In episode 30 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Hilary Marsh discussed include:
Important Guest Links:
Carol Hamilton: Welcome Hillary. It's great to have you on Mission: Impact.
Hilary Marsh: Thank you. It's so good to be here.
Carol: So I love to start with just finding out what drew you to the work that you do. What motivates you and what would you describe as your why?
Hilary: Well, that's a great question. The story of how I got into content strategy, I will leave for another time. But the thing that led me to work with associations on an ongoing basis is that I had worked for a very large association starting in 2005 and I learned. Really that associations are content machines that really the products, programs, services, everything they do manifests itself in the world as content. And so they're, if content is how they show their value and how they do their work, then the better they can do that. The more successful they will be at their goals of attracting and retaining. So that's I guess, my why?
Carol: So, as you mentioned, you focus on content strategy for associations. Can we, can we start with a definition? What exactly is content strategy?
Hilary: Okay. Gosh the first definition I learned back in the day, which was all the way back in 1999 was the content strategy is the who, what, when, where, why and how of publishing content online. So yeah, that's expanded a little bit to be the act of. Planning creating publishing, maintaining and governing content, and specifically for associations, that is content that comes from every department. And so that it wants to make sure that they're part of that, that it's content that's usable, meaning people can use it, that it's useful, meaning that it's relevant to them. And then it's effective, meaning that it's got a clear, explicit and measurable audience, right.
Carol: And how does this relate to content curation? Are they, is that, are they synonyms of each other?
Hilary: Sorta different? And so curation, is that the idea, the notion that well, there's sort of two aspects to it. The first is the content that an association's audiences are looking for. Might be created by the association, or it might be created by another organization. And regardless of who creates it, it's selecting and surfacing the right content. That's going to help the person reach their goal. So I wrote a white paper last year with Elizabeth Engel, which might be why you're asking about curation and certainly Came up then, and back in the day associations were gatekeepers for information. Well, now Google's a gatekeeper, but not right because Google will surface everything. There is. So no one has time to read everything there is, and everything in there isn't necessarily relevant to the person. But what an association can do is select or curious. The content that is relevant. Oh, the other side of that is that because associations do create so much content it's choosing the right things that the association itself creates. So it's not only external things that might be internally created by the association.
Carol: Not just a long list of things that could possibly be of interest, but also giving some context and connecting it to just, as you said before, making it useful and relevant there might be something from another industry, but then it's relevant and, and connecting it with, with a particular audience of that associates.
Hilary: Yeah. So the idea of curation comes from the world of museums. So a museum has a huge storehouse, typically in the back of 2000 artifacts from China. But if they're creating an exhibition about ancient Chinese art, they're not going to show you 2000 artifacts because that's overwhelming. They're going to pick the 10 or 20 or 50 that will best tell the story. And they're going to create labor. That explained why they chose these things, why these things are important, what you can learn from them. And so Elizabeth and I created a content curation maturity ladder. And the top of that maturity ladder is not only choosing the right things, but telling the person why this is relevant to them and how it's going to help them. And that's the unique piece that the association can, can offer really, but it requires skills. It requires people and time, all.
Carol: And I feel like over the course of probably your and my career, we've, we've seen that shift from what you mentioned before of the association as being the sole source of credible information for the field to be in one of mine. And the way that the internet has just opened everything up and enabled individuals, they might be volunteers with that association. They might be the recognized subject matter experts, but then they may have their own platform as well. And I remember. I haven't had conversations with a boss of mine, you know? And he was still in that mindset of, we are the credible source I'm like, but the internet happened. So you need to adjust
Hilary: Well, yeah, part of the things that I often do as part of an association’s content strategy project is to do a comparative audit. So let's look at that. nature and quality of the content that other associations might be creating that serve your audience or other publications or other for-profit audiences. And what I often find is that the association provides content that's better, could be better written and also unbiased. So a for-profit publication. In specific, it is going to have a bias. They're going to have sponsored content. They're going to have content from, from other industry sources who have a vested interest in putting out a specific point of view. And that might not be what the association's members do. Yeah. So the association has a huge opportunity anyway, but they need to do it, they need to create their content or make their content decisions based at least in part on what else their members are seeing and getting.
Carol: So it's almost a matter of Helping members see the distinction or the differential between all the different sources of information and the information and the content that the association has provided. Why would, why, why would you say the content strategy is particularly important to organizations?
Hilary: Well, I mean I don't tend to work with product organizations. I tend to work with content rich organizations. And so if, if all of an association's advocacy work it's courses, it's conferences, it's publications, any initial research, clinical practice guidelines, industry standards, all of that work that the association does is content. And so. Because associations are so busy and prolific, whether it's the staff creating the content, as you mentioned, or volunteers, because they've got so much of it, they tend to just share everything, but nobody can consume everything. And so and not only that and associations deepest subject matter experts don't necessarily have. Practice or training and how to translate or communicate their really good work to an audience who doesn't have the expertise that they have. And so I'm usually good content strategy requires a partnership between people with expertise in a subject matter and people with expertise in, in Producing and sharing, presenting, and sharing content with an audience. That is the work that the association needs to do. It's already, typically at least in the people I see really good on the smart side of creating good, valuable, deep material. But if they don't present it to the audience in a way that shows its relevance, that shows its benefit, people might pass it by where if they only knew how amazing it was, they would use it. They would see it, they would talk about it and they would really see that additional or the maximum value from their association.
Carol: And it's interesting what you were saying in terms of subject matter experts and them being able to, they have deep expertise and knowledge and want to share that. And yet depending on what audience they're, they're talking to, whether, someone. Newer to a field, a more of an emerging professional. I know I was working with subject matter experts and we were putting together workshops and training programs and whenever we were working on the beginner one it was. A struggle for the experts to really be able to hone in on what were those basic things that a beginner needed to know. And they were, and I kept coming back to, we got to do the 80% that happens in your cases. You're fascinated by the 20% or even the 5% of the really interesting, complicated exceptions. But what's the 80% of the cases that beginners are going to be dealing with? And the challenge is of course, from someone with expertise is that they've honestly literally forgotten or it's so embedded in all of those preliminary steps that. They don't even think to mention them. So yeah, it takes another person to help them translate. And, and again, depending on the audience, cause it could be that they're, their audiences of is a very experienced and seasoned group that already knows all this stuff. So going over the basics actually wouldn't be helpful. So you really tailor it
Hilary: So there's jargon involved and so jargon is fine when it's expert to act. Every field has jargon, certainly content strategy itself as a field has plenty of jargon. And, yet to do that translation of the jargon for the people who may not know it, because even someone who is experienced in a profession may be coming to a topic that is new to them. So that's a matter of structuring your content too, so that you're creating. It is sort of in layers so that the person who doesn't even know what they don't know or isn't sure whether this topic is actually what they're looking for can just skim the surface. And those who want to dive more deeper can, can do that. I want to come back to something that I glossed over briefly, which is this idea of success. And often associations think, especially subject matter experts. That success means I published it to a task force, a working group, a committee that thinks content success is that I got it out there. And so I try to help my clients shift the conversation to one of like four with the committee or task force or whoever is creating that content. What do you imagine the impact of this content is going to be, or who's the audience and what we're still do you want to happen and then craft the content explicitly with that result in mind and promote it and publish it with that result in mind because otherwise your content, your website is your file cabinet. Otherwise your website contains everything that you've ever published with. No. Way to make a decision about how long should this stay live or, or why should it come down or what should it be grouped with? So their success metrics, there's, taxonomy that needs to glue content together from different departments and the conversations also then have to provide that goal. From one piece of content to the next, because it is all connected, but the people who work tend to lose sight of that because they have the deep expertise and they have their marching orders and they go forward and create that and they forget to bring it back to that bigger content.
Carol: Yeah, I think that's a great question to ask, first who, who you're doing this for. Who's the audience? And then what, what action do you want them to take? What impact, what results do you want to have happen based on this work? Yeah, it's very easy to get into, we've been giving a charge committee and the last thing is publish. And so check we're done. So, yeah, I appreciate that. You mentioned a term, a taxonomy. Can you say a little bit more about what you mean by that and how that plays in?
Hilary: Sure. Taxonomy is a very daunting sounding term, but it's actually pretty clear and straightforward. It's basically tagging whether it's tagging content for an audience or tagging content by a topic because Computer systems are not smart. So a computer system can't know that a term that has a slightly different spelling or a slightly different variation is actually the same as another term or another audience grouping. That's sorta different. So you have to make one single list of all the terms for your topics, for your audience groupings, for your locations, anything else that, that somebody might need to group or sort that content by so that they can create they can create related links, they can filter, filter and sort on search all those other kinds of things that will connect the content. If you're interested in this, you might also like that. And so in the, yeah. Awesome.
Carol: So, what would you say gets in the way of an organization having an effective content strategy? Oh
Hilary: gosh. The first thing is that people don't know each other, they don't talk to each other and they don't they don't work in those bigger contexts. So they, they. think beyond the goal of getting something successfully published. They don't, they don't know their audience as well. So they think they know their audiences. And I think associations have a particular challenge in this term of audience because of the committee structure. So when you have a volunteer who has worked really hard, or a group of volunteers, really, who worked really hard to give back to the profession to serve on standing committees for years, often, many years, and work closely with the association staff to determine initiatives, programs, all of that. They forget what it's like to be a regular. What do they call them? Checkbook members who just join, pays peripheral attention to the association and then goes on with their lives. And those people are not your focus group. They're not your typical average member and they can't be your audience anymore. So how do we engage them? Rest of the staff, all the people who create content, the volunteers for that matter too, in remembering who it is we're creating content for. And what is their life like? What is the context that those people live in, that our content fits into where people think that the audience is just sitting around waiting for their content or for their program or for their. Offering and we see it in how it's manifested. Right. We see the email newsletters that say, guess what? We have a new video. Okay. That's nice. How is it going to help me? How's it going to help me make more money? How's it going to help me advance in my profession or do what it is that I need to do? Everyone is self centered and that's not a bad thing. It's just the reality that we work from our own lens and our own perspective.
Carol: Yeah. So even taking the step from here's our new video to just telling people what the topic of the video is, is a step forward, gives them gifts. It gives people a chance to say, am I interested in that or not?
Hilary: Well, and, and, sometimes people go a little far, the more marketing focused people in the world will have the 10 steps to make more money from this video approach. And I don't really recommend that, but, but why did you decide to create this video? Oh, we decided to create this video to retrace our steps. We decided to create this video because somebody has got something to say really? Why does, why would someone care about that thing to say, well, because what they're, what they've gone through, somebody else can learn from, oh, now tell me more, and getting to the root of why that content was created in the first place and that passion for whatever it is, not only the content, but the initiative that it's part of that, really is that passion.
Carol: And you mentioned in, in what you were talking about the sense of people working in isolation, or maybe they're on a small team, a committee, a task force, or a department within an organization, but not, not necessarily being aware of the wider context that all of this information is being offered to, that member that, that may or may not open that, that email newsletter.
Hilary: Right. So that's really sort of an old, older fashioned way of thinking, back before the internet existed, that was all that people could do. Every department, I used to draw the lanes with my hands and every department had its own sense of the audience and created and delivered content to that audience independently. Cause that's all we could really do. And maybe it came together in a print newsletter, but, but maybe it was, they were a collection of separate brochures or a collection of separate things. And when the internet came along, Those differences really became that much more apparent. And not only that with the ongoing digital world that we live in, people expect a seamless transition from your website to the phone, to an email, to video social media. They expect all of that to just mesh and, and in order to deliver that unified omni-channel experience. You have to be unified internally too. And not only that people have to have the skills to, to take their raw subject matter expert and take at least part of the translation to that user benefit forward. So they need time for that and skills. So it's not only that people aren't willing. To communicate, which is certainly part of organizational culture. It's that there, they don't have time and they're not rewarded or motivated for behaving in that way, because of that sort of older fashioned ways that many associations are even structured, they're structured by, by a content type in a way. And then they're budgeted by content type too. So a lot of it is about how people are.
Carol: So a website, a web team, a publishing team, a training team, a conference team. They're all working separately and yeah, I've definitely been in those conversations trying to cut across those, those departmental lines to come up with a comprehensive or a unified just starting with that word. Taxonomy. I, I worked in an organization where I. I don't know how long, maybe two years before with sporadic meetings to try to finally come to an agreement around how we were gonna, what the list of words were and the terms, and, and some have some commonality across how people were using it in, in all of those different varieties of service offerings or products. Products, programs, et cetera.
Hilary: And everyone is doing their best to do an amazing job. And they don't, it's just a new approach. And the organization has to be clear that we want this new approach for the benefit of them.
Carol: And, folks, folks often talk about tearing down silos, but the truth is you're always going to have some sub organization, some ways that you organize staff. If you're beyond five, 10 people And there are lots of different ways to do that. And it could be by, the old, old way would have been, the training department and the conference department and the publishing department and the advocacy department. But even if you were to say organize it by parts of your member audience, you still end up with divisions. And so you just still then have to create some. Cross cutting work groups that actually have the people see value in that can produce something that has some authority to, to, bring that comprehensive and unified thing together.
Hilary: So part of that's a question of tools. I mean, a shared content calendar goes a really long way. But it has to be required. So you have to make sure that people put in the shared calendar, whether it's a spreadsheet, a Google calendar, Trello, I mean, there's an infinite number of tools for that. But that people put their content in there and they then are, would have to look and see, oh, who else is publishing content on my same topic. So it could be a topical work. And so that if you're creating a course about a topic that you make sure to look in the magazine, to see what articles they've done on that topic, or look and see the advocacy on that topic, et cetera, et cetera, because why reinvent the wheel? So it's a matter of efficiency and also member benefit, for sure.
Carol: So what would you say helps an organization be successful in this area?
Hilary: Yeah. Can you ask, like, so content strategy is figuring it out, right? So you're figuring out who are top priority audiences. What do they want from us? What are we delivering? What's missing? And then how do we, how do we address that? It's figuring out the content life cycles or success metrics. It's putting the tools and communication and HR stuff in place so that people who will have these responsibilities that it's explicit. And it's not something that folks are supposed to do in their spare time, because we all know that no one has any spare time to do it in. And it's also that it becomes operational, that it becomes part of the way things work. In the association, the roles and responsibilities for content creation, planning creation, as I said, publishing promotion maintenance, an expiration that all of that is known and that everybody understands their part in that. And it becomes clear and part of how things work, you also need. So this is all called content governance and governance is such a tricky word and association because it has that whole other meaning, but in the bigger world, it's called content governance or digital governance and operations. So operations are, yeah, it actually happened. So not only writing down, like when I left. Content strategy back in the day, I thought you create a document and you're done and magically, it just happens. And the more I do the work, the more I realize that the document or the rules or guidelines and policies and all that are just the beginning of figuring out how to put them in place so that people know what they are. Understand that they have the trust in their colleagues. All of that is operations. So that's what's required to be successful. So I wrote that I did a study a couple of years ago for the ASAE foundation with Dina Lewis and Carrie Hayne about content strategy, adoption and maturity in associations. And we found associations of all sizes and natures, whether it's trade or professional. There's a lot of associations doing various amounts of content strategy work, and we grouped them into a maturity model. So when we learned that there are different levels of work going on, we looked to see whether the associations were doing more. Had things in common than those who were doing a medium amount or, or only a little. And, we did find that there are differences and it gets to culture. It gets closer. It gets to how operational your content is. And it gets to do the collaboration level, right? Because organizations who are at that more advanced level already know, oh, well, this is. All mine to do is figure out what I need to work. And I want to work with those people over there who have the companion expertise to mind. And that's what it's going to take for my program together. The impact and reach that it deserves.
