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Don't Listen to Your Board!

Meredith Low provided this guest post.  She is a management consultant, focusing on helping organizations and companies understand how, when, and where to grow in the context of fast-changing environments. Her work with associations includes leading strategic and tactical planning, performing assessments to position conferences and meetings for growth and durability, and assessing the needs of members and other stakeholders. 

Don't Listen to Your Board!
“Oh, I’m not really a good person to ask why people don’t join. I don’t know why people don’t. I don’t get it. Why wouldn't they?”

I hear this from association board members all the time, and it’s a nice encapsulation of the paradox of their devotion to the organization.

Associations rely on the passion and commitment of their senior volunteers – it is absolutely critical to success. But when it comes to decision-making, it’s precisely this enthusiasm that can pose a serious challenge.

The most senior volunteers, the people who are supposed to be the organization’s conduits to the community they serve, are generally exactly the wrong people to ask about how to expand its appeal. They love the organization so much that they have trouble fathoming why anyone wouldn't join. (And savvy board members are well aware of this.)

Even if you were nearing 100% market penetration, your board members would not be representative of your membership base. They’re far too committed, by virtue of being volunteers. And in the majority of associations, where market penetration isn't anywhere near that high, your board members may be unrepresentative of the field by virtue of the fact that they’re members at all.

In either type of organization, board members also often too senior, in the sense that they tend to be in leadership positions in their field, highly accomplished and networked – that’s how they got onto the board, after all. That may or may not mean that the board skews older than the membership, as well (the ASAE reports that 77% of boards have no members under 30).

So, assuming you want to expand your membership base, what can you do to make sure this doesn't become a problematic paradox for your association?

  • Get solid answers. Ensure you commission – and use – solid research on stakeholder needs. This means non-members as well as members, as well as other commentators (sponsors/industry partners, other associations, and so on).
  • Get a wide range of voices at the table. Look at how you can get representation from diverse types of people – especially younger members, but also other categories. Would that mean a student board seat, regional advisory groups, specialist representation on committees, or something else?  How do you get diverse voices around the table when decisions are actually being made? 
  • Challenge the use of “anecdata” – anecdotal information substituting for a broader fact base. Leaders should consistently demonstrate recognition that their personal perspective is limited. It’s valuable for Board members to bring in their own perspectives, but ideally they are used as nuance and context and sense-making for existing data, rather than the only source of data.
  • Expect some disruption. Think about – and question – how you will actually use all of this input. If you go to all the effort of gathering information and consulting people, but then don’t change how you make decisions, you've wasted your time – and squandered your goodwill with the people you’ve asked to consult with you. The data you gather may lead to some uncomfortable or challenging conversations; not necessarily a bad thing. 

If you want to grow and build your organization beyond those you've already been able to convert to the cause, those you've converted aren't your most important audience. You need to set up systems and habits so that you hear from – and listen to – those who are.