The membership of some associations isn’t always quick to embrace change, and in my experience, attorneys especially tend to move pretty slow when it comes to embracing the inevitable. For example, when I started practicing law, firms were using only Corel WordPerfect (I’m probably giving away my age); it wasn’t until several years later, after I entered the field of association publishing, that I began noticing more attorneys switching to Microsoft Word. At my association, however, we continued to accept submissions in both programs and simply chalked it up to the nature of the publishing business and our members—immigration attorneys. We simply had to adapt. Eventually, WordPerfect was phased out in most of our members’ firms, but it seemed like an eternity. The lesson here is that an association typically can only move as fast and as far as its membership will allow. And many attorneys will be the first to say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Over the past five years, I have witnessed a similar change among our attorney members—slowly but surely they began to move away from the use of Blackberries in favor of iPhones. There were some growing pains and complaints even among our own when the association directors were forced to turn in their Blackberries and switch to iPhones. I loved my Blackberry, not enough to name it, but you get the idea. Then I received my first iPhone. And just like the woman on the Liberty Mutual Insurance commercial, I broke into my happy dance. There are endless examples of when change proves to be a good thing. Using iPhones for us was less expensive than maintaining an e-mail server dedicated to our Blackberries. Sure, the touch screen took some getting used to when trying to hit the correct letter and getting it wrong just about every time. But it made good business sense. Besides the cost savings, we realized we could do so much more with our new phones, which opened the floodgates for ideas. Video capability, audio recording, and especially picture taking allowed us to engage more with our members on-site, capture moments in time, and add video testimonials to our marketing strategy.
But the one thing I credit our IT team with was that it sought buy-in from the directors before forcing the change on us. The head of IT discussed it with us several months in advance of the lease expiration for the Blackberry server, and he even performed a show-and-tell using an iPhone he had purchased months ago with the intent on becoming proficient in its use. He explained to us the benefits of switching—for us and for the association. Sure, there were one or two holdouts, but not enough pushback to reasonably allow the association to continue footing the huge bill associated with the use of Blackberries. By the end of his presentation, he had accomplished his objective by receiving buy-in from most of us. We were more than willing to try something new.
Introducing change to a product or process to which people have become accustomed is a difficult and, in some cases, courageous act. That’s why getting the right people’s buy-in can help you succeed.
First, you must build a foundation by laying the groundwork for your idea. If the change will affect your membership, then feedback from members is crucial. Sure, you might think your idea is the best thing since the iPhone, but if your members are mostly Blackberry users who don’t really care about the latest gadgets, then your idea might be creating more problems than it solves.
Get to know your audience’s needs or thoughts on the subject.
Survey, survey, survey! Post a question on your website for a quick and easy yes or no;
Send an all-member e-mail with an incentive to respond (offer a discount on a product or conference fee, maybe even a free item);
Use face-to-face communication: Take advantage of lunch breaks between conference sessions to pose questions to the audience; attend a board meeting and throw out questions to your association leaders; try one-on-one informal surveys in the exhibit hall during annual meetings.
Try all the ways you can think of to gather as much feedback as possible to help you decide if the idea is worth pushing or advocating for. Generally, surveys are answered by 10 percent or less of the membership, hence the reason why an incentive can and should be used to entice more folks to engage. But keep the survey to 5 minutes or less and structure the questions to get the answers you need, not just the answers you want. In other words, don’t tailor the questions to make your case, always go for honest responses. It’s important to know where your members stand on an issue that may affect their interaction with your association.
Ask yourself, will this change benefit the association?
Will this change bring forth greater efficiencies or streamline certain activities to allow staff to better focus their time? Will its return on investment eventually be greater than its cost? Will it appeal to a broader audience so that there are more marketing opportunities, thereby translating to more revenue?
Ask yourself, will it benefit the members or end users?
Will the change offer greater accessibility and more convenience? Will the members realize a cost savings? Will there be access to more information than before?
Recruit Supporters and Allies
Second, get buy-in from key people within the membership who can help you spread news about the benefits and assuage people’s fears. You also need to seek buy-in from others among the executive staff and not just the executive director. If you’re in publications, for example, you’ll need to sell your idea to the membership director, the marketing director, the communications director, even the finance director. Big changes almost always impact more than just one department—as well as the budget—so creating an atmosphere of inclusion makes sense from the outset. Maybe even develop a team of staff who can help you plot the course and offer support when needed. Rarely can you make things happen without the support of other departments. Changes might mean more work for them and their staff, so be clear on how this benefits the association and, eventually, them. When people understand the meaning behind the change, they’re more inclined to work harder to achieve the goal, especially if they feel like they’re a part of the overall equation.
With any change, expect growing pains no matter how much support you think you have from leadership or the rank and file. Change can sometimes garner a “giveth and taketh away” scenario, depending on what the change is. Some will see the benefits, others may not, and they will be quite vocal about it. Be prepared to take the heat from those who disagree with your actions, but remain professional in your responses. In fact, have several canned responses prepared in advance of the change, and encourage the members who agree with you to be vocal in order to maintain balance in the discussion. Plus, members respect the opinions of other members whom they know, so having a respected member in your corner can aid in advancing your agenda.
Be Inclusive and Over-communicate
Third, consider inviting the naysayers to participate in the process. Use them as a beta test group or invite them to serve on a taskforce. Being part of the process could calm the angry lion within your most intolerable member.
Fourth, regularly publicize the impending change in as many vehicles as you have at your disposal beginning several months before unleashing the change upon your members. This not only acts as advance notification to the membership but it can help you with “covering your assets” when the inevitable calls or e-mails start arriving from members accusing the association of not providing proper notice. It can happen; in fact, it has happened many times.
My association introduced significant modifications to certain member benefits and services within a four-year period, which taught us many lessons about how best to effect change within our membership. We made some mistakes along the way, and some of us still bear the scars of battle. But we weathered the storms and emerged stronger than ever. Change can be painful, but with proper planning and buy-in, your association can successfully move your membership into the future.