Save Money, Strengthen Staff

By: Mark Athitakis

The American Society for Surgery of the Hand’s cost-cutting effort didn’t just save money. It also built a more cohesive staff culture.

The thing is, they were actually doing OK.

Around Thanksgiving 2008, the American Society for Surgery of the Hand (ASSH) was wrapping up a solid financial year. The Rosemont, Illinois-based association enjoyed a slight uptick in membership and had one of its best-attended annual meetings in Chicago in September. Education programs were stable.

But given the bad financial news all around, ASSH Executive Director Mark C. Anderson, CAE, didn't have much faith that the good times were going to last. As he regularly pointed out to his staff of 16, everybody knew somebody who was touched by the recession in some way. So in 2009 he gathered his staff and asked them to participate in a team-based cost-cutting effort:

Together, they would look at every product and program that didn't require board approval—$1.2 million of its approximately $6 million budget—and figure out which ones could be trimmed, cut, and restructured.

By the time it was done ASSH had saved slightly more than $300,000, mostly by making changes members wouldn't much notice or removing programs members wouldn't much miss. And the organization found new sources of revenue as well.

Shaving 25 percent off a discretionary budget is no small thing. But this isn't a story about cost-cutting—as the old saw goes, nobody ever cut his way to success. ASSH's experience was about savings, but it was also about turning staffers into stakeholders and creating a culture where rethinking how programs are run is persistently top of mind. "What was at first an emergency response," as Anderson puts it, "is now a process."

Adding Up the Savings

ASSH 2009 Annual Meeting Preliminary Program
(Savings against 2008 program expenses)

Design: $2,333.00
Printing: $25,412.80
Mailing house: $1,425.34
Postage: $28,588.81
Marketing lists: $1,693.74
Total savings: $59,453.69

ASSH 2009 Course Programs
(Savings against 2008 program expenses)

Design: $4,629.00
Printing: $9,388.61
Mailing house: $5,425.27
Postage: $10,165.17
Marketing lists: $1,000.00
Total savings: $30,608.05

Slimming Down ASSH's Annual Meeting Preliminary Program
2008: 72 pages, two mailings
2009: 52 pages, one mailing
2010: 32 pages, no registration-form
insert (prompts to register online)

Starting From Scratch

Nicole Renn, ASSH's marketing and communications manager, says she was concerned when she first heard that there was going to be an all-staff retreat to discuss cost savings. "I was a little bit nervous, as I think most marketing people would be," she says. "Whenever costs are cut, marketing tends to be on the chopping block first."

But marketing was just one category of the approximately 70 programs the staff looked at in January 2009, when Anderson shut down ASSH's office for a day and split his staffers into three teams to look at the books. The director of finance was on hand to answer questions, and staffers could address issues relevant to their departments. After the day-long meeting, smaller groups would gather to address the specific ideas mentioned and discuss how they might be implemented. In those meetings through the winter and spring—initially twice a month, then once a month—the goal was to have everybody at ASSH look at their efforts with fresh eyes—not to cut programs, but to figure out how they could be made more efficient.

"It's not about sunsetting programs," says Anderson. "It's about taking a program that had been a good idea, and maybe it's become stale and needs to be reinvigorated."

To that end, Anderson says, it was important that the people sitting on each team were staffers who might not interact with each other on a regular basis and staffers who would collaborate well together. "We have very detailed personality information [about staff] using several measures," he says. "They were cross-functional teams—absolutely not people from any one area or set of responsibilities."

It quickly became clear that one of the biggest examples of a stale program at ASSH was the preliminary program the association sent to promote its annual meeting. The 2008 booklet was a hefty 72 pages, similar to years past. "It was never something that we looked at to see, 'Oh, we really should do this differently,'" says ASSH Director of Meetings and Education Angie Legaspi, CMP.

Cutting 20 pages from the program saved more than $25,000 from the previous year's printing costs. (It was important, Anderson stressed, that staffers were cutting against actual expenditures from the previous year in each category, not the budget figures. "I have learned in the past that when I say, 'Here's what the budget was and here's how much we came in under the budget,' that doesn't carry a lot of muster with my board. They care about results compared to a previous year.") Fewer pages to lay out meant savings on design costs. Instead of sending the program out twice, it only did so once; going from first class to bulk mail helped reduce postage costs as well. Vendors were willing to negotiate on prices, too, given their eagerness to keep clients during a recession. That's something that Legaspi learned in talks with ASSH's audiovisual vendor for its annual meeting, shaving $30,000 in expenses from the previous year.