Carol: Yeah. I think that shift that you talked about I thought was just writing down the plan and having the, the, the shared calendar, but really it's about shifting towards a more collaborative work culture which can, can be a big shift in house. How organizations work together. And so being able, and, and then exactly what you talked about that trust that needs to be built so that those staff division barriers will come down and people will share and coordinate and collaborate. It's really important. Well, I like to end each episode where I play a game where I ask one random icebreaker question. So, which piece are you when you play monopoly? This of course assumes that you play monopoly. Oh my
Hilary: gosh. I haven't played monopoly since I was a kid.
Carol: Well, which one do you remember what you used to pay? I,
Hilary: I'm sorry. I do not.
Carol: I think it's a, the top hat and the dog and the shoe. I think there's an old fashioned car. So, what would you choose today?
Hilary: Let's say, whew. All right, cute. They're cute. And they go, they go neatly from, from square to square.
Carol: So neatly from square to square. I wouldn't say that the monopoly, she was particularly cute, but so what's, what are you excited about? What's up next for you? What's emerging in your work?
Hilary: Well, I was thrilled to also do a chapter also with Dina Lewis. Latest edition of professional practices and association management. And that makes me so happy to see you. The prospect of content strategy incorporated and adopted by even more associations. So I was really excited about that in terms of what's next. I'm working with an association now to try it. Really get to the bottom of these very thorny questions about things like what the audience needs is this content filling, which is a very difficult question for them. And a very difficult question for lots of associations. And I'm, I'm always excited to do that work with an association, help them know the answer to that. So that next time when they are creating more content, they already do it with that information in mind. Yeah.
Carol: All right.
Hilary: Well, thank you. And just thanks. No, just joined the summer and hook, getting back maybe to normal.
Carol: Maybe it will say time. We'll see. All right. Well, thank you so much. It was great having you on. Thanks a lot.
In episode 28 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Peggy Hoffman discussed include:
Peggy Hoffman is president of Mariner Management, an association management company which is home to two associations and provides an array of support and training to associations and most importantly member volunteers. Peggy has provided training and counsel to dozens of global, national and local membership associations over the past 30 years. She often draws on her own team’s research on volunteerism, member communities and association innovation. Peggy not only enjoys working with association volunteers but is an active volunteer for her professional association – including serving as a chapter past president – so she’ll draw from experience on both levels. Read her full bio at MarinerManagement.com and connect with Peggy on Twitter @peggyhoffman or LinkedIn. And ask her about triathlons, dance or living with three sons.
Important Guest Links:
Carol Hamilton: My guest today on Mission: Impact is Peggy Hoffman. Peggy is president of Mariner Management, an association management company which is home to two associations and provides an array of support and training to associations and most importantly member volunteers. Mission Impact is the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I’m Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and nonprofit strategic planning consultant. On this podcast we explore how to make your organization more effective and innovative. We dig into how to build organizational cultures where your work in the world is aligned with how you work together as staff, board members and volunteers. All of this is for the purpose of creating greater mission impact. Peggy and I talk about why volunteers and chapters are the heart and soul of associations and yet a somewhat neglected aspect of working in a membership organization, how the role of geographically based chapters is undergoing so much change, and what implications the rise of online professional development has for local chapters.
Welcome Peggy. Welcome to the podcast.
Peggy Hoffman: It's great to be here, so appreciate you inviting
Carol: Yeah. Should be fun. A fun conversation. We've been in the same circles for a long time and it'll, I'm really excited to dig into the work that you do in associates. Space of associations, but I really like to start each podcast with what motivates you to do the work that you do? What's your why? What, how, what drew you to this particular aspect? And we'll get to this in a minute, of the work that you do with organizations.
Peggy: Okay. So I guess. I'm going to start by saying that once I stumbled into associations, one of the things that I gravitated towards was membership and specifically working with chapters. So I landed at a trade association that had these incredible state groups or regional. And I began working with them and realizing that there were just, they have so many challenges in front of them. So when we decided to start our own business, it was as a management company specifically to be a management service for chapters. So we didn't want any national organizations, but we just wanted to work with chapters in our area. And that business, it was amazing. I mean, they don't have big budgets, but they have big hearts. So naturally because of that, I've spent so much time working with volunteers because they were hiring me to be their staff. Right. So the wonderful journey of trying to support these geographic components of larger organizations meant really getting hands-on with how volunteers operate and think. And I don't know if that's just pretty exciting to work with people who are giving time. So I guess my, my, why is if I can support somebody who's giving their time, that's like a bonus.
Carol: , the volunteer and the chapter, I feel like there's so much at the heart and soul of so many organizations, and yet I feel like it's really a neglected aspect of association management and it's so critical for member engagement. It's so critical for people to be able to connect with people locally. First maybe, for listeners who are maybe less familiar, can you just describe those two arenas, how you, how you define that.
Peggy: Yes, that's a great question, actually. And what I really love about that question is that we are in this tremendous mode of change. I know we've heard that. But what's really interesting is there's so many structures within associations that are challenged and that challenge is leading to some really cool innovation. And when you talk about the bucket of volunteers and you're talking about the bucket of the bucket, we call chapters or components the same thing. What is a component in the context of what we're talking about? We're talking about the component of geography. Cause really components are a way of members connecting and it's usually around an issue and interest, a discipline or a geography. So we're really. We're focused more on the geography question. And so it's any entity that allows a subsection of members or key stakeholders within a membership-based organization to collect. So that means some of these groups are completely independent, but carry the same or similar mission name. Sometimes it needs an absolute integrated subsection. There's there, there's relationships where there's charters and there's mostly, but there's affiliation or groups. So lots of different ways of doing that legally, but at the core it's meeting the same member who could be met nationally. It could be. Locally. And sometimes the membership has contingent in. Sometimes it's not mean I can be a member of both or neither or a combination. So the chapter is a, is a, is a moniker. If you will. That may, that means that we're collecting a subsection of our members into that geography. The interesting thing is the traditional model, which was born in a time when we didn't have the internet, is the problem right now because we're, we've, with the legacy systems and for many of these organizations, the key work of it is done by the volunteers. Now we know that about associations, but the chapter level I think it was. The recent benchmarking it's you have to assume that less than half of the chapters out there have staff. So it is largely the will of the passion of volunteers and a volunteer is any stakeholder in an organization, membership based organization. That opps to give time freely and I mean also free. Yeah. Yeah. And I think most people think of chapters as those regionally based Entities. And yet, you can also slice and dice memberships often through an interest around a particular topic, whether it's whether the organization calls some special interest groups or communities of practice or cohorts, there are different ways that people describe that. But, and, and, and in each case there, that volunteer component is just so important. Absolutely. Absolutely. And it's really, really interesting because of one of the dynamics that- What's really interesting about the comment that you just made about this idea of the coagulating. Issue interests, discipline or geography is that one of the changes that is slowly happening, it needs to happen with more with more Gusto is this idea of not siloing off the geographic components from the other ones, you'd see pretty much the communities of practice, the SIGs, those things that have been more baked in and the chapters have oftentimes can be an arms length. And what we began to understand is that the models. percolate to the top for many associations, not all are going to be the, the, the less structured geographic components, which means they're going to begin to act even more like the other components.
Carol: And so interesting. I did, of course the pandemic and everything moving online just, just changed everything overnight. And I did an event for a regionally based association. So one that is the Mid-Atlantic of the thing, the Mid-Atlantic facilitators network and they were doing webinars. So of course that has no geography limits to it. And it was just a very pertinent topic, right. At the beginning of the pandemic of how to facilitate effectively online. And they had people from around the world and this was a local association. So in some ways it feels like some of those things, maybe aren't as relevant as they used to be. And of course, People are still gonna want to be able to meet in person and, and, those geography challenges, we're not going to always do everything online.
Peggy: It’s both, but the blurring of the geographic boundaries is huge. It's it's. It's going to be, what's going to be the catalyst to either kill a chapter or have a chapter thrive, but it's also the catalyst for more competition and we know how nonprofits sometimes butt heads. And I think we're, we're, we're in a situation where that can happen. So the savvy association is going to jump out in front of it right away. Right. And say, okay, how do we begin coordinating the services, our programs, or our, our chapters or components are offering in a way that creates congeniality, right? Bridging all of it for everybody versus feeling like you're in a state of competence. Exactly. Exactly. And I think we do know that the Delta variant aside and other elements aside, we do know that people are going to get back together again, which is actually delightful and, and, and, and. Gonna be well received by, by many folks, but we also think, and Carol, this is the interesting thing. We think that it's going to change the nature of getting together for chapters. In other words because I can get online education so much more readily. And in the case of the one you just talked about, I can be in an online thing. That's perfect to many of us, but get the perspective from, from a different, different area. Right. Then maybe the importance of the chapters is less about education and more about the other elements, whether it is how do we grapple with a very local issue or how do we do networking or how do we do career development or career pathway development, or how do we, how do we really reach the students? Right. So it could shift some of the priorities for our geographic components, which I. It's not a bad thing at all, but we have to be aware of it.
Carol: I know for me thinking about going to in-person events the bar is just way higher for what we're actually doing in person is the event actually designed to leverage the fact that we are in the same room together. And if it's not, I'm not going to travel two hours, cause even in a G, even in the DC area, it's going to take me an hour there, be there. And then an hour back it's half my day. so the bar for me is just way higher.
Peggy: And so now think about that because of the implication there, and I don't think you're alone and I'm certainly the same way. So there's at least two of us in this world. Right? So here's the thing: think about how we are currently resourcing and training volunteers. Because it's still largely volunteer. And even if it's not volunteer, if there's a, if there's a skeleton staff for a chapter, it's often an admin person, right. So how are we resourcing and training them for that new reality? We've been talking in some of the trainings I've been doing, because we do a fair amount of the chapter leader, training chapter staff and chapter volunteers. We've been talking well, at least I've been beating the drum for at least two years on. You've got to do something different at your events. You've got to create events that are experienced. You've got, you've got to stop thinking that I can just fill a room and, and in class, in classroom style and have somebody, screaming, scream at you. Lecture, you
Carol: talk nicely to you, but I haven't, so
Peggy: bam, I get now you're absolutely right. It becomes way more. So am I leveraging, I liked the way you put that. Am I leveraging the fact that I'm in person on this event design? Yeah. And I think it's, it's not just a matter of going back to the way it used to be, because, maybe those networking events worked for a few people, but they actually never worked for a lot of people. So how can we think about those things differently? How can we help, help people have conversations? have, give them a little bit of structure. I mean, people had learned how to do this in, in the online space, through zoom, et cetera. Just a little bit, just a prompt question to get people started can really be helpful. Exactly. Exactly. So it's good. It's going to be really interesting. It's going to change. It's going to change how we train, how we resource it's going to also require in some ways, a refresh to the volunteer pool. Right. And that's such a critical thing because I think it's one of the biggest ones. Big challenge.
Carol: I don't know if the biggest challenge you can tell me with any volunteer-led organization or one that depends a lot on volunteers is that oftentimes those refreshing recruitment cultivation of some pathway to leadership they, most groups don't, don't have it, don't know how to do it. And so then they wonder why, the 20% are the, are doing the 80.
Peggy: Exactly. And that is one of the, definitely one of the top. Challenges for these member components is getting the volunteer workforce that has been a problem that's been really growing in the last I'd say five to almost 10 years. And, and the, the, the. Challenge is now is that because we're in this murky area of what really is the value prop at the local level, it's harder to articulate why it would be great for you to volunteer for this organization. So we've just put things on top of each other. Now, all of this makes of course, Carol, this sound like doom and gloom. On the other side of things there is there's real opportunity for local volunteers, local chapters, local members, and the COVID is one of the coming out of COVID. One of the silver linings is we saw some of those in action, right? We saw, for example, I'm in Texas and this is not, this is not an exception by any means at all, but in Texas, one of 'em AGCS, that's the general contractors groups, did this amazing pivot and went from this basically, education. Forced development to a source for PPE and set up and turn their office into a collection zone and, and an incredible member value point. Then you have, you have some folks out in Ohio for the dental hygienist and that group Basically got the most important legislation or regulatory changes around the protection of, or of dental hygienists on the job.
And then another one of their chapters actually was managed on Facebook to get a vibrant post of yours, the temp job that you, that you need filled and post that you're ready. And they did this incredible moment, matchmaking for folks in the area. So what we're, what we're seeing is that being local to it's like it is just like with health care, it's just like with everything being local became the ability to answer the immediate need of a member. So. The real question is do we, is it time to take those checklists of you did this, this, this, and this, and throw it away and begin saying what the member needs at the moment? Because I think honestly, we saw it and I think chapters can step up because they're driven by volunteers. That's the huge thing. That's the passion that allows them to pivot. If they've been given the permission and some resources. Yeah. There's often, I feel like there's often a tension between a regionally based or a locally-based chapter and the national organization. And, maybe some of those checklists are, are part of it. Why would you say you often see that, or at least I've certainly experienced it in the organizations I've worked in that tension between the two. Well, I think it's, it's really interesting. How are we just, so in, in terms of the work that Marriner is doing we are just, we just began this next iteration of the chapter benchmarking study. And we started with two CEO round tables, virtual round tables. Brought CEOs together to have a conversation around what is this thing about chapters? And, and, we basically were asking the question you just asked.
Carol: Now we did start by saying, what are the orthodoxies around chapters that are just so, what would you say some of those are?
Peggy: So that was the, that was the, Chapter four, the third rail chapters are our political minefield. The problem is that you've got these groups and often too way too often. The leaders that you have sitting up here, making decisions come from that group, and while they put the national or the global hat on, they never take off the chapter hat. So. They see that they see through a lens that is a little bit clouded, a little bit myopic to a certain degree. Right. And so if you start to say something needs to change, well, my chakra was barred or I, and, and meanwhile, you're talking, you're having to convince volunteers to vote members to vote on change. And they don't like to do that anyway in too many cases. It's politically fraught. And so it's easier to kick the can down the road than it is to make a substantive change. But the other critical element is these CEOs bless them. Could not with one, maybe two exceptions. Could not articulate the value of chapters because we have no data around what the chapters are bringing that we can put on our balance sheets. We can put in our operations, we have the expense side. Oh yes. Because we have. That's assigned to it. We might have a chapter leader conference. We might have a shared relationship. We might have a revenue sharing relationship around events or activities. but on the income side, we're not doing any good data collection and data analysis that shows us how that contributes to the value proposition? That generates those important dollar driven pieces, membership, acquisition, membership, membership retention fundraising goals, all those things. So, most of the CEOs have this political problem and they have no data. And so what happens is you get this, you get all these people in the room. Chapters are so important. I came up with it. I wouldn't have been a member or all that stuff. And so, that anecdote becomes the data and we all know, and if it is not data. So that was the key. The other orthodoxy which I thought was a sad orthodoxy is, well, chapters are good and they're mostly bad and that's just the way it is. And you'll live. And that to me is sad because that goes back to, I don't know what the ROI is and therefore, and it's politically difficult, so I'm just gonna live with this. And, and, and, and the assumption is it can't get better. So that's the other orthodoxy we have to live with. It's bad. We can't get better. And one, several members of these two CEO round tables said if they had their druthers, they would just ditch them. And so. Would that be an ortho, what that an, of a mindset it's going to be competitive because you're not in the game together you're surviving alongside, and even the most open-minded of the CEOs. And there were many open-minded CEOs in the effort of figuring it out. All of those really good, important answers didn't seem to, it seems so insurmountable. And so I'm just going to wait and hope that because I guess, because I see some good things, like 1 group said, when it comes right down to advocacy the states that have really rolled up, rolled their sleeves up and, and, and talk with us on a regular basis, we're able to make some significant headways.So they, so they do, they do glean onto that. But the competition comes because we don't know, and we're just living, living next to each other. The other thing is, there's nothing worse. Carolyn, absolutely nothing worse than having your leaders who have to make important decisions, be your members because they will whine the entire time. And so the members are notorious, they think they're not getting a good deal and members who are volunteering for chapters have that double, double down on that. And so they create their own negative language that pushes along this competition.
