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Five Myths Perpetuated By Big Brand Employers

I wish I didn’t have to write this post. I wish it wasn’t required to point out something that seems so damn obvious. But it has become tragically necessary based on far too many things said and emailed to me lately. Therefore, I’m going to attempt to clear up an unfortunate misconception that blinds too many otherwise smart individuals. It’s called Big Brand Blindness and its based on a lie that seems to carry so much weight:

An individual with little-to-no “big brand” professional experience isn’t able to be effective in a large corporate environment.

To which I can only say, “Bullshit!” It’s pure crap and constructed from at least five myths. Let’s take a look at each one that unfairly stigmatizes the hard work of professionals in small and medium enterprises (I’m including nonprofits here with SMEs):

Myth #1: You can’t cope with complexity.
Yes, I get it. Your megasized multinational company is an elaborate, convoluted leviathan that defies the laws of reason. Guess what? Someone who has built a career within an SME also understands complexity. That’s because – unlike in Big Brand – we don’t have the luxury of specialization. We can’t and that’s honestly to our benefit. We wear two, three, sometimes four hats because that’s what is needed to complete the project and make the customer happy. We’re experts at creativity, constantly doing more with increasingly fewer resources. We can cope with complexity because we live it every single working day.

Myth #2: You can’t handle pressure.
Want to know what pressure is? When Big Brand has a bad quarter, looks like Wall Street won’t be happy. If an SME has a bad quarter, it could mean the end of the company. Now which one seems more pressure-intensive to you? And because SMEs are typically closer to their customers, there’s a tremendous amount of pressure to keep them satisfied. If they’re unhappy and tell others, there goes a potentially huge chunk of business.

Myth #3: You don’t know how to communicate with executives.
As if multinational corporate executives are some strange race of aliens that require knowledge of a special language only learned by toiling through the hierarchy of Big Brand. Communications skills are universal. If you know how to get your point across successfully to your SME’s senior leaders or Board of Directors, I guarantee the communication capability translates fine to the CEO or CMO of Big Brand.

Myth #4: Your skillset (feel free to plug in expertise, knowledge, etc) doesn’t scale.
This one drives me batshit. We’re not talking about going from CEO of a two-person office to the CEO of Big Brand (though you might argue that the CEO of an SME could run a company like aol., BP, Lehman Brothers just as well as their current counterparts). Just because you have experience within Big Brand doesn’t necessarily mean you’re any more qualified to do work at another Big Brand. I’m further convinced this myth is a smokescreen because you’ll never know if it does actually scale. You’ve already cast your judgment and you’ve already missed the talent in front of your nose. Good luck with that.

Myth #5: You don’t really know about business.
The coup de grâce. Let’s face it, this is what’s really being said every single time the charge of not having enough Big Brand experience is leveled toward a candidate. There’s a sense perpetuated by those within Big Brand that business is only truly conducted at the multinational level. SMEs are small potatoes where the real lessons of managing P&L, budgets, employees, customer relations, and executive expectations still mean little in comparison. Really? Sorry but I strongly disagree with that small-mindedness.

For my parting shot, I’m going to go out on a limb with my own hypothesis for what’s to blame (at least partially). If we’re honest, there’s some posturing going on – particularly when it comes to consulting agencies who work with Big Brand. The desire to fill the stables with people from a well-known, Fortune 500 corporation isn’t so much about their ability or expertise as it is about their prestige (“Oooh, he worked for Big Brand, he must be smart. And that’ll look great on our website’s About Us page.”) There’s a mystique that people like to attach to work done at Big Brands. Some of it is truly well-deserved and to be respected. Some of it is unspectacular but lauded because Big Brands get attention. And quite a bit of it is built on non-creative, safe, ineffective adherence to not rocking the Big Brand boat. In reality, work done within a Big Brand isn’t any better or worse than work done within an SME. So let’s stop with all this shallow Big Brand Blindness where candidates get overlooked not because of the quality of their past or potential of their future work, but just because of for whom their past work was done.

