REMEMBER THE BASICS…or Relearn Them the Hard Way

Over the last few months, my dog of 13 years slowly withered away and finally died on a warm winter day surrounded by his family and fellow pets. After spending time mourning, the process of looking for a new puppy has begun.

Everything that old dog learned, when to bark, where to go to the bathroom, what he could sleep on and how the household routine went on a work day and a weekend, will now have to be taught to a new pup.

This situation reminds me of several different situations that I ran across while working with various non-profit organizations this year. They were all matters that are basic to good association management, but were forgotten along the way.

> Name Tags. Attending an association executives meeting & networking reception, I showed up at the registration table to get my name tag only to find that that there were none. Not even blank “Hello, I am…” adhesive badges.

While it was a wonderful opportunity to go up and introduce myself to everyone, by the time the reception came around, what did everyone do? They went to their safe, self-selected groups where they did not have to “network.”

Do you think that any of the new members attending were impressed with the association? Did any of the older members learn anything about the new blood coming into the group? Will any of the new and potential members come back?

Probably not all because one of the basic rules of meetings was forgotten…Always have name tags…especially if it is for a “networking” event.

> Financials. Almost every non-profit has to account for the money it receives and spends. Those entering the association management field learn that there are two ways to keep track of that money: cash accounting and accrual accounting. Cash accounting records when the money comes in and when it goes out irrespective of what time it may have been collected or when it is to be spent.

The other method, accrual accounting, records the time in and out, but also notes if any money is to be used in a particular fiscal year. For example, dues collected for 2012 may be actually paid in the previous year but is suppose to be spent in 2012. Accrual accounting helps Board members and volunteers see which money belongs to what membership year.

So imagine the surprise a Board of Directors got when it changed staff only to find that dues and sponsorship money collected for subsequent years had actually been spent in previous year. The financial report that should have showed a significant amount of dues for the current year actually revealed that it had already been spent in previous years. The day of reckoning had arrived. With only 6 months of operating funds, the non-profit faces the real possibility of going out of business.

Another basic rule was forgotten: Use accrual accounting to make sure that money collected for the future is actually available to spend then.

> Meeting Agendas. I volunteer with various associations and serve on several committees. After almost a year of silence, I suddenly get an email from the committee chairman announcing a luncheon meeting. Now I enjoy a free lunch and having that included certainly made me more inclined to attend.

But then I asked myself, why are we meeting? What needs to be discussed? Why a face to face meeting instead of a conference call or web meeting? Or are we just meeting so we can have a nice meal using the members money?

It dawned on me that no reason or purpose was given for the meeting. How could I prepare if no agenda or list of topics was submitted? Most importantly, how could I determine if this was a wise use of my time as a volunteer?

This is an example of another basic of non-profit management forgotten: Always have an agenda (or at least a list of reasons/issues) for meeting. If you can’t articulate it, then you should not be meeting.

So like my new puppy, it appears that a bunch of association leaders and staff need to learn the basics. I hope that you are not in that group.

Welcome to 2012

As we begin a new year, a new slate so to speak, I think how we approach this wonderful opportunity has been written about more eloquently by others.

So here are some quotes about New Year’s that might get you thinking and smiling:

* “New Year’s Day: Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual.”
Mark Twain

* “May all your troubles last as long as your New Year’s resolutions.” Joey Adams

*. “Cheers to a new year and another chance for us to get it right.”
Oprah Winfrey

* “We will open the book. Its pages are blank. We are going to put words on them ourselves. The book is called Opportunity and its first chapter is New Year’s Day.” Edith Lovejoy Pierce

* “Be always at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let each new year find you a better man.” Benjamin Franklin

* “The object of a New Year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul and a new nose; new feet, a new backbone, new ears, and new eyes. Unless a particular man made New Year resolutions, he would make no resolutions. Unless a man starts afresh about things, he will certainly do nothing effective.” G.K. Chesterton

* “Never tell your resolution beforehand, or it’s twice as onerous a duty.” John Selden

* “People are so worried about what they eat between Christmas and the New Year, but they really should be worried about what they eat between the New Year and Christmas.” Author Unknown

Best wishes for a successful and happy new year.