Carol: And yet you gave a couple examples about how that locality of those chapters, they were able to just jump on needs that were immediate, that would have taken a national organization. There's so many layers of decision making and all of that. They were able to just move really quickly, especially because in this case, I think that volunteer. Group. It can either mean that you're moving incredibly slowly or yes, you can also move very quickly.
Peggy: Right. And the other interesting thing is we did a so ma Marriner and bill highway the highway being a software tech company that does have a banking solution in this space, in any case. We've been doing a series of webinars, monthly webinars for chapter organizations. And I bring this up only because one of the things we keep doing is I say, we look for the bright spots. But we're looking for where our system's working. And one of the, and what, one of the pieces we did was the trickle up and what we were talking about was we were going at it and we were finding where there were successful national programs that actually had been born and bred at the local level. So. PMI is an outreach program and is a great example. The education I'm going to call the action. The education theater group developed this. They had when the floods came through in Houston and the schools were decimated, their theater props and programs were decimated by another group, another state nearby did a match list. Do you have something extra? There's a school there. It needs it. That program is now a school to school support program that went national. So, and, and, and you look at what the landscapes or landscapers have done. So in other words not only can they pivot quickly, but they can also be some pretty good R and D. And by the way, you can do a, you can do an ROI on all of those scenarios.
Carol: Yeah, absolutely. And you've been doing some research recently on what you call the volunteer learning journey. Why, why would you say this is important for those who work with volunteers or our volunteers and trying to cultivate other volunteers?
Peggy: One of the things that we have done so I'm gonna, I'm going to first point back to a couple of, of. Of good resources. One is the mutually beneficial volunteering study done in 2017 with the ASAE foundation in which we talked about the readiness of volunteers and that impact on associations, then we did. Now to a chapter benchmarking study, I alluded earlier to the fact that we're in the third iteration now, and we did the CEO's and we're going to be going into the actual survey piece just shortly. But yeah. In the two previous ones one of the issues that came up was volunteer readiness, right? And then we've also over the last 10 years I have worked with thousands and thousands of chapters through chapter training programs and constantly come back to volunteer readiness. And so one of the things that, and we did was a series on financial problems for chapters in which we have looked at fraud, security, risks, those kinds of things. And what's the, what's the, what's the bottom line behind that, the preparedness or readiness of volunteers. So you see this theme that, if the volunteer is the key workforce for the chapter programs, and we're not properly preparing them, what's the issue, how do we resolve that?
Carol: How would you, how would you define volunteer readiness?
Peggy: So I would define volunteer readiness. Excuse me. I would define a volunteer readiness based on their ability to successfully complete the job at hand. So I'm going to be treasurer of a chapter organization. Not only can I, do I know, how do I know? Do I know how the organization is financially set up? Can I read a peanut? Can I make good decisions? Can I make good financial decisions based on risk analysis? Right? Because I mean, I can spend this money and I've got these reserves, like it's been over here, there's just, how do I invest these dollars? And, and how do I. For example, let's look at, look at the pandemic. Cause the one group that we manage, I mean, the first thing we did was the treasurer and I sat down and we pulled up and we did what's plan B, how do we, what's our scenario planning for this year because we don't know how it's going to unfold. So scenario planning. So as a treasurer, when I, the first day I'm in that job, Do I have that set of skills and that ability, and if I don't have the exact set of skills, do I at least know? I don't have them and can seek, can ask the questions because you're not going to know everything you need for every particular. That's okay. Right. But do I know, do I know? So, so readiness is about my ability to do that job and not even stellar. I've just, I just call it success. Like if my goal was this and I'm a volunteer, can I get us to this? Would it be great to get here? Fine, but I'm ready as I get to where we have to get? Not where we necessarily want to get. When we started figuring out why are volunteers not ready? Or why do we get volunteers? the whole, the whole thing. And we need a president and nobody's hand raises and someone sneezes. Oh, good. Peggy. You're going to be president now you're president, but you're not ready. Right. But, there's no other choice. Right. So we kept looking, so all of these associations are offering varying levels. But, it's hard to get volunteers to, to really buy into that support. And that's when I saw something that Christine matters with the crystal lake partners. I had done it with, she had talked about learning journeys for getting beyond basically the concept of the journey map, which by the way, you've done some fabulous work on taking that, I think, and applying it to the learner. Is there a learner journey and I'm looking at this going, is there a volunteer learner? So she and I got together, we pulled together a brain trust of folks, looked at how they were doing it, looked at what we understood about volunteer readiness and realized that the missing piece, as we looked at this, is tying that training to the volunteer motivation. And that's of course what learning journeys do, right. They say, what, where is it? You want to go? What's your motivation for getting there? What, what, and so tie it. So that's really where it came out of. It was trying to find how to take these two issues? where's the, where's the puzzle piece that puts them together.
Carol: And one thing that I appreciate, and we'll, we'll link to the resource that you're talking about. Cause it's really a wonderful piece on working with volunteers. And this could, this, there are so many applications to this. You did this within an association context, but I was looking at it and I haven't yet. On the leadership development committee of my congregation. Right. And so we're thinking about volunteer cultivation and how do we give people some baby steps and not say, oh, you're a new member. Let's get you on the board. No, we don't want to be in that position. And how do we help people take those steps? So I really liked how you broke it down with, maybe that first step. And I can't remember exactly what the categories were, but then, then. They need these couple of competencies and, or this interest. And so that's going to match to more of a micro volunteering or an ad hoc role. And, and I think that that is a hard thing. Where folks are. So organizations are so used to these big roles that people have traditionally had. And how do you break it into smaller chunks that are more manageable and in people's lives today? For a million reasons, folks just don't have the bandwidth that they have available. I don't know, 15, 20 years ago when people were able to step into a board role for three and four years and things like.
Peggy: So there was a lot of stability in people's lives. Obviously, in comparison, a lot of stability, you were in jobs and there's a lot of middle management opportunities there until you were in jobs and you're pretty steady. And you didn't, you weren't looking to change jobs unless something really happened. And the employers there, they, they gave you a little bit more leeway on a lot of things. So volunteering and not only that, but there were generational things. So the boss had volunteered and been on the board. So it's natural that you're going to do that. Right. And lava fell, all those things changed, which is why there is the bandwidth issue. But I think the other thing that we completely underestimate is. Everything we know about volunteers, particularly what we do when we start looking at volunteers over the last 10 years. Okay. Everything we know is that there is this critical importance of connecting with what's in it for me. And I don't mean that in a negative way. Gotta go to my motivation and my motivation is going to be tied to something. I can see an outcome. And so much of our volunteering does not have a demonstrative outcome and it does not plug directly with the motivation. So we can't get people to be on the board because what it looks like is sitting in meetings and it's just keeping the organization going well, I don't want to just keep your organization going. I don't want to do anything. All of a sudden if, if, if we can start making, even that board position looks and demonstrates how there is an outcome we're going to get folks to do that? The reality is that busy people always have time but they have time for the things that match their motivation. One of the things I tell real quickly Carol is we were looking for a treasurer at the local level. It's a Maryland based chapter and we were looking for a treasurer and we were having. Difficult time. That's not an easy position to fill because there are, that's one of the board positions that actually has some key competencies, right? So there was an individual who I, who I knew could do this and would do a good job. And Talking with this individual and they didn't want any more board positions and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And then he just happened to say to me, “How come we didn't give out a student scholarship this year?” Cause we always gave that student scholarships and I said, I'm going to give it a student scholarship. Because, and I, and I went through the whole thing and I, it was basically a financial decision, right. And I said, we were there and we fell down here and here, and I just said free, frankly, the right treasurer would get this going and we can rebuild that account and we'd have the giving out student scholarships. And so the neck, I think it was the next day, got an email from him and said, okay, so when does a treasurer position begin? Why? Because now he saw a reason he was, and he did, he did. We got the student scholarship program back up and running.
Carol: Well, yeah. And, to help people think through, especially in a professional context, what are some things that they're going to be able to learn through volunteering that they don't have the opportunity to do in their day-to-day jobs? So, thinking again, I mentioned my congregation and when I first joined people asked me to do lots of different things that I didn't want to do. So I was, I felt like I was like, no, no, no, no, no. So I was like, I got to figure out what I'm, what I want to say yes to. And they were doing their first strategic plan and I was like, Ooh, I want to do that. And of course, that's actually what I do now. Right? This was 20 years ago. And so in my day job, I have no opportunity to be involved in the strategy of the organization. But in this volunteer role, I was going to be able to be a leader. And develop, explore that and develop all sorts of skills that I just wouldn't have the opportunity in my day-to-day. So helping people, whether it's skills or Networking is just such a big amorphous concept, but how is this going to help you build and get connected with people who can help you sponsor you, mentor you and help you solve problems. But yeah, to take what these things are. Jobs or even smaller ones and how people think, well, what are the components that, that that I can connect to, that's going to move me forward, from that professional point of view or. I just moved here and I don't have any friends that I want to make some friends with and let me do that, through, through volunteering.
Peggy: You know what, it's just like the fundraising when you first get called to give, let's say to in my case, my NPR station is WAMU. WAMU. And the first gift that you're asked is, is 25 bucks or five bucks or whatever. And then they, they wrap you up. And pretty soon you're an annual giver of a substantive chunk of money. And I keep telling chapters and national organizations that you, you, you, you gotta do the fundraising model and, and microbes. Get you into it. you had mentioned, you had referred to that, the pathway in which we talk about the emerging volunteer, the learning volunteer, and then you get into leadership. And one of the things that we saw in the mutually beneficial volunteering study, which actually reflected the results from the earlier volunteer study way back in 2008 that ASAE did, which is one of the, one of the. Five reasons for not saying yes is not seeing a picture, not seeing the pathway. And so part of that work came out of this idea of let's paint a password for let's paint. Let's paint the picture and demonstrate a pathway. And there's some really exciting things because if you take that pathway you see, for example, wraps, which is the regulatory professionals they've done this and they're not alone. Other groups have done this. I believe PMI is amongst them, but you take that pathway. And then you start doing digital badging based on that. Right. And now you're actually, you're actually connecting people to the, to a recognition that they can carry with them really from a CV perspective. Right. But then you take someone like NAGP, they're building out a as, as part of their learning management system and they're making some changes right now, but they're building it. Levels of training for volunteers at wraps is doing something similar. So you and I talked to one of the magicians who was looking, who just was looking at that model and saying, wow, you mean, we could do like many, many certificates, right? As I get through this level. So all of a sudden you see what that, that pathway does. It professionalizes the volunteering in our associations and nonprofits. And by professionalizing it, that boosts the motivation to get the learning and the education that you need to be successful in the job. So we're all we're, we're, we're coming at this from all these different directions.
Carol: Yeah, for sure. So on each episode, I like to play a game where I ask one random icebreaker question. And since I think I've known you long enough that I can ask this question. So who are the three people you would want on your team? If there was a zombie apocalypse? Ooh.
Peggy: Mark Shropshire who no one knows, except that he is my personal trainer. And I mean, strong and, and, and not, Sufficiently un-empathetic that he could destroy anything in the way. So that's good. So definitely, definitely that I'm gonna go with maybe a strange strange one. And I, I'm going to actually go with an association professional. I know Lindsay Curry and you might say, well, why, why would you pick her. I have never seen anybody able to get around a topic with such dexterity and in a way to come up with the question and I have seven feelings if they were, it was Zombieland. She has a way to get them to go now. What are you asking us there? And I need a really strong, another strong, no, you know what, you know what I'm going gonna, I'm gonna also go with my husband. And you might say why, and it goes, if something happens, I think I would just assume that it happened to both of us, but I would throw them out there first just to be on, to be doing the real side. But, having somebody close to you that knows you that knows your vulnerabilities and your strengths. And in that moment can say, can call on your strengths so that you can get past your vulnerability. I think that would be priceless.
Carol: That's awesome. That's awesome. So what are you excited about? What's coming up for you what's what's emerging in your work these days, so, oh
Peggy: My gosh. There is actually a lot of really exciting work. I'm going to mention three very quick things. One is the chapter benchmarking study because we have brought the CEO voices. And so we're going to do the CEO voice. We're going to do the traditional CRP. That's the component relations professional. That's the association staff position. And you can opt in to have us then go to your chapter leaders. So it's a 360, if you will approach a conversation around chapters, chapter values, chapter optimization. So we're very excited about that. We just launched the ASAE foundation Research, which is going with an incredibly robust brain trust of association CEOs. We're going to design the set of models that will work for associations for volunteerism. So in other words, we're asking the question. What is effective and what model brings out effectiveness for what organizations. So there's not going to be one mile. So, those are two kinds of research projects, but, but listen to those, those are like innovation, right? They're changing. The other thing I want to mention. Just getting started with camp to program camp is the California marriage and family therapist. We're doing a chapter coaching pro program, which I think is going to be really cool. I get a chance to work one-on-one one-on-one with chapters. So those were the, those are the three exciting things. But I, I want to, I guess I want to mention that. there's a balance in life. And so the other exciting thing that the other journey I'm on is I started in January learning titles. And when you put yourself in a place to learn something new and you can screw up with that, anybody like, you don't feel bad about it. it's just you during this learning space and it's a really, really wonderful mind, body centering thing, but also all of the elements about this there's There's w one of the elements is constantly keeping your knees bent and being grounded so that, you can move in any direction. Right. And giving in yielding, and yet being a spring strong anyway, enough of that. But that's,
Carol: That'll help you with the zombies too. Yes. I love it. I love it. Well, Peggy, it was great having you on thank you so much. And we will definitely link to those resources that you mentioned. And then let us know when the newest benchmarking study comes out and we can include it for folks. So definitely appreciate all you all you have to offer. Right?
Peggy: Well, thank you for your time today. This was a fun conversation. It's always good catching up with you. And it was fun today, too.