So, let’s hear it. If you’re currently working inside a big brand, what’s your take? And if you’ve been passed over due to big brand blindness, what have you done to heal this unfortunate affliction? Lay it down in the comments.

photo credit: spoinknet (via Flickr)

4

The Power Of A…So Close Yet So Very Far Away

When an influential organization has an outstanding opportunity to change the game and create a new movement, you can be excused for feeling disappointed when the organization wastes it. Such is my reaction to ASAE’s Power of A initiative.

All I can do is shake my head and wonder if this is the product of a committee? You know, when a group of extraordinarily well-intended people get together and then beat a good idea senseless with a lot of weak-knee compromises and watered-down solutions. What’s wrong with the campaign?

Persistent Navel-gazing. If associations can be accused of anything, it’s an internally-directed focus on themselves and the issues affecting their membership. This is only reasonable since it’s a core concept that’s driven associations for quite a while. I will not argue with the need to rally together with other like-minded individuals as there is truly strength in community. But that strength becomes a weakness when it neglects to acknowledge the community’s existence within a wider society. Too many associations exhibit an excessive self-absorption and The Power of A does nothing the reverse this trend.

Social Media Mediocrity. The campaign’s site has the look of a truly interactive community except without any of the interactivity. Well, that’s not quite true: there’s a place to add your association and add a blog post. Note, though, that the blog post is only to be used by associations (your Association is a required field for posting). So far, it looks like a way for associations to just toss in their boilerplate PR message which is hardly blogging and definitely not going to yield comments.

There are other half-nods toward social media. There’s the inclusion of a Twitter feed using the #pwra hashtag and a Social Media Room which is little more than a collection of ASAE resources (and a “Power of A Badge?). None of this I would go to the trouble of categorizing as social media.

Audience Confusion. I could almost forgive the above two problems if there was a sense that ASAE knew who its audience is. But its painfully apparent that there is no clear understanding of who this campaign is targeted toward. Witness on the front page these two statements:

  • Help us share The Power of A with all Americans.
  • ASAE created this site to stimulate discussion among association leaders, policymakers & other stakeholders, so that the best and brightest ideas can be shared & help resolve issues of importance.

So who in the world is The Power of A speaking to? In an online world with intense competition for attention, where is the value proposition for anyone to learn more about the work that associations are doing? It may be an attempt to generate awareness, but with without individual interactive engagement it still equals boringly old-school broadcasting. Again, it seems that the focus of this site is a whole lot of “look at us, aren’t associations grand!” and “please pay attention to us, we’re very important.” but very little “what can associations do to be relevant in your life?”

One reason why I’m so critical of this campaign is because I really want for associations and ASAE to succeed. There is so much great work being done through this sector of our economy and a lot of good people put their heart and soul into this great work. So rather than contribute little more than armchair sniping, here is what I hope The Power of A can truly evolve into:

Engaging Public Dialogue. Speaking with policymakers is fine and it should be what every ASAE member expects from you. If it takes a special campaign to do it, then something is going wrong. And frankly, even if this is a problem, I don’t think this is the critical issue facing associations. The real issue is relevance. The question is always, “How are associations relevant to the betterment of our society?” For goodness sake ASAE, if you’re still wondering if public awareness is important, then act like you don’t know because you probably don’t. We live in a golden age of communication so here’s a start:

  • Engage individuals not involved in associations with provocative questions.
  • Stop talking at people. Instead, listen, understand, and share.
  • Open up www.thepowerofa.org to allow these people to ask questions, truly learn more, and develop meaning for themselves.

Connecting Value. If the general public doesn’t understand what associations do, throwing high-minded generalities at them probably isn’t going to help. If you want to build lasting awareness, then help people connect the value of associations to their life on their terms. That last phrase is important. Marketing, PR and the Communication trades are learning the painful way that bludgeoning an already overwhelmed audience with their corporate-driven message is a losing proposition. If you want people to listen now, you have to develop a relationship where your audience wants to know you, wants to know your perspective, and wants to share their own. Connecting value is a two-way dialogue.

