What I Learned From Talking With 200 Association Executives

By: Shelly Alcorn, CAE

In the span of a few months, one association consultant conducted in-depth interviews with more than 200 association executives. The process left her with renewed optimism about the industry and a new appreciation for qualitative research.

I recently calculated the hours I spent interviewing association executives during the late spring of 2011. As it turns out, I spent as many hours talking on the phone as a person would spend in the classroom taking a 12-unit semester of college courses.

The project started the way projects often do. A desire: I had a few questions about the future of associations, and I wanted to get some answers. A methodology: I decided to use Appreciative Inquiry, my favorite research technique. A goal: Talk to a few friends and maybe write a blog post about the findings.

It was the goal part that radically changed, once the project got under way. Thanks to social-media buzz, referrals, and doggedly sending invitations, I ended up talking to more than 200 association executives from all 50 states, Canada, and South Africa. The gift the participants gave of their time, expertise, and best thinking is one I will never forget.

Here are a few lessons that I learned along the way:

Association executives are not asleep at the wheel. The executives who agreed to be interviewed were dependable, committed, and ready to talk about the future. They were willing to thoughtfully answer questions asked by a perfect stranger in the hopes that their shared insights would prove valuable to the profession at large.

I can count on Appreciative Inquiry. AI is the most important qualitative research tool you can put in your data-gathering arsenal. The questions are designed to elicit positive thinking in an open-ended format. The purpose of AI is to get members, constituents, or stakeholders to concentrate on what is best about a situation, not problems that need to be fixed. Using AI gave me important information about our past, our current needs, and our hopes for the future that I couldn’t have gotten any other way.

The power of positivity. Because I did all of the interviews myself, the process was grueling. (Most AI processes include teams of volunteer interviewers.) Some days included up to six interviews in a row. I confess I had a few moments of doubt and wondered more than once about what I had gotten myself into. What kept me going was the knowledge that the next conversation was going to be about best experiences, lessons learned, and our capacity to face the future. Every phone call was worth it.

Conversations matter. When interviewing using the AI method, questions need to be asked in the same order, in a consistent manner. That being said, the enthusiasm of the participants did lead to some valuable sidebar conversations. In my view, the contextual information you can get out of 25 conversations (let alone more than 200) can often eclipse more traditional techniques.

Innovation is alive and well in the association community. I wanted to ensure that voices from all across the United States were reflected in the interviews. From Washington, DC, to Sacramento, California, to Cheyenne, Wyoming, the tone and tenor did not change. Perhaps the same type of executive was drawn to participate, but nevertheless there are exciting things to report on in all corners of our association community.

Part two of the story is yet to come. The interviews are complete, but the rigorous process of analyzing the data is now under way. There are multiple layers to go through, and publishing the main themes is only the beginning. I’m eager to begin rolling out results over the next few months.

I would like to extend a warm public thank you to everyone who has supported this effort so far. The time I’ve put into interviewing so many association executives might equal a semester of college studies, but the learning I’ve gotten out of it has far surpassed it.

Shelly Alcorn, CAE, is principal of Alcorn Associates in Sacramento, California. Twitter: @shellyalcorn; Email: [email protected]

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Shelly Alcorn, CAE, explains how associations can utitlize Appreciative Inquiry research to get powerful results.

Shelly Alcorn, CAE