I appreciated the perspective Peggy brought on the volunteer learning journey. Whether your organization has chapters or has volunteers in other programmatic elements of your work, thinking through their learning journey could be really useful. We will link to the resource that Peggy’s group created about this and it provides a really useful framework for thinking about how to cultivate and develop volunteers. And how to have them move from volunteers to leaders within your organization. From a new volunteer that is just getting familiar with your organization and the work you do – what are the skills and competencies they need? How will your orientation and training program help them develop those skills? How might you be able to break down what used to be a large role into smaller more doable parts? Is it clear for someone wanting to get involved what the steps are? Whom they should reach out to? What support can you provide your volunteers as they become more engaged and encourage them to step into new and larger roles within your organization? Have you built a ladder people can climb? Or a pathway for them? The clearer you are able to make the pathway, the more likely people will say yes when you invite them into volunteering.
Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me and my guests. You can find out how to connect with Peggy as well as any links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes.
I want to thank Nora Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as April Koester of 100 Ninjas for her production support.
Please take a minute to rate and review Mission Impact on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. It helps other people find the podcast. We appreciate it!
In episode 23 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Elizabeth Engel discussed include:
Elizabeth Weaver Engel, M.A., CAE, is Chief Strategist at Spark Consulting. For more than twenty years, Elizabeth has helped associations grow in membership, marketing, communications, public presence, and especially revenue, which is what Spark is all about. She speaks and writes frequently on a variety of topics in association management. When she's not helping associations grow, Elizabeth loves to dance, listen to live music, cook, and garden.
Important Guest Links:
Carol Hamilton: Welcome to Mission Impact, the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I am Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and nonprofit strategic planning consultant.
My guest today is Elizabeth Weaver Engel. Elizabeth is Chief Strategist at Spark Consulting where she helps associations grow. Elizabeth periodically writes white papers on topics of interest to association staff and board members. These white papers go in depth and provide interesting and actionable insights on the topics she explores. On this episode, Elizabeth and I delve into the topic of digital transformation, the focus of her upcoming white paper that she co-wrote with Maddie Grant. In our conversation we explore what digital transformation is and why it is important to associations. We also talk about some of the key differences between associations and for profit companies that most of the literature to date about digital transformation has focused on and the implications of those differences.
Welcome Elizabeth. It's great to have you on the podcast today.
Elizabeth Engel: Thank you so much, Caroline. We're very happy to be here. So
Carol: I'd like to start out with the question. What, what drew you to the work that you do? What would you say motivates you or what's your, why?
Elizabeth: You mean, like in the, in the largest sense of why, why do I work in associations? You're why am I in the nonprofit space? It goes back to when I was in graduate school. So initially I'd gone to graduate school at the University of Virginia. I was studying political theory. I was intending to be a professor of political theory. That's not really a job that exists anymore. Even back then that did that job didn't really exist anymore. Even 25 years. And so, when I, when I decided to bail out of the PhD program and do the terminal masters and I was graduating, and then I was like, okay, well now what and we were living in Charlottesville, which is lovely, but small lot of overeducated people running around there who don't want to leave. I was one of them And so I started looking for work in DC, the first interviews, God we're with for-profit companies. And I realized pretty quickly that I just could not bring myself to care about making the widget 5 cents cheaper than the other guy and selling it for 5 cents. More like I just. Did not care about that. And so I thought, okay, well, clearly non-profit industry is, is for me. And I started applying only for nonprofit jobs. Got my first job. I was applying both in sort of fundraising calls, oriented organizations and associations, got my first job working in an association, my first capital R capital J Real Job and never looked back.
Carol: It's so funny that you talked about being a professor and I sounds like you got a little further along that path than I did, but that was definitely my idea in college that I would be a history professor, but then I was working on my my final project not a dissertation, cause it was just a BA I don't know the big paper that I had to write at the end of my, at end of end of my degree. And I was doing some research in the library, in the big central library in Philadelphia. And reading these old magazines ‘cause I was doing a project on basically how women were being told how to be mothers advice to mothers at the turn of the century Germany. So I was reading women's magazines from the turn of the century Germany. I realized that I was, I had a mad dust allergy. So I was like, clearly my life's work needs to not be in archives. That's going to be a real problem. Yes. Yes. So, so being a professor, being a history professor was not, not going to be what I was going to be doing. So I had to figure it, figure out something else. And I did. My first job was with a for-profit company and it was When I helped out w w when, when, of course it was all clients, all comers, we were helping people get on talk shows and it was after that, there was like, no, if I'm going to be promoting things, if I'm going to be publicizing, if I'm going to be moving some cause forward, you know I want to have it be something that I believe in. So that's when I made the shift to the nonprofit sector. Yeah. Yeah. So one of the things that I really appreciate about your work is your generosity in creating free, very substantive, white papers on a variety of topics. And, and you've, I think maybe it's going back to that drive to research that originally would've been, would have been in that professor realm. ‘Cause you really go all over the place and, and, and dive into a lot of different topics. And I think actually, It's where we originally met because you did an interview with me as a per case study for one of your white papers.
Elizabeth: Yeah. When you were at NAFSA.
Carol: Yes. Yeah. So around design thinking, lean start up. Yeah. So, so how did you get started doing those?
Elizabeth: Oh, yeah. So that was yes, you are correct. This definitely relates to my interest in research and writing. And there's a range of length, I guess, Israeli types of writing, everything from tweets, obviously, of course, all the way up to books and the length that I always liked was the extended essay. Something that falls into that 25 to 40 page range where you can, you can really have an idea and develop it, but you haven't committed yourself to a 400 page book. And so when I was first launching star back in 2012 I was part consulting. One of the things that I was, I was thinking about is, okay, well I'm going to need to do stuff. To get my name out there. And, and I had already started doing some of that in the association world prior to launching the business. I had been really involved in training people for the certified association executive exam through ASAE. For like the period from right after I earned it myself 2004 through 2010, I was super involved with that and that got me started on the speaking track for ASAE and I, and I had had, and other associations and I, and I had had employers who were supportive of that. Even while I was, I was still an association executive working directly for associations myself and had been doing it association blog for a number of years at that point. And, and that was all great. Like I was enjoying all that planning to continue all of that and whatnot. But I was looking for something a little bit more substantive, I guess, or a little bit more something that has, has a longer shelf life, I guess that's, that's the best way to put it, right? Because if you're speaking at a conference, well, that's great for the people who go to the conference, but what about everybody else? Right. and, and blog posts tend to be somewhat ephemeral. So I was looking for something that would have a little bit more, more staying power to it. So it was a fall of 2012 and I got contacted by a state society to come and speak at their conference. And so we're talking about potential topics that I could cover. and did they want something that was sort of more, personal story inspirational or did they want them to be, it was a little bit more research-based and they, they said, all we know are, are. Opening keynote is going to be a little bit more of that personal story. So like, let's go with something a little bit more. Research-based we're bouncing some ideas around and I was like, well, look, what, what about this, this concept of information overload and, and content curation, and this is something that we're all dealing with. Both personally for ourselves and also as association professionals, trying to deal with our members and others audiences, you know? So what if I dive into that and look into that a little bit more and then, and then make the case for associations to begin focusing less on content creation and more on content duration. They're like, Oh yeah, that sounds, that sounds really interesting. So that ended up being the first white paper and I revisited that topic for the white paper that I turned out last year. Because so much had changed in the intervening eight years with regards to both the volume of information that we're dealing with, and also the association environment for doing content curation. But people are still interested in the topics. So I was like, Hm, I really need some updated information here and ended up revisiting that. But anyway so I, I went ahead and created that white paper for the event. And I, I will say I. Bombed at the safe society event. I have never bombed at a speaking gig like that before or since. But we did learn a very valuable lesson, which was that their audience really preferred, inspirational personal stories. But the thing that I took away from that other than, than, quizzing my, my potential. Speaking employers a little bit more closely about their audiences of what they really wanted was, Hey, this white paper thing is a pretty interesting idea. And I think this might be my thing, my thing that I'm going to create, that is that more lasting longer shelf life way of contributing to the body of knowledge and the association industry, which turned out to be the case.
Carol: Yeah. And now you have a, Oh, I'm going to have to wait a second. That changed something on one of the recordings and it started to give an echo. Yeah. So now you have quite the body of work yourself in terms of all of those white papers. And the one that you're currently working on is focusing on digital transformation. Could you say a little bit about what this is and why it's important to organizations.
Elizabeth: Yeah, absolutely. So, as you mentioned, there's now a pretty significant library. This is number 13, which I think is lucky. Yeah. And so, the, the topic, and, and as you mentioned earlier, it's across a really wide variety of topics. Because I basically look for something that, a major trend or something like that, that I think is either impacting or is about to impact the association industry, where I. I think that we're either not really paying attention to it the way we need to, or, or like with the blockchain white paper, it's something that's really nascent. When I have an opportunity to educate people about this or it's something where the existing literature and advice that's out there. Is maybe missing something and that's very much what was going on with taking on digital transformation. Digital transformation is not a new topic. This is something that organizations have been working on for at least six or eight years, in, in most cases. And so of course that, that immediately begs the question. Well then why, why bother right about this? Right? This is one of those cases where. In my view, the existing literature and advice and case studies and all that stuff that are out there about digital transformation or are missing something fundamental about associations. And that's actually part of the reason why I wanted to work with Maddie grant for this particular white paper. So, as you know pretty much all of my white papers. I worked with a co-author, we look to feature other experts in interviews within the white papers. We do case studies of organizations that are doing work in that area, et cetera. But, I matched my coauthor to my topic. And so, the thing that. Associations have not that that no one's been paying attention to for associations or writing about for associations is the issue of culture change with regards to digital transformation. So there's, one of Maddy's favorite sayings is digital transformation is culture change plus vendor selection. And the technology of culture change is, or of, of digital transformation is very important, obviously. But we do tend to have a little bit of shiny object syndrome and get very focused on the tech pieces of this. And, and we don't think enough about the culture change that's required in order to actually be a digitally transformed organization. And that's where the problem is for associations. The majority of the work. That is ecstatic about digital transformation from a for-profit perspective. That's why they miss that associations are unique. Our cultures are unique, are our relationships with our I'm making air quotes here. So people in the podcast onesies, but our, our customers are very different. A member of an association is not the same as a member of Costco. And all of the digital transformation work that's out there is about how do you deal with a member of Costco, not how do you deal with a member of an association? And so Maddie and I saw a real opportunity to say, okay, look, there's, there's good stuff out there about, you know the tech piece of this. And we do summarize a little bit of that in the white paper. There's good stuff out there about the techniques of this. Let's talk about what makes association culture unique. And then some of the kinds of things that you need to think about as an association executive in dealing with culture change in order to do that digital transformation to truly become a transformed organization, to one of the One of the, the experts that we spoke with for the white paper is a guy named Martin mocker, who a lot of association folks are familiar with the work of Dr. Jeannie Ross because she's been a speaker at some association tech conferences. But they write about digital transformation and the distinction that they make. And, and this is where the transformation piece happens. Is between being digitized and being digital and being digitized is the piece where, you're, you're grabbing all those shiny objects and you're doing exactly what you've always done, just using technology. So it's better in some way. And it tends to start with an internal focus. Like we're going to fix our internal processes and start. doing more, less stuff, analog and more stuff, digital internally. And then it works its way out into customer facing stuff. I remember facing stuff. But if you, if you want to be able to make the leap from getting some cool tech, let's do some stuff in a digital way that we used to do in an analog way versus. Becoming a transformed organization. It's, it's that leap to going digital that you have to make. That's where the culture piece comes in.
Carol: Well, you packed a lot in there. So I wanted to dial back to a couple of different things you talked about. Well, one was interesting and I'd love for you to unpack a little bit more about what you see as those unique aspects of an association and what makes them different from for-profit organizations.
Elizabeth: Sure and for folks who've been in associations for a number of years, this is all going to sound familiar, but it starts at the top. Right? Our relationships to our boards of directors are very different, first of all, plenty of for-profits are privately owned even though even those that are publicly traded that have a board of directors, their boards are very different than our boards. It's a very different relationship. And the board of directors of an association is much more directly the boss of the CEO or ED and the staff than happens in a for-profit company. So, it begins right at the top. The other thing is our, our, again - air quotes for the podcast folks. Our customers are members. They own the organization. If you're a quote unquote “member of Costco,” you don't have an ownership stake in Costco. Right. if you're, if you're an Amazon prime member, you don't have an ownership stake at Amazon, right? You truly, they're calling it a membership and that's all very lovely and it implies relationship, but you're a customer. And, and this is not to say that associations don't have customers. We absolutely do. But the membership relationship is what makes associations unique. And so, all of them. All of those pieces of the role of the board, the board to the CEO, executive director, the board of the staff, the members, how they relate as owners of the organization, all of this gives them a very different stake in decisions that the organization makes. And it also complicates the culture change picture because you have people who are not staff, but have a much greater investment than somebody who's. Stopping by your store to buy a book or whatever is in the organization. And so, that all has to be taken into account. When you're talking about intentionally designing your culture and then intentionally creating culture change.
Carol: Yeah. A couple of things come to mind there. You mentioned that you had interviewed me as part of that case study when I was at NAFSA and that's an association that's. Serves the international educator field. But what was, what was really interesting about that group? And I worked for a number of different organizations, different associations, and I'd never seen this before NAFSA. I don't know if it's still true today, but at least that the generation of members that I was working with would call themselves NAFSAs. And absence, like they've made a country they've made an identity about being part of that organization. So that sense of identifying with the organization, being part of it, being, seeing it, as I'm a member, I am part of this community. It is integral to how I think about my work. And I have some ownership stake in it. Even though I don't know that a lot of folks necessarily. Thought about it exactly that way. But they also, but in many ways they acted that way. They acted that they had that relationship. So, yeah. So super interesting about how, it can just, it's not just sending a check to get a membership, to get a magazine, when it, when it's, when it, well, honestly, when it's done well, right. When, when there really is that sense of identity and not just being a consumer.
Elizabeth: The reason that people associate is because they're trying to accomplish something that they have found either extremely difficult or impossible to associate on their own. So they're gathering with other people with similar interests. Well the very nature of trying to do that means that this has gotta be a long-term commitment, maybe not the rest of your life, but certainly, longer than making a consumer type purchase. And exactly as you, as you just express that can over time. Maybe not for everybody, but certainly for some people it becomes a part of your identity.
Carol: Yeah. And I also, what you were talking about made me think about just really any tech related project where you're trying to bring in something new, have people maybe use a tool, a new tool that will help them do the, hopefully, Obviously the idea usually is to help people do their job easier, better make things better for members for, for constituents. And at the same time folks get very focused on the technology. You get very focused on what are the features that we want, are we picking the right. The right vendor, are we picking the right software to do this job for getting that really what's way more important is after that decision is made, how are you helping people actually learn how to use the thing and integrated into how they're doing their work and, and accepted, adopted. And so it's not just this, shiny object you bought it. And then it's like, okay, now it's gathering dust. Well,
Elizabeth: and, it's, it's funny that you would use that example because that is a further illustration of the difference between a consumer relationship and a membership relationship. Right. if you think about it again, just as a sort of a regular person, your own experience, whatever, whatever vendor you like, that you, that you go to online regularly, they make a bunch of changes to their website and you're like, ah, I gotta figure out how to do the thing again. Like whatever thing it is you go to them to do. Like, I gotta figure out the thing again. Okay. Whatever association, I know that if we make significant changes to our websites and our members don't know, I like them, they're just gonna kinda shrug and be like, Oh, well I just have to, I have to figure out how to find the thing that I normally do here and whatever, it'll be fine. You know? My favorite example for that is like every time my, the, the airline that I usually fly that has where I have on my frequent flyer stuff. Like they make changes. I'm like, ah, crap. Okay. I'll figure it out. It's fine. Right. I don't call them up and chew them out on the phone. If I don't like it. If you do something like that for your members. They absolutely feel like they own the organization and they will call you up or email you and tell you what they think. Right. Because it's not just, Oh, the powers that be on high have done this. And I, the poor consumer, have no power in this situation. That's not it at all. Right. I'm a member. I'm a part owner of this organization. I have a say.