The discussions of reducing pages weren't just focused on how to save dollars; they also fed into more strategic conversations about who their members were and how they behaved.

"Sometimes when you're working on the same things year-in and year-out, you sometimes don't get to see quite as clearly as somebody who's not entrenched in it they same way," says Renn.

"One of the things we talked about in our group was, 'Do we really need to have a printed piece with every single product that we offer in it?'"

That simple question opened up a new conversation about how ASSH was presenting information to members in print and online. A membership that was familiar with receiving materials the same way for years on end wasn't going to be prepared for an immediate shift to online-only programs. But they could make it clear to members which way the winds were blowing. "This year we've cut back a little more information," Renn says. "They have to go to the web for their registration form, but they can still print it out and fill it out by hand if that's how they want to do things. It's part of a culture where you have to move your members in the direction that you want to go, but at their pace."

That effort fed into a much broader effort to modernize ASSH's meeting website and registration process. "Our old meeting site wasn't really its own site—we just had a ton of information about our meeting that was housed in our regular site," says Tara Havenga, ASSH's director of communications. "So we went through the site to get rid of unnecessary or duplicative information, and I think we came up with what is a pretty comprehensive but easy-to-navigate site for our members."

While ASSH staff was scrutinizing big budget lines, it was also sweating smaller details—cuts that weren't substantive individually but that made a difference in the aggregate. An offsite warehouse they didn't need? Getting rid of it saved $8,000. A book of meeting abstracts? They merged it with a journal issue and saved $6,000. Two photographers at the annual meeting?

Using one saved $2,000. Using printer paper twice? That saved about $1,000. Membership cards nobody used? Gone. "That saved us two grand," Anderson says. "Is that a lot? No. But, you know, you save two grand 10 times, and you save 20 grand."

Not Just Cutting

ASSH saved more than $300,000 by making changes members wouldn't much notice. But this isn't a story about cost-cutting. It's about creating a culture where rethinking how programs are run is persistently top of mind.

Anderson let the ASSH board know that he was planning the all-hands-on-deck budget study, which was easier to move forward on because they were revisiting programs where changes didn't require board approval. But the board got into the act, forming its own subcommittee "to evaluate programs that hadn't been evaluated since they were created," Anderson says. That group eliminated three programs that saved $20,000 on top of the $300,000 in staff saving, and it's gone further: In May, it decided to eliminate its printed member directory starting in 2011 and place it online, saving $55,000. It also agreed to start looking into permitting online advertising. Anderson put his arguments this way: "'OK folks, in 2004 you said you didn't want to sell ads on the website. That's fine. This is now 2009. Here are five reasons why you should change your mind.' And they did."

Not everything delivered savings—for instance, there was no fat in insurance and legal costs that anybody could determine—but rethinking the budget wasn't always about cutting costs. ASSH received $14,000 in revenue by deciding to close the early-bird registration period for its annual conference at eight weeks instead
of 12.

ASSH made little noise to its membership about the changes it was making; it occasionally mentioned its cost-cutting efforts in its e-newsletter, but "nothing substantial or effortful," Anderson says. Members were informed about the changes to the preliminary program to the extent they were given an opportunity to opt out of receiving it.

The sole case of pushback that Legaspi recalls came from the then-president-elect, who was concerned not with the relative thinness of the new preliminary program but with how some of the information was presented—details easily rectified in the 2010 program. That program is even slimmer at 32 pages, but it's a slicker production with more color and glossier paper. "Even though it's four color, we did not end up spending more money," says Renn.

That's a nice reward, but the most valuable result from the experience, staffers say, is an organizational culture that's much more attuned to thinking about member needs and value before reflexively launching a new product. "I feel that after this past year, after putting so much energy and effort into it and making it a part of our daily tasks, it's something that's kind of embedded in all of us," says Renn.

So embedded, Anderson says, that he doesn't feel the need to revisit the process annually. "We're not going to do this every year, but we're going to do this every two or three years—go back and look at things that we didn't touch before."

"I think more than anything, it's allowed us all to feel more comfortable shouting out ideas when the opportunity presents itself," says Havenga. "It has us all really thinking about value input versus value output. Questioning the old norms that we accepted before is more of a daily practice now, which I think is refreshing to a lot of us."

Mark Athitakis is senior editor of Associations Now. Email: [email protected]

Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis is a contributing editor to Associations Now.