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Asking the Courageous Questions

Asking the Courageous Questions
You know you’re doing something right when your member survey achieves a 70% response rate.
At a time when most association members are overworked and many of them feel over-surveyed, most marketers are satisfied if they can wring cogent answers out of 20% of the people who receive a well-crafted questionnaire. A much higher response rate is possible, but it’s indicative that something much bigger and even more important is going on within the association.

Beyond ‘Smile Sheet’ Questionnaires

A couple of months ago, Greenfield Services conducted a member survey for a small Ontario association that was asking some courageous questions about its structure, its purpose, and its future. Its board had had some tough conversations and worked out a series of options for the future—from status quo, to significant change, to closing the doors.

After the association leadership had developed a half-dozen or so scenarios for the future, it was time to consult the membership. And that meant going beyond the standard, “smile sheet”-style questionnaires that asked maddeningly superficial questions about respondents’ general satisfaction with the products, programs, or conferences they were receiving.

The survey text made it clear that there were some tough options on the table.

A complete shut-down was not one of them. But leadership made it clear that just about everything else was on the line: they wanted to know what it would take to deliver excellent value for the membership dollars they collected.

And they invited their community to select the top three options for the organization’s future.

And then, the responses began rolling in. The overwhelming success of a vitally important survey was this association’s payback for a history of strong member communications.

Over the last year, we’ve talked a lot about the importance of year-round contact to turn your organization into a magnet for member interest and participation. But this is the other half of the story—when you build strong relationships, people will respond in your hour of need.

Explaining the Strategy

The content of your member conversations is just as important as their frequency. At the July, 2013 Summer Summit organized by the Trillium Chapter of the Canadian Society of Association Executives (CSAE), associations consultant Meredith Low had some interesting comments on the crucial connection between organizational strategy and implementation. She advised that:

  • It’s necessary and appropriate for strategy to be developed by senior management and volunteer board members.
  • But that strategy will only deliver results if a strong implementation and communication plan builds understanding, buy-in, and active participation on the part of members and front-line staff.

Many decades ago, long before modern associations, electronic communications, and ever-present e-surveys, American naturalist Henry David Thoreau advised:

"Do not worry if you have built your castles in the air. They are where they should be. Now, put the foundations under them."

You might have thought Thoreau was talking about a charitable foundation, preferably one with deep pockets. But in 2013 (and for the foreseeable future), the real foundation of success is member engagement. And in the end, that goes back to how and how often you ask the courageous questions.

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