Carol: Yeah. And one of the things you talked about was the difference between being digitized and digital. Can you, can you say a little bit more again about what, what you see as the difference between those two and why that's important?
Elizabeth: Sure. And for people who really want to dig into this, I would definitely recommend that they check out the book. So I am getting the title of it right now. It is designed for digital, how to architect your business for sustained success. So that's by Dr. Jeanne Ross Cynthia and Martin Mocker who's the guy that we interviewed for the white paper
Carol: We’ll put links, we'll put links to that and the paper.
Elizabeth: Yeah. So the, the, the difference is going, B becoming digitized has to do with I'm taking analog functions. And I am now doing the exact same analog functions I was doing before only now I'm using technology to do them. So a great example of this is where I first started my career in association management. It was the mid nineties and we were doing all of our membership join and renew. Everything was entirely analog. Paper form, mail it in with your check to the lock box, the bank, kind of, deal. And yeah, mid nineties, right. That's pretty typical. We worked at associations and were sort of just venturing onto the web. We did have a website. It was your typical mid nineties. Brochureware so our, I arrive on the scene and I'm like, Hmm, I'll bet. Our members would like to be able to join and renew online. Well, let me, let me set up a test of this speaking of lean startup methodology, right. I just threw up a form that dumped all the information to an email. Yes. As a matter of fact, I was dumping unencrypted credit card numbers across the internet into an email that we then had to. Process, like we would print them out to the mall, to the lockbox for processing on the back end. So it was still a little analog there. But from the front end, from the, from the member's perspective, it looks quick digital. And so, that was, that was my, my test to say, Hey, like, nobody has this as a built-in feature of their association management system yet let's find out if it's worth building it. And in fact, it was like our, our members were very much people who wanted to be able to do this online. Then we had data. We were like, yes, we will pay to go ahead and build this because it's going to be worthwhile. But my point is that it’s becoming digitized. Right? We were, we had this analog membership program. We, now you can join and renew online, but it was, it's still the exact same membership. Like we weren't changing anything about the membership. We were just saying, Oh, well, instead of. Mailing in your form with your check to the lockbox, which by the way, you can still do if you want to do this online with your credit card and be fancy and fast, we can, we can do that. Right. That's becoming digitized, becoming digital, has to do with a mind shift. it’s actually the construction specifications Institute story from the, from the the white paper, their, their crosswalk platform illustrates this pretty well. It's about shifting your mindset to say no. What we are going to do is we are going to think differently about our members and our other audiences about how we interact with them, about how they want to interact with each other, being aware of what the technology enables at this point to create entirely new ways. Entirely new programs, products, and services, entirely new ways of building networks and relationships, entirely new ways of creating knowledge, entirely new ways of organizing ourselves, entirely new ways of creating group action that are digital from the start. That to me, that's the transformation bit because it, because you have to change your mind about all this stuff. It’s changing business processes as well, and it's changing product development and all that, but, and this gets back to culture, change, change. It's a complete shift in the way you think about things and view the world.
Carol: Yeah. And what I appreciated about that story. And, and if I can, let's see if I get it right. In terms of my summary, they saw a problem that all their members were having. The problem wasn't necessarily an in, in their work. So out, out in their world, not necessarily about how the association works, but how their members were doing work in the world with a whole bunch of other folks who weren't necessarily members of that association, but lots of different other types of professionals that their members had to work with and how they all had their own way of I guess one Version that everyone could relate to would be the multiple times. You have to fill out your medical history at every doctor that you go to. Right? So all of these different people were, were, were managing information, managing inventory in different ways and had different systems, different technology. So they didn't build something to take over all of those things, but they built a bridge. Building those, what are they called? APIs. Yep.
Elizabeth: Advanced Programming interfaces.
Carol: Yep. Right? So that translation to go back and forth between those different systems, which really transformed how people were doing their work in the field.
Elizabeth: Yeah. And, and honestly, I mean, this is something anybody who's ever done, any home renovation project could totally relate to this. Right. like, so construction specifications Institute, this is guidelines the, the things, the regulations that keep large-scale construction processes. And ensure that you have a good result on the end bridge that doesn't fall down a size skyscraper that doesn't collapse, et cetera. Right. And so anybody who, anybody who's ever done a home renovation project knows how this goes, right? You've got your general contractor that you've got a zillion subcontractors, they're all doing different pieces of the project. And they all have their own systems and their own processes and their own ways of doing things and, and all that. And, unless you are a crazy person and decide to act as your own general contractor, that's what your general contractor is doing is managing all of that for you, right? They're not telling the carpenter or the tile guy or the electrician or the plumber or whatever, how to do their job, or what processes they should use. They manage it for you. Well, CSI construction specifications Institute saw the opportunity to do it. Similar thing for large scale construction projects, where there's everybody from architects and engineers to, all, all of the other types of things that you would think about that would be involved in building something like a skyscraper or a tunnel or a bridge or whatever. And they saw an opportunity to create that shared platform for them to be passing information back and forth so that everybody can still use. The systems that make them happy and the programs that they like to use and can still manage the information internally the way they like to. But all of a sudden, we're all sharing it across this, this bridge platform where it cuts down on waste to time, it reduces risk. It cuts down on errors, and, and this has been it's, it's a completely different way of thinking because. Carol as you just articulated, most of those other players are not and will never be CSI members. But this is an opportunity to create something that serves the entire industry vertical soup to nuts.
Carol: What'd you say are some of the either misconceptions or mistakes that associations make when they. think, okay, well we need to, maybe we've started on some digitizing, but we really want to shift more to this larger transformation moving towards the digital process. Yeah.
Elizabeth: The most obvious one is the shiny object syndrome. Right. Like we noticed something going on and so we grab a piece of technology and slap it on there and we're like, we're, we're done. Yay. Go us. Yeah, that's, that's not gonna transform your organization. That's the thing to get you in the trouble that you mentioned earlier. Oh, and we had this great idea and if no one's using it we've, we've slapped some technology technological bandaid on a problem that we noticed and, and so I think that's one of the main challenges that we face is, you've got to think about this in a much more strategic way. One of the things that Maddie and I stress in the white paper is that you don't want to have a strategy for digital or a strategy for mobile or a strategy for social or a strategy for AI or whatever, right? Like you, you have your larger organizational strategy and you're looking for how to do things like mobile and social and web and AI and internet of things and data analytics and all that. Like how do they fit into and contribute to your larger organizational strategy. And so as I always try to do with, with the white papers, the final section of this is very much the, okay. All of this information that you've shared with me was lovely and interesting. And I see what you're thinking here, but like, what do I actually do? And so, and we, we lay it right out in a very clear series of steps. You have to start with assessing where you are, if you don't, if you, if you don't know where you are and where you're trying to go, any path is the right path and the wrong path. And you're going to end up in places that you had no necessary intent of ending up. So you've got it. You've got to know where you are right now, before you can figure out where you're going to go. And some associations when they do that, they're going to discover, what. We've got work to do on digitization. First, one of our other stories, the independent community bankers association was very much what my friend, her boss, who works there discovered when he, when he was hired, like we have to, we have to digitize first. Like there's some internal stuff going on here that we're going to have to fix before we can look to trains. Right. But because he assessed, he knew that. Then you got to move on to things like getting support resources. You need to look for strategic areas where all those digital technologies, social, mobile, mobile, mobile data analytics, all the stuff that I just mentioned could contribute, could help, could help fix things. You're going to have to take a look at what's going on with your legacy processes, because you may find yourself in that. Digitization work to do first before we can go digital. Right. But you need to, you need to take a look at that. Then you're going to have to, in addition to getting some sort of leadership support and financial resources, you're also going to have to assemble your team like Avengers unite, right? Like you've got to have Avengers assemble, right? Like you've got to, you got to get your Avengers together. And this is one of the Association cultural things. It's not just going to be staff. You're also going to need to be recruiting volunteers and rank and file members on to your team. Because that's one of the things that's different about our culture. Then you've got to get into that experimental framework and consider how this is all going to affect your culture and engage in that process of intentional culture change in order to get you to the ends that you, that you envisioned when you did that sort of strategic look and how can these technologies contribute to the organizational strategic goals we're already trying to achieve.
Carol: And one of the things that I think people have been advocating for for a long time in the association space, and then the nonprofit space more generally is really, making having staff and boards volunteers make more data driven, driven decisions rather than, Well, the last member who happened to call you and, and, and, and bend your ear relying on those anecdotes and what are, what are some of the key barriers that you see to really effectively using the data that or organizations actually already have?
Elizabeth: Oh man. How much time do you have, especially the TA. This specifically is the topic of one of my earlier white papers on evidence-based decision-making that I wrote with Peter household from Mariner management. Yeah, this is a challenge, right? Speaking of legacy systems this for associations is, is one of the big ones. And we actually talk about this quite a bit in the white paper, because, Consumer businesses would kill to get the data that we have on our members, because we have obviously, again, not with everybody, but for a significant portion of your membership, you have a very long-term relationship with those people where they've been. Doing all sorts of different stuff with you for years. And they've, and, and this is, this is actually born out in some of the, the other studies that we referenced, the white paper that have been done by community brands. But the other thing is our members are more willing to share their data with us. Austin. They are with most consumer brands because they trust us. And they are particularly willing to share their data with us if we're transparent about how we intend to use it. And it's clear that the reason that we're asking for this is in order to provide them with better service, better programs and products, et cetera. so we've, we've got a treasure trove of data. The problem is, one of the, the technology pieces of, of digital transformation. Is data analytics. And as an industry, we've been lagging on that. Some of that is because we have a lot of legacy systems that were built in, in exclusion of each other. And so they don't talk to each other particularly well. And if you can look at the history of association management, Systems and, for, for a while, there was this trend of, we're going to do everything in the AMS and we're going to build everything that is part of the AMS. Anything you could possibly think of, you might want to do with your members is going to be a module. Right. And we pretty quickly all realized that was a terrible idea. So, people went back to more of a, okay, so, we need to. Run conference registration. So we're gonna, we're going to get a best of breed conference registration system, and we need to run professional development. So we're going to get a best of breed learning management system, and we need to manage the content on our website. So we're going to get a best of breed, every content management system there, and, and realizing that it's, it's better to do it that way than to try to have this one mammoth piece of software that handles everything. But the problem is, those things don't always communicate with each other particularly well. So, back to it, we've got this wonderful treasure trove of data, but none of it's talking to each other and we have, have lacked the capacity to figure out how to make that happen. Now we're seeing even, even when Peter and I wrote the evidence-based decision-making white paper a couple of years ago, we're seeing more of a movement towards. Speaking of a crosswalk type platform, something that's, that's on top of all of those things and they don't have to talk to each other, they all just have to talk to this shared platform, and we're seeing that with everything from, actual business analytics tools to data visualization tools and, and so my, My encouragement to associations would be to keep going on that route, to keep, keep looking at those business information and business analytics tools, get educated about them, just dive in and pick one and find somebody on it. Staff, who's interested in learning about it, and just like, just start going and see what you can do and what you can learn and what insights you can gather. So that's that piece of it. The other piece of it is the questions, right? Because it's all just a big pile of data. If you don't know what it is that you're trying to find out. And so in the midst of finding yourself good data, visualization to want a good business information tool and finding somebody on your staff. Who's interested in learning how to use them and, getting them some training and setting them loose and all that. But like all that stuff is good. Right. You also want to think about what are the questions that we are trying to answer about our members and other audiences and what data do we need. In order to answer those questions. And so one of the things that Peter and I very much argue for in the data-driven decision-making white paper is spend more time on the front end asking better questions, because then back to that whole thing of our members being willing to give us data. If we know why. We want it. You'll have a better question that you're asking. So you'll be asking for more targeted data with a clear, this is why we need it, which means people will be more willing to give it to you. Which means you'll be able to have a better answer to the question because you'll be operating from a fuller picture of what's going on.
Carol: Well, and that all goes back to, strategy from the beginning of thinking about, where, where, where are you right now doing that assessment. And, and maybe you need to go back and do your homework and, and, and do more digitizing, maybe work on your data, silos, those kinds of things. Before you can really shift into transformation. But, really having that assessment of where you are and then working together to figure out what's the vision for where we want to end up.
So I'd like to shift gears a little bit at this point. And I always like to ask, I have a box of random ice - they're not random because they wrote them all, but I randomly picked them out of the box of icebreaker questions and always like to end the podcast with one of those. So, I was about to ask you, if you could write a book, what would it be about? But you told me you didn't want to write a book. So I won't ask you that one. So who in your life inspires you to be better?
Elizabeth: Ooh, that's a good one. So many people and now I'm going to have to pick one. This is good. This is going to be trite, but that's okay. It's, it's probably my spouse. So He, he historically has believed in me way more than I believed in myself. The perfect, the perfect story of that being, when I, when I was first thinking about starting the business, I, at the time I wasn't thinking about starting spark consulting, I was thinking about it was time to move on to a different association job. Yeah. It's not there. Yeah. I got my resume to go on talking to people and meeting with recruiters and submitting resumes and whatnot. And, as I'm starting to tell people in my network, Hey I think it's time for me to move on. The almost immediate response from everyone was, so you're gonna start your own consulting business. Right. And I was like, Oh no, I was going to go work at another association. And so finally I was meeting a friend of mine who is a recruiter for lunch. And I said, Hey, We're going to move on and she's like, okay, so you're gonna start your own consulting business. Right. And I'm like, you're like the 10th person who's asked me that. Could you please tell me what I'm seeing or what you're seeing about this whole situation that I am missing. And she did, she did. She laid out some really great advice for me and everything. And I was like, Hmm. Okay. I really thought about this a little more seriously when I came home that night. And we had friends over for dinner and, we had a nice dinner and we're cleaning up whatever, and it's like time to go to bed, you know? So as we're getting to bed, I say to him, I'm like yeah, I had lunch with my friends this afternoon. And I'm thinking that maybe I want to start my own business and he looks at me and he's like, I think you'd be great at that. You should totally do that. And it turns off the light and I'm like, this man believes in me. Right. If he, if he believes in me to this level, I need to believe in myself to this level. And that, that level of confidence in me and confidence that I'm going to make the right decision and do the right thing, inspires me to make sure that I do
Carol: Awesome. Well, what's, what's coming up for you next. What are you excited about in your work?