Exciting the Imagination. Dang it, ASAE…surprise me! Help me believe more fervently that associations are worth having. If every single association shut down tomorrow, why the hell should I care? Again, don’t pitch me on some high-minded generalities. I’m not an association professional any longer so think of me as one of your target audience members. Make me a believer. And then help me make others believers. Do it soon because right now, I’ve got a strong case of the “whatevers.”

05.03.09 – Update #1
Other folks have similar criticisms of and suggestions for The Power of A campaign. All recommended reads if you’d like to get a flavor for the reaction:
Deirdre Reid’s The Natives Are Restless – How Do You Respond?
Maggie McGary’s The Power of..Huh?
Lynn Morton’s Power of A, lets take it to the next level!

05.04.09 – Update #2
Two more blogposts today related to The Power of A campaign:
Dave Sabol’s The Power of Missed Opportunities
Jamie Notter’s The Power of Frustration
And finally a response from John Graham, President and CEO of ASAE and The Center:
The Power of Conversation

9

From Membership Professional to Community Officer

Imagine the scene. Two nonprofit association membership pros talking in a crowded restaurant at lunchtime, commiserating with each other and sharing their professional anxieties that they fell into the wrong line of work. Not that they dislike what they do…quite the opposite. They enjoy working with members, building relationships to improve the member experience, strategizing new features and the like. But there is something nagging at both of them: they wonder if anyone outside of association management understands and values what they do. They worry that they’ll always be confined to associations because they don’t think there is any clear parallel in the corporate world. They leave the restaurant thankful for each other’s company but no closer to putting their anxieties at ease.

Okay, one of these characters is me and this is a scene from my life roughly six years ago. After graduating from college with a liberal arts education, I fell into the nonprofit association membership profession purely by accident. And after doing membership work for five years, I was concerned that few of the skills and experiences from that work would be appreciated outside of my narrow niche.

Let’s fast forward to today. Do I still think the skills, experiences and insight gained from a membership career is unappreciated outside of associations and not viable in the corporate space? Nope…quite the opposite. In today’s business reality, this unique experience translates incredibly well to the needs of social media, most specifically to the role of online community management.

Drawing on a recommended community manager job description posted by Connie Bensen, here are the parallels to membership management:

• Creatively and proactively assist customers.
• Serve as the initial point of contact for inbound requests from online company properties and the web at large.
• Monitor online conversations and participate in them to build brand visibility and thought leadership.
• Author blog posts, articles, podcasts, videos and screencasts – whatever media you want to use – to creatively communicate product uses.
Association membership development is about attracting prospective members and retaining current ones. That means knowing how to communicate well, building strong relationships with members, helping them get more out of their membership, and assisting them with thorny issues. Membership pros are multifunctional in role and serve as customer service, product management, marketing, and corporate communications.

• Identify and analyze issues, patterns and trends in customer requests and product performance.
• Transfer the information to the appropriate departments so that they can respond accordingly.
• Proactively escalate issues, observations, opportunities, and insights to the executive team.
• Communicate issues, opportunities and insights to the company at large.
Membership professionals serve on the front line, listening to members and determining whether their issues are problems needing resolution or opportunities needing to be addressed. Membership professionals must then be able to influence key stakeholders to effect changes on behalf of the audiences they serve.

• Identify and engage advocates.
Membership professionals must connect with their organization’s volunteers and help them put their enthusiasm to good use. Knowing how to find and then successfully guide passionate supporters is a must, particularly since most associations need these volunteers to help put initiatives into action.

• Stay up to date on new social media tools, best practices and how other organizations and companies are using them, so that the company can continue to be an early adopter of these technologies.
• Participate in professional networking by interacting with peers and influencers and attending events.
Membership professionals must explore the latest technology, leverage networks and resources, and plot a strategic path that will provide the most beneficial products and services to their association’s members. It requires a curious and creative individual who enjoys collaborating with people.

