It's my job to find a way to get there. And I do think we can do it. With your support and the support of our other volunteers." This seems like a calm, cool, and collected response, especially given Holly's current predicament. Kudos to Holly for trying her best to rally the troops.—ADW
Hank cleared his throat. "This has been a great discussion, guys, but we do need to move on to other parts of the agenda. Holly, will you take our comments back to Patricia and consider if the plan needs to be changed?"
"Of course," said Holly. "It's been really helpful to hear your perspective so far."
Starting From Scratch
"You were right," said Holly. She and Patricia were holding their weekly check-in, just a few days after the membership committee meeting. "I should have asked you to be there." Had Patricia attended the meeting, it may have shown Hank and the rest of the committee that Holly had their support as the new director of membership. Holly can use this time, and the endorsement of Patricia, to educate the committee on what she sees as the outcomes of a successful membership campaign.—KW Or perhaps this is an opportunity for the chief elected officer to reach out to Hank? At this point, I think this chasm is best repaired by another volunteer.—ADW
"I don't know," said Patricia. "I might have been able to throw some oil on the waters, but I think you were right to be concerned that having me there would undermine your authority with Hank."
"Instead, he just undermined my authority all by himself," said Holly glumly.
Patricia thought for a moment. "Did you find any of the input from the committee to be helpful?"
Holly toyed with her empty cup. "It was helpful to see what they found to be threatening, I suppose. I don't think they really understood how the marketing plan would work, Taking new ideas to a committee, especially one as long standing as this membership committee, requires much advance planning and preparation. Shame on Holly for taking her marketing plan to the committee without carefully considering how she would explain the mechanics to them.—ADW but if I'm going to work with them in the future, I have to understand how to communicate well with them."
"I'm glad you can see that. You may want to consider tweaking your plan a bit too—not because they're right and you're wrong. Please don't think I'm saying that. But you might want to go over your notes It seems that Patricia isn't 100 percent supportive of Holly's proposed marketing campaigns and approach to increasing membership. Holly may have to win Patricia over with her ideas before approaching the membership committee again at their next meeting.—KW again, once you've cooled down a bit, to see if there were some good points in there."
"I'll do my best," Holly promised.
"That's all we can ask."
"I'm still concerned, though," Holly said. "I'm not sure how to work with them effectively. Even when Hank's term as chair ends, he won't rotate off the committee; he's been on it, what, 15 years? I looked it up in the AMS."
Patricia tapped her fingers on the table. "What options do you see?"
"I can try to communicate with them more often, even overcommunicate, Two wrongs don't make a right. Ultimately, overcommunicating will only serve to undermine Holly's relationship with her committee members.—ADW Holly can use data about the association and the lapsed members to show the benefits of a marketing campaign they may find ineffective. The AMS should be able to show trends in NSTS's membership.—KW to build up their trust in me. I can try to recruit new committee members, to bring in some fresh blood that won't have preconceptions about these new ideas I'm working on. I can …" Holly trailed off. Convincing the board to abolish the membership committee seemed like a farfetched idea, Most likely it's a standing committee; however, it's never a bad idea to periodically review the association's committee structure. Subcommittees and task forces often have a way of not disbanding after their missions have been reached.—ADW but she wasn't sure it was any more farfetched than convincing the committee to trust her.
"Why don't you think about those ideas, and any others you come up with, for a little while?" Patricia suggested. "I will too. Then at our next check-in meeting we'll talk about them."
Holly nodded. But she wasn't sure what other options there were. While developing new marketing campaigns is important to the association and to the membership, Holly will also need to work on her relationship with Hank. Some of the issues she should be able to address simultaneously.—KW Now's a good time for Holly to connect with her mentor to discuss possible options.—ADW
Lisa Junker, CAE, is editor-in-chief of Associations Now. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Aaron D. Wolowiec, CAE, MSA, CMP, is director of education and associate partnerships at the Health Care Association of Michigan, a scholar of the Diversity Executive Leadership Program, and vice chair of the Young Professionals Committee. Email: email@example.com
Kristin Witters is manager, membership services, at the National Association of College and University Business Officers. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
This article is part of a series of fictional case studies developed for Associations Now. All people, places, and volunteer opportunities contained herein are hypothetical and based entirely on the imagination of the author. No real events are intentionally reflected.
What Should Holly Do Next?
This case study is the first of a six-part series of articles that will focus around the (fictional) staff of NSTS. Can Holly rebuild the trust of her key volunteers, find a way to work around them—or should she consider moving on? What happens will be based on reader input. Leave your comments below.