Elizabeth: Getting this white paper launched. So yes, for the, for the, the listeners of the pod it is going to be coming out right around June 1st. So we're, we're very excited about that. And then Carol, as you mentioned, it's freely available you don't even end up on a mailing list. I mean, you can just have it, like, I don't, I don't collect your data or anything like that. You can, you can just have it. So definitely getting, getting that launched and also watching the association industry begin sort of poking our heads out post pandemic. This is no great secret, but for a lot of small consultants 2020 was a pretty rough year because associations very much went into hunker down and try not to panic mode. So for a lot of us. 2020 was a little challenging. Totally understandable. Right, when an association doesn't know what's going to be happening and they may even be having lay off staff, they're not looking to be hiring outside help. But I'm, I'm watching again, more associations start poking their heads out, Looker, looking around and start thinking about, okay, we're, we're moving into whatever the post pandemic is going to look like. And now thinking about some of this stuff that we just, for a year, like, We just we're in survival mode here, man. We can't think about any of these things. So yeah, I'm just, I'm looking forward to, to all of that. And seeing where we go as an industry because and this is, this is something we talk about in one of the other case studies in the white paper associations had to make a lot of changes, really fast. And that we, some of them were good choices and good changes, and some of them were less so, right. Like we did not have the luxury of sitting around and assessing everything and, like we had to move right now. And so I'm also really interested to see. See kind of, what's going to stick and what's not going to stick. I'm very curious about that. Yeah, so I'm, I'm eager to see how that all plays out too.
Carol: Yeah, I think that's going to be, I think that's what a lot of people are thinking about right now. And I'm asking the question of kind of, well, we, we, we suddenly, well, one, we suddenly enacted changes that perhaps a few people had been talking about for years and we'd been ignoring them and then overnight we had to do them But then, what do we want to keep? What helps us in terms of maybe being more efficient including more people. But then where is it really important? basically like working remotely or, and doing virtual events. No, where is it really important for people to be in the room together? And, my one wish if, if, if this can happen, it will be just amazing that people start being much more intentional about why are we getting all these people on a train, plane, automobile to come together and be together? And then the answer should not be to sit and listen to a lecture that they could have watched at home since that's what we've done for the past year. That could be the change that comes out of this for organizing patients and their, their convenience and meanings. I would be very excited.
Elizabeth: Yep. Three things related to that. Right? Number one, the whole thing of, anytime you're having a meeting, look around the table, think about how much each of those people is paid per hour and how long you got from there. And that is the actual cost of that meeting. Right. And we don't think about that enough, this flight-shaming becoming a thing. Right. We have to think about the climate impact of our travel, nowadays, I mean, that's, that's very much, much a thing. And there's the issue of being able to include more voices.
Carol: Yeah. All right. Well, thank you so much. It was great to have you on, and we'll definitely put links into the book that you mentioned, and to the white paper when it comes out and more generally to the rest of them so that people can have access to all that wonderful, all those wonderful resources that you've been producing over the years. But thank you so much for coming
Elizabeth: on. Yeah. Thank you for having me and, and, I made these for you also. Please take them.
Elizabeth: Thanks Carol.
Carol: Thank you.
I appreciate Elizabeth’s focus on organizational culture change if an organization is going to truly transform digitally. It is not just about shifting internal processes from analog to digital – it is really thinking differently about how you are using technology to support your mission – and that could have much broader implications than just improving internal processes. Any one who has worked on a technology project knows how easy it is to get caught up in worrying about making the right decision about what system to choose to achieve your goals – whether it is what fundraising software, what customer management system or what team collaboration tool you are going to use – and then what vendor will be the right one to properly service the system. But even if you make the ‘perfect’ decision if you do not bring folks along with you and consider the changes from their perspective, you may find that they do not see the change as the wonderful innovation or improvement that you do. Have you given thought and time to think about how a group will adapt to the new system? What it will mean in terms of their day to day? Can you find a few champions who will lead the way and demonstrate its value to those who are reluctant to jump in? The objects are a lot less shiny when folks won’t use them and they do not end up solving the problem you thought they would – not because the tech can’t do it -but because it is too much hassle for your teammates to take the time to learn the tech and it not an urgent need for them. This past year demonstrated just how quickly people can learn new technology such as Zoom when it is a burning need. So it is not really about whether people can – it is really rather – is it important for them to do so? If not – how can you help them see the importance?
Thank you for listening to this episode. It’s an honor for you to spend this time with me. You can find the links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. I want to thank Nora Strauss-Riggs for their support in editing and production as well as April Koester of 100 Ninjas for her production support. If you enjoyed this episode, it would be great if you would share it with a colleague or friend or on social media – please tag us if you do! We really appreciate you helping us get the word out.
In episode 18 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guests, Shelley Sanner and Alanna McKee discussed include:
Shelley Sanner, CAE, MA, Senior Vice President, Industry Relations:
As senior vice president of industry relations, Shelley fosters knowledge-sharing and partnerships to promote innovation and excellence within the association industry. Her main areas of focus include identifying association challenges and trends and translating them into resources that benefit the community at-large. She also coordinates McKinley’s presence at events and within industry publications to ensure that we serve as a resource to the community on best practices and other insights.
Before joining McKinley in 2007, Shelley served as Membership Director at a higher education association. On a national level, Shelley has served in various volunteer leadership positions, taught courses and presented at many industry events. She has a Master’s in liberal studies from Georgetown University and an undergraduate degree from Juniata College, where she majored in French and education.
Alanna Tievsky McKee, MSW, Director:
As a director within the consulting department, Alanna leads client engagements designed to maximize organizational efficiency and mission impact. She brings a creative and thoughtful approach to each of her clients, combining skills acquired through her training and experience as a consultant, clinician, and coach. During her time at McKinley, she has nurtured an expertise in member engagement and retention, strategic planning, governance and staff and volunteer leadership facilitation.
Alanna has worked in and with the nonprofit sector for more than a decade and has supported nearly 100 unique associations as a member of the McKinley team. She is a social worker by trade and feels passionate about helping individuals and organizations solve challenges and reach their full potential. Alanna holds an MSW from the University of Pennsylvania with a concentration in nonprofit management and a B.A. in developmental neuropsychology from the University of Rochester.
Contact our Guests
Carol Hamilton: Welcome Shelley and Alanna to the podcast. Great to have you on today.
Shelley Sanner and Alanna McKee: Thanks for having us.
Carol: I’d just like to start out and for each of you, ask what drew you to the work that you do, what motivates you and what would you say is your why? Shelly, why don't you go first.
Shelley: I'm thinking of my colleague who is waiting for their CAE exam results right now. So that's probably top of mind but yeah, the CAE was really a pivotal moment for me. I passed the exam and I was in a large higher ed association. I realized that I knew a lot more after having taken the exam than I did before. I wanted to become more of a generalist and in a larger association, sometimes it's hard to grow and move up and have more oversight over areas. A friend and colleague of mine through ASAE reached out and said, ‘I think you might be interested in my company.’ And it was McKinley. That’s what brought me to McKinley 13 years ago.
Carol: Could you just tell people what the CAE and ASAE are?
Shelley: Sure! ASAE is an association for association professionals. So anyone working in an association at any level could join, and the CAE is Certified Association Executive, and it means that you've made a commitment to stay in the field. Technically it means that you have aspirations to one day lead an association, but a lot who passed the exam or take the exam, moved from industry roles to consulting like I did.
Carol: How about for you Alanna?
Alanna: Yeah! I took a fortuitous path to get to McKinley. I started my career as a clinical social worker, working with students in schools and ran into so many systemic policy issues that, at a certain point, I decided I needed to make change at a higher level. So I went into an association and worked on mental health policy. Eventually I heard about McKinley and really saw it as an opportunity to affect change of the world at an even higher level than I was doing at my job at the association. I'm a firm believer that associations make the world go round. They impact every industry and profession that we have, and I see my role as supporting associations doing their best work. So I'm really driven by my opportunity to better every profession or industry that I touch throughout that association.
Carol: So often I feel like I have to explain to people what associations are often starting like: well, what's the field that you're in? Then, so are you a member of an organization that brings everybody in your field together? Okay. Well that means that you're a part of an association. And if one were to fall apart, someone else would say, ‘shouldn't we all be working together towards common goals’ and they'd recreate it. So, what, what would you say since you've got that higher-level view of working with lots of different clients in the association space, what would you say are some of the key trends that you've been noticing over the last couple of years as you've been working with clients?
Alanna: Sure. So one, is this a real focus from the member standpoint on customer service and customer experience? I think this is a trend that we're seeing outside of the association space, but just generally in how we like to operate with the organizations and businesses that we buy from, or the restaurants we go to. I think Amazon has really created an incredible standard in terms of the customer experience. It is so easy to buy something from Amazon and our expectations as a customer or stakeholder. We want our association to deliver that same experience and ensure our website that the opportunity to engage in education, networking that we're consistently delivering a really strong customer experience with best in class customer service is necessary. So that's definitely one of the themes I'm noticing. Another would be that this previous approach of ‘one size fits all’ really doesn't work anymore. Our associations are becoming more diverse in terms of the stakeholder groups that are encompassed within an association. Those groups have very unique needs and preferences that we have to address. It's our responsibility to have a comprehensive understanding of the unique groups within our membership and deliver experiences that are meaningful and that support those groups’ needs to the best of our ability.
Carol: Shelly, do you have other observations?
Shelley: It gets to the heart of the value proposition. I think it's really customized because it's something people have created for themselves. I've been thinking recently about what I'm missing right now in my professional career and my professional development. It's the fact that I used to go to face-to-face meetings and, organically or intentionally, run into a lot of people I knew. That was the same network that introduced me to McKinley and got me my job. It's the same network that has mentored me, has supported me, has taught me things has really upped the game in some cases. I feel like this past year - and hopefully on into the future - there's been this renewed focus on humanity like that. We are human beings and people have really struggled over the past year. There's been more transparency around those struggles and honesty around that. There's also the need to connect with others, which is such a basic need, but it's something we realized we took for granted. I wonder, how can associations take the model that they have in place and this incredible ability to convene people, and through no direct action, connect people together just to provide a forum for people to meet each other. What does it mean to young professionals who don't have that? They're not going to face-to-face meetings and making connections with future employers or mentors or peers. What does that gap look like and how can association really get at the heart of humanity and get to the heart of the emotional or psychological challenges and struggles that people have and really create a stronger emotional bond and build that loyalty and that engagement with the association? I don't have an answer to that. It's actually something that's been in the back of my head, but it really struck me recently that I think there's something there because the associations are well poised to leverage that and strengthen that sense of community.
Carol: Yeah. But in terms of that humanization and being so limited now, in terms of only being able to connect people with people remotely through screens, through virtual meetings, the things that work that are hard to do and yet easy to do in terms of delivering content and information, and knowledge which has always been central to associations, has been able to continue and organizations where I participated in virtual conferences this year. Organizations did a great job of pivoting quickly to that. And yet all that hidden part, or maybe it wasn't visible because we hadn't yet missed it. It was that thing that suddenly was gone: the face-to-face meeting of the person that you meet at the cocktail hour, or in line for coffee, or all those kinds of things. In the virtual space, having to be much more intentional about how you help people create those connections, I think it can be done. I think it just hasn't - I don't know that it hasn't been created, I'm sure that there's somebody who's doing a good job in that already - but there are new tools or new ways of convening that need to be imagined so that that social aspect and that emotional aspect you're talking about can really be addressed and incorporated in a more intentional and explicit way, because I think that that desire to associate often comes from not wanting to feel alone in whatever struggles you're having in your profession.
Shelley: Yeah. And if I could give another example, because I realized there were two things embedded in what I was saying, one is that we're all individuals and that humanization piece, and then the idea of community and connecting. I remember doing a focus group - it was probably 10 years ago - it was for a healthcare association, extremely high-achieving medical professionals, doctors. I remember in the focus group a woman saying, ‘when this association first introduced a dedicated room for nursing mothers, my loyalty went up exponentially. And I knew I could continue to come to this meeting and it changed my whole sense of how this association understood and was accommodating and thinking about me.’
I think about that now with parents trying to work and be successful and continue to advance in their careers with their kids at home, struggling and trying to learn. Does the association acknowledge that formally to show that we understand that this is a challenge and then try to create a community of support or try to help solve those challenges for trade association. What's the future of the workplace? We're trying to figure that out at McKinley. Could a trade association help its members? Figure that out and come up with a few models. That's being able to rapidly adapt by paying attention and listening to what people really need as individuals or as a collective.
Carol: And I think that goes to something that Alanna said around that customization that people expect and that personalization of dialing into the subsets of membership. So the woman who talked about the organization having a room for nursing. She may not have reflected the majority of that association at that point, and yet it was meeting a need that she had. So it helped her feel more connected, and that sense of belonging.
Alanna: Shelly, your thoughts also crystallize another theme that I've been seeing, not only in the association space, but generally the world, which is that younger generations are really focused on what companies or organizations are doing to better the world. Tom's is a great example of that. The shoe brand that donates a pair of shoes for everyone that's bought. For those who are super bowl fans, you've probably heard that Coke and Budweiser and several other organizations are not having commercials to promote their products this year. They are reallocating that money to support communications around the COVID-19 vaccine. That is a clear way that they're taking a stand to say, ‘hey, we hear you world. And we're going to do our part to support our communities, to support the health of our communities and better the world.’ Associations are perfectly positioned to do that same work, whether it is, volunteer opportunities for members, or thinking about how their specific industry perhaps impacts the environment. It will be increasingly important that associations consider how they can not just support their specific profession or industry, but their communities, country, or world at large, because this is something that's increasingly important to their customer base and may make or break the decision to engage as a member or customer.
Carol: Yeah. And when you look at the research around what motivates people, having a sense of a connection to purpose and mission is really key. I think younger generations, they're just more willing to put that upfront where folks in the past may not have felt like they had the agency to say ‘no, I need that.’ Yeah. What’s Shelly’s perspective on that?
Shelley: I agree with that. I was thinking about one of the other themes that's all over the literature and people are talking about it quite a bit. It relates less to the mission of the organization, or the brand, or the position of the organization. And that's been fascinating to watch, which associations are in this incubator. Over the past year, the whole world was in an incubator. The world changed so rapidly and radically. I mean, we all knew something was coming at McKinley of course, we said, ‘there's gonna be another downturn,’ economists were saying that also, but who would have ever thought it would have looked like it did and that it would have had so many prongs to it that fundamentally changed how we lived our lives every day. We've been really fascinated by associations in their response to that. And associations are made up of people who lead or execute, and this whole idea of creating an association that is something different from what it is today. So I think that the majority of association professionals we might talk to would say, ‘well, we should be more nimble and we should be more diversified.’ And I think that that is certainly a lesson learned. I think sometimes there are pitfalls of categorizing it or labeling it in that way, because we know that a lot of associations that were really diversified in their revenue portfolios actually struggled throughout COVID because those non-dues products were not successful. They didn't see the same numbers or had to really reduce fees for them. There seems to be the shift back to the core membership and how important that is as a concept, but also how important it is to have some dues revenue, not 95% dependency on dues, but also not 95% dependency on a trade show and the sponsorships that come with a trade show and everything affiliated with that. Then the idea of a nimble organization. We're definitely seeing that. It's one thing to say, ‘let's be more nimble,’ but how do you really create that environment and create the processes to support that? In some cases, how do you create the mindset and the people who are leading it, or the people who are working for that organization. That's been fascinating to watch and there are certainly resources out there that help create the discipline around it. The characteristics of CEOs or other leaders that translate in the depth into that type of a culture. I think change management is a big piece of it. How do you actually move that organization in the direction more than just the systems you might put in place, but it's certainly the culture and the change management. And then creating a structure that can ensure that the organization can continue to adapt in the future as it needs to, there's a lot of associations that look very similar to what they did 20 years ago or 10 years ago. There's not a lot of impetus to change an association sector.