I write this post for a couple of reasons. One, I hope it gives a closer look at who I am and why my current work in social media and online communities is simply a natural extension of the work I’ve done since I first started my career. Two, maybe it offers membership professionals a roadmap to guide them toward other career possibilities and emphasize that their expertise is valuable beyond associations.

If your company is seeking its next great community manager or chief community officer, consider expanding your search to individuals beyond the corporate world and include nonprofit association membership professionals.

3

The Art Of Volunteer Engagement

Say you’re a nonprofit executive or someone responsible for working with volunteers…do you know the value of the volunteer work being done on your organization’s behalf? Consider all that time spent, all that energy devoted, all that expertise put to service of your mission. Do you have an idea of their true worth?

If your answer is “no” or any variation of “sorta,” don’t worry; it’s actually a rather complex question that’s going to be quite unique to each nonprofit. You might want to bring in a business anthropologist (I do happen to know one) to help you sort through all of the people and policy issues. But there are a few key domains to consider as you mull this question:

Relationship
What kinds of relationships do you want to form with your volunteers? After working with volunteers for nearly 10 years, I’ve come to believe in one certain truth: there is no such thing as “managing” volunteers. Management changes the interpersonal dynamic making volunteerism a transaction rather than a relationship. Plus, your volunteers don’t need or want to be managed.

This raises an inevitable question: how do you get your volunteers to do what you want them to do? It’s actually the wrong question to ask if you’re trying to cultivate strong volunteer engagement. I would suggest this one: How do you guide your volunteers to give their best talents, expertise, and energy in ways that are meaningful to both themselves and the nonprofit? Individuals give most freely when they see and feel the personal connection to their work.

Value
What’s the value of the work being done by your volunteers? Most nonprofits that I’ve worked with don’t have a firm idea of the value of their volunteer work activities. If volunteers put together an event, what would the price be if done by a paid contractor? It’s not a question designed to make you shout, “Wow! Look at all the money we’re saving using free labor!” Instead, take some time to realize that individuals are giving their effort and that it does have an economic value. Then, calculate in the emotional value that comes from the passion behind the effort.

Social Marketing Potential
What kind of word-of-mouth marketing are you getting from your volunteers? Here’s where that emotional value pays off. If your volunteers are emotionally invested in your nonprofit’s cause, they’re going to tell others about their work. They’re going to have stories to share with their friends, family, coworkers, and other folks they see on a daily basis. And these stories can have a significant impact on your organization’s brand, fundraising movements and advocacy appeals. Engage your volunteers in meaningful work and they will spread the word in ways you may never have imagined.

This was just a broad look at volunteer engagement. It really does need some deeper probing. To do this, Aaron Bramley (blog :: twitter) and I are doing an email dialogue exchange over the next week so we can drill down into this topic. When we finish, we’ll post the results so everyone can benefit. Neither of us know what it’ll look like so you’ll just have to subscribe and see what happens. And if you have thoughts or questions, post them below and we’ll weave them into our dialogue.

4

Stop Talking Social Media, Start Talking Conversation…

The term “social media” is now so amorphous, encompassing so many things that it’s lost a lot of its meaning. That’s not to say that it’s unimportant or irrelevant…quite the opposite.

Instead, let’s talk about what social media really is and what it can do. Let’s talk about conversation. Let’s talk about collaboration. Let’s talk about outreach. For nonprofits and companies, these are the things that matter, that are going to diversify your constituent or customer base, that are going to lead to long-term vitality. Social media is just a tool to help you achieve these things.

On February 12 at noon CST, I’ll be collaborating with Small World Labs on a webinar titled Top 3 Social Solutions for Acquiring and Retaining Members in 2009. We’ll be addressing how nonprofit associations can use social solutions can successfully use tools that are out there to better engage in conversation, facilitate collaboration, and promote outreach. And while the audience is geared toward the association executive, there will be plenty of advice on how to bring these ideas into other nonprofits and forprofit companies.

Make this the year that you engage in social media in a new way. You can register here: https://www2.gotomeeting.com/register/443369303

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