As we reach come close to the end of the calendar year, many people start thinking and talking about resolutions for the new year.

But how are you ending this year? Here are a few suggestions on how to do so in a positive way (with a tip of the hat to Leslie Allen for inspiration).

Of course, many are taking time off to enjoy the holidays, to be with family, and even to just unwind. But that does not mean your members and your customers are.

I am not suggesting that you have to be plugged in and connected 24/7. But what arrangements are you making for your absence?

  • * If someone tries to contact you during this time, will they know when you will be back?
  • * Are you giving them the name of someone they can contact if they have questions or problems that need resolution before your return?
  • * Are you cross training others in your organization to fill in?

The end of the year usually means that it is membership renewal time. Invoices have gone out and, hopefully, some responses are coming in.

  • * How about sending an internet card or note to remind your members to renew promptly?

* Instead of a Christmas or Hanukkah or Kwanza card, make it Happy New Year card.

That way, when your members get back to the office after Jan 1st, there will be a creative and joyful reminder awaiting them instead of the usual dull static invoice.

Finally, as you get ready to take time off, are YOU looking ahead? What will you do when the new year arrives?

* Leave yourself a short list of things that need to be addressed upon your return.

* What are the top 3-5 things that you should be working on to get a jump start on the new year?

* But remember to write a list of things left undone as well. Who do you need to return a call or get a project complete or a proposal to?

These are not just tips to use at the end of the year, but any time you go away for an extended period of time, whether it is for work or for relaxation.

And yes, have a Happy New Year!


How has attendance been at your meetings? Are attendance numbers flat to declining? Do you find that you have to push and pull them to attend all those programs that you have been promoting as “membership benefits?” Are you spending more money than you take in for your programs? Is it taking members longer to register than previously?

If any or all are true, you are not alone. As the economy took a nose dive, so did meeting attendance. There are many reasons for that; tight money situation; employers not paying for travel; greater scrutiny on the return on investment.

Now, this is not an article which will discuss whether the content of your program is meeting member needs. If you don’t know already what your members need in terms of education and programming, a blog posting is not going to solve your dilemma.

But, if you are providing great information but members still are not attending, this article will get you thinking about how to change that.

First, the days of talking “to” members are over. If your non-profit is primarily doing sessions where 1 or a few people talk at everyone attending all day long, then you are using a dying model. That is not to say that there is a place for the lecture method…it just should not be at your association’s meetings.

Regardless of age or generation, people want to be focused and engaged. Social media, television, cable, movies and the internet have changed how we receive information. Instead of being told what to think, your members want to be part of the learning process.

That means ditching the “talking expert” unless it is a keynote speech designed to start thinking and conversations that your organization will be continuing at the meeting.

Should this approach be of interest, how do you do that while not driving up costs? Here are few ideas:

  • * If using a keynote or kick off speaker, why not set up lounge chairs and sofas around the presenter instead of the usual folding chairs? This sets the tone that this presentation is going to be different, memorable and special.
  • * Try using a debate format to make programming interesting. Use this to explore a critical issue by several different speakers followed by small group reactions to what has been said. This helps to bring your attendees into the discussion.
  • * If your organization is facing a major problem that various members may have addressed, try a show and tell format. It can be posters or small exhibit tables or even video presentations where participants explain how they deal with various situations of which other members may be interested. This can also be used to cover core competencies or share important information for new members. EXTRA TIP: Maximize your members’ time by utilizing this format while they are waiting in the buffet line for lunch. It will be another way to engage your attendees.
  • * We have all been to the meeting, usually when a continental breakfast or buffet lunch is served, where attendees are given the opportunity to sit at different tables to discuss pre-determined topics. Why not have “brain storming” sessions where the participants choose the topic at the table instead? Maybe lists of suggested topics on the table are needed, but why always direct what your members want to talk about? EXTRA TIP: Instead of having attendees discuss one topic, have various subject experts/facilitators go around to each table to start new discussions.
  • * Just as people usually watch television by switching through various channels in the course of an hour, your members may not want to go to one session followed by another. Try doing concurrent sessions on different subjects. Repeating key ones may be necessary but your members can do a better job of getting what they want from your meeting this way. Remember, short discussions are in.
  • * There is a reason why Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy are still popular after so many decades. People like games. They like to test their knowledge and they like to compete. Keep your meetings interesting by incorporating the same kind of fun. Develop knowledge or association/profession based contests utilizing game formats that your members already know. Have a few prizes to hand out like gift cards or make them gag prizes (i.e., big jar of pickles, etc.) to make it humorous.
  • * Make sure you capture the content regardless of what type of presentation format you use. While professional video can be costly, simple camera or bloggie filming is much easier these days. Post to your website or to YouTube and give your members the links to find them. When non-participants see what they are missing, they may start participating.
  • * Remember to include discussion time and break time. If you have done a good job engaging your members, your meeting attendees will want to talk about what they are learning. By doing this, it will help participants internalize what they have heard and learned. So build that into your program. And yes, break time is needed…to go to the bathroom, to return telephone calls, and to just clear their heads.