Carol: Also, structurally there's a lot of things that actually impede any kind of nimbleness or being able to change rapidly. It's almost like the purpose of the Senate: to slow everything down, like the distributed democracy or the board, the relationship between the board and the leadership team and all of those different stakeholders that you have to take into consideration just means that everything takes longer. It is something like a crisis that then enables organizations to rapidly move from one state to another, where there were a lot of organizations that had been doing online learning for the last two decades, but it was always a minority of organizations, maybe a small portion of what they were doing. And then suddenly everybody had to figure out how to do it.
Alanna: Yeah, this idea of being nimble and agile, it's just so important considering the rapid pace of change going on in the world today and the volatility of our markets and industries there. Shelly touched on. Some really critical points around the culture piece and change management. When we talk about that and McKinley, this idea of having a nimble culture, we're asking, are we empowering our staff to execute their role? Do we have a culture of risk-taking and inquiry? Those are the kinds of building blocks to create this culture of being able to execute your work and doing it efficiently and effectively. Governance is also a huge part of this as well. Associations are very good at having bylaws that haven't been touched in years outside of having more and more policies and regulations added to them. So it's a great opportunity to dust those off and see, we built systems that support rapid decision-making and change. Or have we created a system that slows us down and prevents that agile, nimble execution?
Carol: I really appreciate what you're saying about, it's easy to say ‘we should be more nimble. We should be able to move and be innovative and all of those things, big big catch words, but really digging into what are the behaviors, what are the mores within an organizational culture that actually supports that? Or does the opposite, right? If it's not okay for anyone to make a mistake and admit it, you're not going to have a real risk-taking culture then.
Alanna: And, in order to be nimble and agile and stay effective, your organization also needs to have a solid strategic plan. So I think that the idea of having a strategic plan has become increasingly important as well. Knowing what your organization's goals are for the next three years, let's say, and having a clear charge for staff volunteer leaders. Ensuring alignment from top to bottom, for those organizations that don't have a strategic plan and are saying, well, I just don't know that this is the right time because of the volatility that's going on in the marketplace. Rather pace of change. Well, strategic plans are also meant to be nimble and agile. They're not something that's set in stone and put on the shelf. They should be revisited quarterly or yearly to make sure that they're still appropriate. Given what's going on in the world around you, there's something that can be changed, but it's that guiding light that is going to unify the individual, the staff and volunteer leaders that work on your organization to ensure that we're all reaching that common goal. And for those organizations that do have an existing strategic plan that was perhaps created before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it's time to dust that off and take a look and, and make sure that it's still appropriate. Given what's going on in the world around you, I've worked with a handful of organizations. That needed to take a hard look. And in some cases it meant new priorities and letting go of others. For some, it was that the priority, these didn't change, but how the association was going to achieve those priorities, that shifted the approach. And having that clear plan to guide the organization forward I think, is critical. Then having the systems in place to execute your work in a nimble and agile way rounds it out.
Carol: Yeah. I think there's a temptation to throw the baby out with the bath water with, well, it's, everything's changing so fast right now. We can't possibly do planning. But yeah, strategic planning is more about setting some intention, setting some direction, creating some parameters, and it actually does help to what you were talking about before of empowering employees. If they know what the whole organization is moving towards and they have clarity around that. Then they have more agency to be able to step into their role and really fully execute it.
Alanna: That's exactly right.
Shelley: It's ironic but, to be more nimble, you really have to be more disciplined.
Carol: Say more about that because I think most people wouldn't see those two coming together.
Shelley: Being able to have a level of nimbleness requires an upfront. Dialogue and investment of time and development of structure to guide that otherwise nimbleness could take you in a lot of different directions with people moving within their departments into different areas and interpreting things differently. So it's like creating the glue that will bind everything together and then really. Putting it all together and having it be more solid. And another way to look at this is the re-skilling of professions and industries. That advocacy is always really important to associations. I mean obviously, the lobbying that happens, the presence on the Hill, those fly-ins that associations have, where they bring their members together to meet with Congress is so critical because people feel marginalized in their roles or they feel like they are not getting their burdensome regulations, or they're not being acknowledged in the way that they need to be. I think about all the hiring that Amazon is doing, and particularly in the shipping and delivery area, it's guaranteed that those people are going to be out of work within the next couple of years, because Amazon is absolutely going to automate that. They're going to automate delivery. They're going to automate shipping and packing. And so what happens to those people who during a crisis, struggled to find work and maybe found that field and entered that industry and now are going to have to reinvent themselves. It absolutely happened for meeting planners. This year. So it happens within the association community, but then it's also happening within the industry and the field. And if an association is not tight in terms of its own focus and its own approach to looking at the products and services it's offered, it's going to really struggle to be able to lead the industry or the field forward as that profession changes. So there are two ways of looking at the importance of nimbleness and looking at the importance of being disciplined to get to the nimble place.
Carol: Yeah. And I think going back to what you were saying before, in terms of being involved in workforce development and thinking about the field more broadly, you're serving the field. How are you part of essentially leading the field and being ready for things that are coming down the pike and making those necessary changes? What would you say are some of the ways we've been talking about them? What about other changes that the associations need to make to really adapt to these trends that we've been talking about this morning?
Alanna: I'd say one is really making a commitment to leveraging data, to improve your organization's performance. That's everything from collecting market research to understanding the needs of your membership so that you can deliver that customized experience to collecting data, to inform your strategic plan and tracking your progress towards achieving your goals.
Carol: So, Shelly: adaptations that associations are having to make in light of these changes, in light of these trends?
Shelley: I definitely agree with Alanna. We haven't talked about inclusion and diversity, but I mean, how can we get through a conversation without mentioning it? And associations are struggling to capture that demographic information, not everyone wants to share it, but I think there's so much to learn from this whole DEI movement, because a lot that's happening around that. It has to be more than just a statement or pledge. It has to be action. Well, that's the case for anything that you promise to your membership or make a commitment to advance for them? Capturing data and thinking about a baseline. If an association didn't capture data before COVID, it would probably be pretty disappointing because you couldn't go back and see how things changed or you can't necessarily see action and outcome and how those might be correlated because of something that you did. So I definitely agree. The data is really important. Obviously the mental health aspect of our current climate and how leaders can continue to rally volunteers and staff. I read an article recently about managers and leaders really trying to get into the thick of it with their staff and their teams, because it's not going to be enough to say, Oh, we're going to get through this. Like people realize this is very prolonged. And even when it gets better, it's not going to be better in the sense of what we knew before. So how to adapt the approach to communication and transparency and engagement of a team and motivating a team. I think that's going to need to change. And then I would just say an association really needs to look at its systems and its structure and its business model. So again, like so many organizations just get burnout or excited about the next new thing. And if you take some of these trends, we're talking about coming into a nimble organization, or really having an impact around DEI or the value proposition and being more customer centric, like a lot was talking about. You can't just do that for a couple of months and then move on to a new trend. Those have to be really embedded within the organization. People need to know how to execute on that. There needs to be a spotlight on that and accountability around that so that the organization can really fully realize the impact of it.
Carol: Anything you wanted to add Alanna?
Alanna: Yeah. So I couldn't agree more now is that a time to really invest in the organization to ensure that you're able to capitalize on these opportunities and, and thrive during this challenging time. So making sure that your staff have what they need to execute their role, that the systems are in place to support them, that they have a clear charge that they have the resources they need. Governance is another really important area that I think often gets overlooked. Our volunteer leaders are critical to the success of our organization and how much time have we invested in ensuring that they can do their best work. So do they have the orientation and training? They need to understand their role and how they're going to support the organization. Do you have ongoing training to refine the skills necessary to execute their role? Do they have a clear charge? And are they being held accountable for the work within their committee or the work of the board? I did now, was it a great time to invest in those foundational elements of our organization? Because ultimately they are critical to the success of our governance and of our staff and ensuring that we're able to execute on all of the work that we've, that we've just described.
Carol: I think it's all about moving to being more intentional about those things, because especially as the face-to-face gathering together where those things might have happened a little more informally they, they need to be embedded and, and planned for without, without being able to rely on that face-to-face -- informal mentoring that might happen or other training that might happen.
Shelley: I was going to say, we don't necessarily need to include this, but I feel like I would really like to share it that last time it was at an HOA virtual board meeting. And it's just people from my community, the few who are willing to give us some time. And I, I really flipped my perspective and because the secretary probably talked for 90% of the agenda, And I thought, this is so relevant and familiar because we see it at McKinley with boards, and we can, it's really palpable when you go into a board meeting and you have. Individuals who are, have had a career of being highly involved in volunteer leadership roles, or they've been forced to really look with oversight across their own organizations, just by nature of the role versus those that haven't had a lot of experience to that. And it's no judgment on those people. They're just not as familiar. And if you step into board and there's a culture that's been set and you start talking about. You know the color of the table clothes or where you're going to take the next annual meeting. You think that that's your role to play? And so what Alanna said about board orientation, it's such a small thing, but it is like an essential thing to make sure that volunteer leaders know what they need to do. And also that they're set up for success because you're not going to be successful without having more information than an understanding of, of where you need to focus.
Carol: And I think so often organizations really focus on orienting people to the organization itself and the work, and they forget to orient board members to their role from a governance perspective. So that brings us to a close here. Normally at the end of each episode, I play a little bit of a game and just ask one random icebreaker question. Since we mentioned Amazon at the top of the episode, I'll ask this question. What was the last product you returned?
Alanna: That's a great question. I'm pretty sure that the last item I returned was a mattress topper. I have a wonderful mother-in-law. She is fantastic. She lives in Charlotte, North Carolina. And we drove down for the holidays so that she could see her new Grant's son. But her guest bed is very uncomfortable. And so we purchased a mattress topper in advance. We were so excited with ourselves. We finally got ahead of it. And in order that mattress topper, and we ordered the wrong size. So we had to shove that back in the box and send it back to Amazon. And that's, that's. The last thing I can think of off the top of my head.
Shelley: Well, first of all, I want to say that I just read an article about what happens to returns of major department stores or a place like Amazon. And it's actually alarming. That a certain percentage of it just gets destroyed, destroyed because it's not worth it for them to try to reuse it. So that makes me think twice about returning things. But actually the last thing I tried to return and was not successful doing was this polish for, I have like an aged bronze front door. I had my siding power wash this past summer. They didn't do a good job and they stripped some of the finish off of the front door handles and backdoor handles. So I bought this thing that had a great review online and it actually made the problem worse. Just return it out of spite. And there was some restriction around it so that they couldn't actually return it.
Carol: Yeah. That's often the challenge. Like they make it very challenging to do that, probably because of the reason that you're talking about, it doesn't serve them for you to return the item. So for each of you what's, what are you excited about? What's coming up for you and your work? What's emerging?
Shelley: Well, I have roots in membership. So when I worked at an association, I was in the membership department. And before that I worked with students on a college campus. And so I've always been really interested in that concept of serving. At McKinley, over the past year, we've definitely developed more content and more resources. And I just can't help myself. I have to think from that membership perspective, even though we're a consulting firm, how could we take more knowledge that we're gathering at McKinley and translate it into something that truly is public access. Anyone can benefit from it. And we also have it ourselves to archive because knowledge management is really hard in a consulting firm. At least it's been hard for us. People are out doing really good things and how to capture that and to share it across the organization. It's something that we're very aware we're not good at. And our staff tell us we're not good at it. So so yeah, I would say that's the future. How to develop more than resources for the association community.
Carol: How about you Alanna?
Alanna: I'm really excited about the fact that McKinley's taken a lot of time over the past several months to take a look inside and figure out what can we do better to support our staff. We have - I mean, I'm biased - but we have a phenomenal staff. We really have some brilliant, passionate individuals who work for the firm. And we've changed over time and recognized that our structure and some of our systems like I was talking about previously, just aren't allowing our staff to do the best work and and, and fully use their, their potential. So we're doing a lot of internal work to better support our staff and highlight the incredible intellect that we have. So that really excites me.
Carol: Yeah. I mean, oftentimes, so people don't see that as particularly sexy and exciting, but it's so fundamental. And then Shelly, what you were talking about in terms of garnering those insights across multiple projects to be able to see that next level of what's not just particular to one project that you're working with one client, but what are we seeing across multiple clients? So that's, that's exciting and something, I think there'll be a really huge resource to the field. So thank you both. So, thanks. Thanks a lot for coming on. It was great to talk to you.
Shelley: Thank you, Carol.
Alanna: Thanks so much.
Episode 10: This week we’re talking to Heather Yandow.
We talked about:
• What gets in the way of nonprofits hiring consultants successfully.
• Why an RFP process is often not the best approach to having a great experience with a consultant.
• The trends we are observing in this time of disruption.
Scenario Planning: An article describing the process from MIT Sloan management school
Heather Yandow brings more than 20 years of experience as an outreach coordinator, coalition leader, project manager, and fundraiser to Third Space Studio. She helps organizations with strategic planning, board development, change management, leadership development, and going from good to great. She has also served on the Board of Directors of Democracy NC, ncyt: NC’s Network of Young Nonprofit Professionals, and the Beehive Collective (a giving circle). She is also the founder of Nonprofit.ist, an online platform for nonprofits to find the consulting expertise they need.
Sponsored by Grace Social Sector Consulting. http://www.gracesocialsector.com/
Learn about the Effective Online Facilitation, 4 week group coaching program.
Carol: Welcome Heather. Welcome to the podcast.
Heather: Thanks so much for having me. I'm thrilled to be here.
Carol: So just to give people some context. Can you tell me a little bit about what drew you to this work and describe your journey?
Heather: Yeah, so I started this work when I, when I kind of dig back into what really prompted it, I think about my parents always engaged in the community and that's just what I knew to do. So when I went to college I was really engaged in lots of different social activism there. I was part of the environmental group on campus. I helped to start a feminist group on campus and really loved that and thought I was going to be a math teacher.
I studied mathematics and thought that was my path. And then really started thinking about what if I could do all of this fun activism stuff as a career, and got really lucky and found that the statewide environment, because C group was hiring what they called it at the time an outreach coordinator, which was basically doing a lot of the same stuff I had kind of trained myself to do while I was in school.
And I did that work for a couple of years. And then they offered me to be the director of development and communications. So I got to move into that position and got a lot of great training and support and learned really how to do the fundraising. After seven years of doing fundraising, I still do it in my volunteer work, but decided I didn't want to do it full time.
And that's when I transitioned into being a consultant. And so I've done that work for about 10 years now. And I do strategic planning, leadership development, meeting design and facilitation work.
Carol: So funny that you said your original idea was to be a math teacher. Cause my first notion was that I was going to be a history professor and then did my senior thesis in college and discovered as I was in the archives of the library, reading these, I did a thesis on women, kind of the parenting things that were told to women in Germany, in the late 1800’s. And so reading these old magazines and discovered that I had a wicked allergy to mold. And so spending my life in archives was not going to be my future. So then I had to figure out what's next.
Heather: I love that. Yeah. It's one of my favorite questions. When I meet people who were in their thirties, forties, fifties, sixties, what did you major in? Because most of the time, people are not doing the work that they studied to do, particularly folks like us who were in nonprofits or as consultants.
