Strategic Management Articles

Members Cast A Cold Eye On Cost/Benefit Of Belonging To Associations

Few association executives will deny that today's member expects more than ever for each membership dollar. In palmier days, members often looked to their association to fill socialization and ego-fulfillment needs, and programs were often of secondary importance. In today's bitter economic environment, however, members tend to cast a cold and calculated eye on the cost/benefit relationship of their voluntary affiliations. More likely than not, they tend to ask themselves, "Is membership in this organization essential to my success in my profession/business/avocation?" If the answer is yes, whether dues are a few dollars more or less will is not likely to be an issue. If the answer is negative, however, even cheap dues will not buy member loyalty.

Disappointment with Quality Management

So the obvious answer for those associations that hope to survive and prosper is to build a reputation for excellence in meeting member expectations. To meet this need, association executives have looked hopefully to Quality Management, but found it too high a price to pay for excellence. It seemed to require a level of statistical sophistication far beyond the ken of most association executives. It seemed to be an effort to shoe-horn the unique needs of nonprofits into a model designed for manufacturing corporations. In short, it seemed to commit the association to time-consuming and complex diversions with questionable outcomes that they could ill afford to chance. The net result is that the quality revolution has lagged a decade behind the private sector.

The danger in this is that members, largely drawn from the private sector, are developing the same quality expectations of their associations that they have come to expect from their experiences in the corporate world.

So there is the challenge. Members will be increasingly expectant that their associations join the rest of the world in a quality revolution. Yet there seems to be no easily adaptable model for associations.

The Solution: Quality Association Management

But fear not, the solution is near at hand. The problem with Quality Management as it has been applied to associations has been the impression it gives of needless complexity. The principle is sound, but the process needs to be reinvented and simplified. The principle is simple:

    Quality Association Management is a process in which volunteers, staff, members and suppliers work together to provide products and services that meet member needs and expectations.

This looks like motherhood and apple pie, but the truth is that most decisions at associations are made by the venerable BOGSAT method (bunch of guys sitting around a table). Board members justify this by saying, "I was elected by the members so I know what they want and need." Alas, if it were only true. According to the Iron Law of Oligarchy, as soon as a person is appointed to any office, he or she immediately loses sight of the needs and wants of the people who sent him or her there.

The only way to overcome the Iron Law is to start a dialogue among all the association's internal and external constituencies and keep it going. This isn't very complicated. Associations are basically communications organizations and have ample tools for dialogue: surveys, focus groups, committees, task forces, assemblies, seminars, regional meetings and more. These can be shaped to serve as vehicles for member needs dialogues and consensus-building.

Gap Analysis

A simple but powerful tool to apply during these communications opportunities is the gap analysis. Simply stated, gap analysis is identifying the distance between the expectations of one party and the performance of another. Applied at all levels of the association, gap analysis provides the platform for action through your strategic plan that will be a powerful incentive for membership building and maintenance. Gap analysis allows you to balance your member's perceptions of the value of your programs and services with his or her need for those products and services. It helps your association deliver what you promise by determining what you can promise.

To become a truly excellent association, delivering the products and services that meet or exceed member expectations, you will need to identify the gaps between expectation and reality as they apply to all your constituencies: members, member prospects, volunteer leaders, staff and suppliers. Your association is part of a total system, and tinkering with just one part will have little impact. It's the relationships among all your internal and external constituencies that determine the degree of your success or failure. Here are a few examples of the gaps you will want to identify and measure as a first step toward achieving excellence.

Examples of Gaps to Analyze

The first and most important gap to analyze is the one between member expectations and the association's delivery. What is the gap between member expectations of program relevance to their needs vs the actual relevance of those programs as they perceive them? What are their expectations of the quality level of these programs vs their perception of program quality? What are their expectations of staff responsiveness vs how they actually view the staff?

Gap analysis should not be limited to member expectations vs perceptions. It is equally important to apply it to such vital areas as board/staff relationships. No matter how well you identify member wants and needs, if your governance is bound by gridlock, members will not get the results they are looking for. In doing gap analysis of the board/staff relationship, here are a few examples of the questions you will want to answer.

What does the board expect of the staff in preparing them to make important decisions vs. how well is staff meeting those expectations? What are the board's expectations of staff accountability vs. how accountable is the staff? What are the staff's expectations of the board in setting out a clear vision and division of responsibilities vs. how the board is actually providing guidance and leadership to the staff without meddling in administrative detail?

It doesn't require a statistical giant to conduct a gap analysis. It isn't a diversion from delivering the products and services in your workplan. On the contrary, it is the essential first step in doing your job and maintaining a strong membership base. It's also the essential first step in effective strategic planning, and becoming an excellent association. In short, it's a blueprint for excellence without pain.

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