Anna Caraveli, managing partner of The Demand Networks, LLC, of Alexandria, Virginia, is author of The Demand Perspective: Leading from the Outside In.
Your association needs to do more for members than provide benefits and volunteer opportunities. You need to build a relationship with them. Here's a look at the new meaning of engagement.
Several years ago, the Maryland-based Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, the world's largest general aviation organization, saw member concerns rising about mounting political threats to the nation's 4,800 public-use airports—from curfews and noise restrictions to increasing user fees and encroachment by surrounding residential areas. How could AOPA monitor these threats on a local level and safeguard its members' freedom to fly?
AOPA did it through a strategic partnership between staff and members. It organized a veritable army of 2,500 member volunteers that evolved into the Airport Support Network—AOPA's most powerful champions, its eyes and ears at the state and local level. They serve as liaisons to local pilots and airport management. They report back to AOPA on political initiatives that may threaten an airport's ability to operate. They educate local officials and the public about the value of their community airports.
This is engagement. These volunteers are advancing their own interests, feeding a passion that drives them, and sharing it with peers. They are experiencing the value that drove them to join AOPA in the first place. They don't need to be persuaded or promised rewards to join the network.
These members are engaged because their relationship with the association enables them to do something they want to do in the first place, better than they would be able to do on their own. As a result, AOPA becomes a partner rather than merely a provider of benefits. Its members choose to become engaged to achieve outcomes that matter to them.
Associations typically treat member engagement as another sales transaction and have come to equate it with mere participation. This perspective obscures the greater value of members as partners and thwarts strategic relationships with them.
A Day in the Life of an Engaged Member
How do engaged members experience the value of an association? Welcome to a typical day in the life of Dr. Colin Chaves, a young veterinarian and VIN member.
First thing in the morning, Chaves checks VIN's news headline's. "First, I questioned the need for it," he says, "but then I realized that these were stories or perspectives on stories that are relevant to vets." Like everything else at VIN, news stories are archived and searchable.
Mid-morning, he consults the VIN Drug and Food Recall Center to stay on top of recalled products and checks clinical updates relevant to his cases.
On his lunch break, he logs into VIN to connect with peers and keep up with conversations going on in his profession.
In the afternoon, Chaves contacts a specialist to consult about a difficult surgery. Before VIN, he would have spent hours tracking down an appropriate expert, often from among the faculty of different veterinary schools. Now, his online query to one of VIN's specialists is answered in minutes.
Late in the day, he gets answers to questions and advice from peers who have dealt with similar issues. The discussion that his questions generate is archived and indexed, adding to the community's ever-growing body of knowledge.
"I just couldn't live without VIN," he says. Shouldn't that be the goal of every association?—A.C.
[Disclosure: Dr. Colin Chaves is the author's son.]
When members suddenly make a connection between what the association does and what is critically important to them, they are converted from participants to loyal members, donors, and champions. By focusing on selling and persuading, organizations often miss the potential connection points with members that are at the heart of retention and engagement.
This became clear to me in a series of interviews I conducted with chapter leaders who had antagonistic relationships with their associations. Despite this friction, they were grateful for the value they had discovered and exploited for themselves in the course of promoting the association: building a new business on the basis of an unmet market need and leveraging opportunities to build a customer base, develop a new competency, take on new roles such as adjunct professorships, or make important innovations to association programs on the local level.
Their associations had often dismissed these interests as selfish instead of recognizing their mutual benefits. These paths to engagement did not fit the associations' assumptions for what "engaged" members should focus on: program attendance and sales, committee participation, annual board and regional meetings, and so on. Volunteers struggled to meet these expectations and found that what truly motivated them was mostly ignored. The results: frustrated volunteers who felt unappreciated and weakened associations.
How do we want our organizations to serve members? What if we reversed our priorities and put the personal, informal paths to engagement first? Getting rid of rigid definitions of engagement and assumptions about what provides value to members will help associations find points of mutual interest with members and elevate relationships over delivery of goods and services.
The Veterinary Information Network (VIN) did just that: It built an organization around what mattered most to members. It's an instructive case study for a new, relationship-focused engagement model.
VIN is a virtual, subscription-based community "for veterinarians, by veterinarians," in which members address a wide range of needs for running competitive practices. Members enter an online environment of continuous learning and innovation, where they give and receive advice, access research, solve difficult cases, and participate in conversations with peers and experts.
How can an organization become indispensable in an age of overwhelming consumer choices? This is what it took for VIN to become essential to its members' success:
Innovative, relationship-centered leadership. VIN's driving force has been its visionary cofounder and president, Paul Pion, a veterinary cardiologist. Instead of first creating an organizational structure and products and then finding customers, Pion started by delving into what kept vets up at night and then built an organization around solutions to those problems. VIN grew organically from the outside in—experimenting, learning from results, adapting, and innovating with members.
Seeing the world through members' eyes. The greatest "pain" independent veterinarians experienced was isolation. Running their practices left no time or resources for attending conferences, keeping up with research, interacting with peers, or traveling for continuing education. Accessing busy specialists to get answers to unexpected practice questions was another major problem for VIN's mostly generalist members, and keeping up with fast-changing research meant they needed expensive subscriptions to many different databases.
Technology-enabled solutions. Pion remedied members' isolation by bringing the world to them. Years before social media became commonplace, Pion conceived VIN as a virtual organization and executed the vision on an AOL platform—the fruit of his collaboration with AOL founder Steve Case.
Community culture. VIN defines its identity in terms of its online community rather than the association, which exists only to serve the community. Staffers use "we" in talking about staff and members collectively, rather than "we and they," which reveals the mentality of many more-traditional organizations.
"Living" in members' space. Employees make it a daily practice to walk in the shoes of their members. Several times a week, a VIN team gets together to navigate the website from members' perspective, identifying glitches and exploring ways to create valuable customer experiences. In brief daily meetings, staffers report what they heard from or observed about members, discuss implications, and look for solutions.
Collaborative development of products and content. VIN didn't simply build the platform. Instead, it enabled conversations and assigned meaningful roles and responsibilities to both staff and volunteers to ensure development of relevant products and content.
VIN does not market to new members, nor does it need to coax existing members to participate. Five hundred simultaneous message-board discussions per day provide solutions when and where members need them and indicate the organization's high degree of member engagement.
Michael Maccoby, who has studied leadership personalities for decades, found that a new "interactive" personality type has been emerging since the 1980s. These people thrive in shifting roles and identities and prefer shared authority and collaboration to authoritarian leadership. "Interactive attitudes are spreading throughout the industrialized world," Maccoby concludes in his book The Leaders We Need: And What Makes Us Follow. This is why co-development and interactivity are growing market trends.
Outside-in engagement is simply the outcome of a relationship that generates value for all parties, a two-way conversation that helps the parties understand one another and, as a result, increases the value they can create together. This means that organizations must be interested in, and capable of, having meaningful two-way conversations.
Such a shift requires a new kind of leader, one who, according to Maccoby, can take on the challenge "to transform bureaucracies in which individuals comfortably played autonomous roles into collaborative communities."
[This article was originally published in the Associations Now print edition, titled "What Engagement Means Now."]