Great ideas for energizing my next meeting you might say, but where am I going to get speakers who are willing to utilize these formats? Clearly, not every presenter out there will flourish in all of these different formats. But an under utilized and overlooked place for speakers is within an organization’s own membership.

Look among your members and there are clearly rising stars. These are people who are full of energy and ideas. More than likely, they are more willing to try different things including different ways of presenting. Make sure your presenters are passionate about the topics that you are asking to them to speak about. You may have to work with them to hone their presentation skills, but what a dynamic way to build energy and loyalty toward your non-profit.

Do not ignore the importance of choosing a good emcee. While it is good to have your President or Program Chairman speak, make sure you have some who is comfortable speaking extemporaneously before a group to help attendees know what is going on, how to participate and what is coming next. Otherwise, all the efforts to create a more engaging meeting format will fall flat because attendees will not know what is going on.

So stop pushing and pulling.

Start engaging.

Then watch your members clamor to come to your organization’s next meeting.

PENN STATE FIASCO: Lessons in Leadership.

To any observer, the child molestation charges emanating from Penn State of late are tragic and one’s thoughts and prayers go out to the victims. So many in leadership positions failed to act and now have to pay with either resignation, firing or legal charges. 

Non-profits are not immune for failures in leadership either.  The philanthropy world was rocked when the head of United Way of America was found guilty of misuse of funds, fraud and tax evasion.  Then there was the misappropriation of funds at the NAACP and embezzlement of funds at the American Parkinson Disease Association by the CEOs.  

What leadership lessons are there for volunteer leaders and association staff to learn from this mess in State College?  Here are a few that come to mind: 

Walk the Talk.  It is vital to promote an ethical culture within the association.  Many non-profits have codes of ethics or standards of conduct.  Are they just items on the website and pieces of paper in a new member packet or are they the subject of discussion at education sessions and mentioned frequently in member communications? 

Even if a group does not have a code of conduct, volunteer leaders and association employees need to know the laws that govern non-profits (such as anti-trust, whistleblower, harassment).  Regular review and discussion of these items should be part of board orientation and employee reviews. 

Don’t Play Favorites.  It should be about cooperation and collaboration and not giving some members access others can not obtain.  I have heard from too many membership staff members who admit that members who pay more in dues get more attention than their lower paying counterparts.  This is not to say that there could not be different levels for sponsorships say for a convention or meeting as long as the opportunity for all members to participate at those different levels is there. 

Promote Transparency.  Does the Board of Directors make decisions without explaining why it did so?  Not about the little things, but items such as dues increases or moving the organization’s offices or hiring a new Executive Director?  And do volunteer leaders solicit input from appropriate stakeholders prior to making decisions?  When members see and hear that their opinion counts and understand why the association is doing what it is doing, then they will be more supportive regardless if they are in agreement or not. 

Too Big to Fail.  Is there one department or program or service that is so big and brings in so much money that no one dares to criticize it?  That was the problem at Penn State and created a culture where one department was seemingly protected from the rules that everyone else had to follow.  Make sure that is not the case at your non-profit.  

Admit Mistakes.  No one is perfect, not even volunteers and certainly not association staffers.  So when a mistake is made or an injustice discovered, take ownership and speak up.  Let your members know what you are doing to prevent the problem from happening again.  Encourage volunteers and staff to do the right thing.  Create a culture of honesty and fairness. 

I am sure that there are lessons to be learned from the problems at Penn State that have applicability to the non-profit world.  What are your suggestions?


During these economic times, it is important to use everything in your association arsenal to improve membership renewals.  One thing to definitely use is a letter/memo with your annual dues notices.

Nowadays, there is a mantra to keep communications to members short so only an invoice is sent with a short message on it.  But this is not the time or place to do that. 

I like having a cover letter from the association president included so that there is an implicit understanding that this is a member to member communication.  

I always ask the volunteer president to write the initial draft so that a personal touch is inherent from the beginning (it also keeps buy in from the leadership).  I suggest that letter include the following: 

*  A review of major services and accomplishments from the previous year that are of importance to members (i.e., answers to what keeps a member awake at night); 

*  Future plans and benefits for the next year that their membership will bring them; 

*  A heartfelt statement of why membership is important (the value statement but expressed by a volunteer); and 

*  A big thank you for being a member in the membership year ending. 

After the president has written the draft, staff can correct and clean up the language to make sure that the statement of values and benefits are correctly stated. 

The letter ought to be no longer than a page, and there should be a P.S included which includes the main point of the letter along with a reminder of when the membership dues need to be in.  This might be a good place to remind the member of the various payment options (cash, check, credit card) and places to renew (mail, website, telephone). 

By using this process, one unanticipated benefit has been that I have had some volunteer leaders express the value of membership so succinctly that I have been able to use their words in new member recruitment efforts.  Powerful stuff. 

So, stand out from all the other requests for money by doing the following: 

*      Remind your members of the value of membership.  

*      Tell them what you are going to be doing for them next year.  

*      And most importantly, thank them for being members.

MEMBERSHIP GROWTH – Adding value to membership

Ask volunteer leaders and many will place membership growth high on their priority list.  But then ask them to describe their game plan for achieving that goal and few can point to any plan. 

Non-profit leaders must realize that increasing the size of their organization just does not happen; it is something you have to plan.  Here is a handy checklist to use that will help successfully shape your plans for membership growth: 

  • Understand what keeps members awake at night and then dovetail your group’s benefits toward those concerns.
  • Develop a targeted marketing plan; Where is your audience?  Who would benefit from what you do?  How will you reach them?  
  • While benefits should be practical, the reason people join is emotional and how you market must recognize that reality. 
  • Know how to sell.  Your message must be a win-win proposition. 
  • People will say “no.”  Don’t take it personally.  Don’t focus on the negative; it becomes self fulfilling. 
  • Make sure you provide value for membership, know what the marketplace will bear and make sure you are not the cheapest. 
  • Discourage price shopper members.  They will leave you at the drop of a hat. 
  • Don’t be afraid to defend your prices or your benefits. 
  • Measure your growth on a regular basis.  Make adjustments if necessary.  Celebrate your successes often. 
  • Encourage member loyalty by providing value for their money and their time. 
  • Every volunteer leader is a membership recruiter.  How positive a volunteer interacts with a member helps to keep that member for another year. 
  • What kind of culture does the association have toward membership growth?  Do they want everyone at any price or do they place value on membership benefits? 
  • Make sure Board members are risk takers so they are open to new trends.  Members are changing in age, how they want to be contacted and how they value benefits. 
  • Have both a membership welcome plan and a way to keep in touch with them throughout the year.  Don’t let your dues renewal be the first time members hear from you since joining. 
  • Volunteers expect Boards to be focused on the big picture and to anticipate trends: economic, generational, and educational. This focus may even lead to finding a new niche of members.  
  • Take advantage of these trends to reinforce membership benefits. 
  • Repackage materials, offerings to attract new members. 
  • Cross sell through other organizations.  Collaborate with other groups to provide greater member value. 
  • Raise your prices annually.  Everything is going up.  Better to have a gradual increase in membership dues than one big jump every so many years. 

Finally, make sure to measure results.  Be ready to drop those things that are not working in the plan.  Expand those activities that are bringing in new members.  Try new techniques and approaches.   Follow these tips and your non-profit will experience phenomenal growth.

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