Carol: I did discover anthropology in the last year and I feel like what I do now is essentially applied anthropology. All the, you know, Interviews that we do with people and the discovery and kind of seeing how groups work and seeing how culture shows up in organizations. So that's the connection that I have.
Heather: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Carol: So one of the things that you have started recently is an online platform to help nonprofits find consultants. And I feel like nonprofits often struggle when they think about hiring consultants. What do you think gets in the way?
Heather: I think a couple of things get in the way.
One is just not knowing where to find people. So I actually started nonprofits just in part, because I get a lot of requests from past clients and friends asking who do you know that does X, Y, and Z. Who do you know that has a background in mergers that also knows a lot about land trusts. Well, that's a very specific subset of people.
Yeah. So if you're a nonprofit leader, you may have a few connections, but you might not have a broad enough network. So you can find the right person who can really help you. Of course cost is often a barrier for organizations. And sometimes organizations that are new to hiring consultants are a little bit surprised by what our fees are that we are a lot of times covering all of our costs and those fees.
So you're paying not just what you might pay somebody for a salary, but you're also paying for our benefits and our office space. And all of those overhead costs are included. And then the third piece is that I think organizations often aren't really clear about what they need and why before they get into a first conversation with a consultant.
And sometimes I’m wondering whether I find that in those first conversations if the group feels like they've already decided what the solution is going to be.
Carol: They think that they know exactly what the challenge is and they think they know what they want. That also can be a challenge and, and having those first conversations gives you an opportunity to essentially kind of find the answer together, if you will.
Heather: Yes. Yes. I find that too. If I am sent a request for proposal and there is an 18 month timeline already sketched out with all of the different pieces that they want to include and they've really already mapped it all out. In some ways you're voiding my expertise.
I come to this as somebody who understands how to design processes, how to lead groups through difficult decision making, how to set up action plans. So I like you really to partner on that and to co-design. And part of that is really asking questions to get underneath. What, what is the real issue here?
So sometimes what we find with organizations, what I find is that. They ask for what they know they can pay for. Right. So we know that right. You can hire somebody to do a one day board retreat. And when you actually, when I get into conversation with somebody about that work, what I discover is they're having significant problems around accountability.
Or they've got some folks on their board who they just need to say goodbye to, or they've got some other really big culture problems and they aren't necessarily dealing with those head-on. They want to bring in an outsider, which is me to talk to them about what their roles and responsibilities are.
Maybe I do a little bit of assessment and to hope that that magically solves the problem. So, I see that with strategic planning. I see that with fundraising planning, all of that, these things that people know they can search for and find people. And so I often want to ask, want people to ask and consider before they come with those kinds of requests.
What's the real challenge you're trying to solve? What's the question behind this fundraising that, that clarity that you're talking about, but even if they don't have it going through the process of you know. We would be asking questions there and that helps a thinking process and helps kind of uncover what else is going on.
Carol: And I think even with those simple requests, can you just come facilitate our board retreat? I think there's often a lot of misunderstanding of, you know, just kind of thinking they're hiring a person to just show up on the day and make some magic happen. And of course, in order for that day to be a productive one, you know, you have to spend some time with the group talking to people, doing some upfront discovery so that you are designing a retreat that meets their needs, not just a generic retreat that's not helpful and not a good use of people's time.
Heather: Yeah. I have a great relation with an organization I've worked with over a number of years, four or five years ago. I did a board fundraising training. It was really well received. Folks had a great time. We did a little bit of role play about how to do a major donor ask, right everything. When I left that day, I thought that was a great retreat.
Well, they called back three years later and asked me to come do another training for their board around fundraising. And as we got into the questions I realized but they were still having the same issue as they were before I did the training. And so, because I had a good relationship, I finally had to say, I don't think the problem is that your board doesn't know how to do that.
I don't think they want to do this. And that's a different kind of challenge and a training doesn't always solve that challenge. It's like a board retreat doesn't always solve a challenge or a strategic plan isn't going to suddenly make your founding executive director share power. It can help. Certainly they can be designed in ways that help, but sometimes it's really scratching and getting into the what's the real issue here? What's going on.
Carol: Although I do think some of those processes help open the door and give us a safe kind of a safe place to start. So I was working with a group recently that, that did have that founder challenge and, and we were working on a strategic plan and ended up with one and I think, you know, going to give them a good one framework to move some things forward.
But the biggest thing that I think it did was create a space where an outsider could compile all the information, talk to everyone back what they said to, to me around these are the things that aren't working. These are the things that are getting in our way and help them have a tough time conversation about what are the roles?
What roles do we need to have on staff? What roles do we need to have with the board? Not to say that it's actually, as you said necessarily going to solve that problem, but I think it at least opened the door to where, before that all those conversations were probably happening, you know, pre COVID in the parking lot after a meeting or, you know, when somebody bumps into each other, you know, downtown or whatnot.
So it at least gets, yeah, it gets it started up what needs to be probably a much more drawn out intentional process that it's not, you're going to do a strategic plan and it's going to have solved all of these other challenges.
Carol: Absolutely. So with that instance where you did the training and you know, and, and that's often what folks will often ask for that, thinking that well, if we just get people to learn how to do the thing, they'll be willing to do it. And especially around fundraising that, I mean, I'm not a fundraising expert, but I certainly see that that can be very intimidating to folks. So when it was actually about not wanting to do it, what were some of the things that you did with the group to help address that challenge?
Heather: Well, then you've got to dig a little bit more into what's behind that. Not wanting to do it. And so some of that can be sussed out through some interviews. Some of that is, is some group discussion. One of the best discussion tools for that is actually something Kim Klein is a great fundraising guru, I saw her do, which is a comparison of how we feel when we give money and all of the positive emotions. Right? So when you're able to make a donation to a cause you really care about how does that make you feel? Lists all these great emotions. And then when you ask someone ready to make a donation to a cause that they really care about, how does that make you feel?
And oftentimes those are some that have really negative emotions. We have some, we have some shame, we have some anxiety we might have. It's around that. And so then comparing those two and really talking about why those are different and, and where that difference comes from. And, and there's a lot of anthropology, there's a lot of cultural feelings about money and who has it and who can talk about it and how they talk about it.
And so really getting folks to, to grapple with that and think about how their own formation around money happened. I think the last piece is making the why really clear. So sure. Board members understand why it's critical for them to do this work. Sometimes I see where organizations are kind of a victim of their own success.
So if you've got a super competent executive director and a great development director, and the board says, you know, next year, we're going to raise $5,000 and there's some support around that. And the board just doesn't do it. They only raised $3000, nothing happens and there's no accountability and the organization doesn't shut down.
Well, then the board really has not much impetus to do that really uncomfortable thing and actually raise the $5,000. So sometimes there's just getting really clear about this, and there's a number of ways to, to build a little bit more heat into the system, to get folks to move into that place that they think is going to be uncomfortable. And a lot of times folks understand once they get there, it's not.
Carol: So with the consulting, hiring practice, what would you say are some mistakes that you think organizations make when they, when they're first doing this? Or you know, even if they've done it before, what gets them, what mistakes do you think are the key ones?
Heather: So one of the key ones we've already talked about is really kind of prescribing the answer before you really understand the question. So you already figured out the process, but you don't really know the true why behind it. The stake that I see is not having all of the people in your organization bought in to both your definition or construction of what you want to address.
And that there's a need for outside help. So if you think there's a problem with accountability on your board and folks really getting things done, your board chair needs to agree that that is true. And most of your board, hopefully, but at least your board chair and your board chair needs to, we need outside help.
Because the last thing that I, as a consultant, want to do is walk into a board meeting where I am not wanted and they don't think they need me. That is not setting anyone up for success. So making sure that all the players involved in that could be staff, board, community members, that we all have a clear and shared understanding of the challenge and the need for help.
And then the third thing I would say is that not allocating enough staff resources. And I guess organizational resources in terms of time and attention. So sometimes there's a belief that if we hire a consultant, they're gonna magically go off into their office and create the most beautiful plan that ever was created and come back and present it to us and we're going to approve it and everything's going to be different.
And in reality, all the projects I do require significant involvement by members of the worker. Patient, whether that is one-on-one yeah. Time with an executive director, time at a board meeting, background information from staff. There's always a need to get their attention and their time and to really have them be part of the process.
So if an organization is at the same time, as we're doing a project, going through a capital campaign, hiring a bunch of people. If they work on elections and it's an election year or a census year, they just don't have the bandwidth. And so really thinking about how to stage those projects so that they can give it their full attention.
Carol: Right. Cause the project and the plan and it all needs to be the organizations and I, I go to the point of actually saying no, I'm not going to write your plan for you because if I do that, it's my plan. You know, even if you've been involved in all the conversations and in the meetings and it actually reflects all of your input.
Just that act of actually doing the draft yourself makes it yours and you have more commitment to it. And, and clearly involving people. Throughout the process ideally builds that buy in, but yeah, it really is about it being the organization's plan and you're helping them walk through a solid process to get some good outcomes, but it's gotta be, yeah, it's not about, can you go cook us up a strategic plan and come back. That's right. Deliver it.
Heather: Do you have any that you'd add to that list?
Carol: I have one and then it went, it's gone. It's flown out of my brain.
Heather: It'll come back.
Carol: It'll come back. Yeah, I think the whole RFP process can also be really problematic because I understand the need to kind of get a couple of different people responding, but even there you, you can still have had conversations with multiple consultants, ask them to put together a proposal based on the conversations without having to go through the strict process of an RFP which I usually think ends up with a different, with a better outcome.
Heather: Absolutely. I am anti RFP all the way. I think there's real value in an organization. Getting clarity on, as we already talked about what they need, how much money they might have when they want to do the work. But the process, particularly the very structured. So we put it out on X date. You have until a week later to send us your questions, we will compile them and answer them.
We will not be getting, having any conversations in advance of you submitting this proposal. Then we might do an interview or we might just pick you based on the proposal that tends to, to not produce the best results, what you get. There are the people who write the best proposals. It's like applying to college or applying to a job, but only ever looking at the resume.
And it doesn't actually tell you what you want to know. And so much of the work that we do as consultants is really about. Does our ethos match our culture, does our vibe match, you know, so you talk about, and I believe this too, that it's the, it is the organization's work to do, and we are there to create the container for them to do it well.
Well, that's a real ethos. And if you, as an organization's leader, don't have that too, then that's something we need to assess out early on in the process. So having those conversations and I agree, you know, you can have conversations with five people. It's probably gonna take you less time than developing an RFP, reviewing all the proposals, doing interviews, just pick five people and have conversations and see what happens.
Carol: Yeah. And how would you say, how would you advise Executive directors or board chairs as they're kind of going into this process of the kinds of things that they would want to ask consultants or the kinds of things that they need to be looking for as they, you know, not just the proposal, but getting into those conversations and, and maybe even if they do the more formal interview process, what are the kinds of things that you would say are important to pay attention to?
Heather: So I think if you, if you've worked with a consultant before, I think back to what worked well for you in that relationship and what you might have wanted to see differently. So if you're really looking for a consultant, who's a fantastic project manager and keeps you on task. Are you looking for a consultant that's really good at conflict management and having hard conversations, thinking about those things that are almost in between the lines of the official work that you really value in a partner.
Another piece of that is kind of organizational values and what are your consultant's values and are there pieces that overlap there so that you're really on the same page about why you want to do the work together. And then the last piece, I think sometimes I get asked for examples of work product.
Which is really challenging for me to provide. So what I often say to people is the work that I do, to transform organizations, so talk to people about what they do experience with me, and what's different about their organization after their engagement, that's the work product. So I think asking around the questions around who have you worked with.
Where, where you'd be doing similar work. Who can I talk to really getting and checking those references? Vibe values and references basically.
Carol: Yeah. So it's essentially kind of thinking through and listening for a fit when you're having those conversations. So are the questions that the person's asking you, helping you are you further along at the end of the conversation in thinking about the challenge that you're you're describing than you were when you began, and that would be well, that's the kind of shift that you want to, you're there to try to create.
Heather: Yeah. Yeah. You absolutely want somebody who is helping you think through. I also think in a lot of ways you want somebody who is going to show up as a partner. Who has, who brings expertise, but who really wants to be there with you walking alongside you. So this is obviously reflective of my own work as a consultant, but I build out free engagement to fit the organization.
I have things that work well that I bring into lots of engagements, but I don't have. Here's the strategic planning package and I'm just going to put it on top of everything I do. So I want to ask questions to know more about you as an organization and what works well. I want you to know that I'm going to be experimenting as we go and learning about you and shifting up.
The way that we're going to do the work in order to really meet your goals. And, hopefully you're okay with that. If you're, if you're an organization that's super regimented, we're not going to work well together. And I can tell, cause if you send me a 15 page RFP, we're probably not going to work well together. I'm probably not going to apply to that.
Carol: Yeah. So once you go through that hiring process and you've decided on something, what would you say are some things that are important as an organization starts to work with a consultant that can help make that be a more productive process for both parties.
Heather: Yeah. A couple of things. One is it's always helpful for me as a consultant to get some of the basic background information. So obviously I've looked at your website, I've read your RFP, or we've had a conversation, but grant proposals or reports are useful budgets. Honestly, tell me a lot about the organization and where you spend your money and what your activities are.
Annual reports, just those things that can get me kind of up to speed on the work so that I can ask better questions. The second piece is I think having a good launch meeting. Often that is with a small team, particularly if we're doing longterm strategic planning work, or even planning a training for staff, who's the two or three folks who are gonna come together and help shepherd this work at that meeting.
I often review the scope that I put together in their proposal. And we adjusted as a team here was my idea. And now we're actually in it. Let's figure out what we need to shift. Also sometimes in that very beginning phase, just having one on one conversations. So as an a organization figuring out who are the few people that we want the consultant to talk to, again, to get a better three 60 view of the challenge to really, and the players to make sure that they are leading off with a really strong background.
Anything you would add?
Carol: Yeah. So that's good cause sometimes I think people want to put every important stakeholder on that strategic planning committee. And I think that's a nice way to do both and to make sure that you're getting the input from all those important stakeholders. And, and there may be other ways that you're doing that as well.
But then also having a small enough working group that it's easy to. Set up meetings and there's momentum and things keep moving. So it's kind of nice both. And yeah, I think just sometimes people jump into the work they're so intent on you know, What the challenges are or whatnot, but I think just taking a minute and oftentimes this will come from the consultant just talking about how you work together, what works for you?
Do you have any pet peeves? What's your style? How do you like to communicate? You know, is it email? Is it a phone call? So that those things can fit together and just being explicit about those things, which I think so often people skip over can really help kickstart a good, a good process in the end, because this is a relationship, particularly with whoever the organizational lead is.
And he was a consultant. So I'm thinking about how to, how to make sure that relationship gets off onto a strong footing.
Carol: So right now we're in a you know, things are so uncertain. A lot of planning processes have basically come to a halt or people have canceled. Maybe they had a retreat coming up. What's your sense of whether people can or can't or should how, how they might approach planning when, when there's so many unknowns at the moment?
Heather: Yeah, it's a question that I hear executive directors really wrestling with right now. In fact, I was just on a call with a group, a peer support group this morning, and an executive director shared that their strategic planning consultant had said to them in March or April. They were trying to finish their plan.
That, that had been in progress for six months and feeling really guilty because they hadn't. And the consultant said right now you've got a circus. You can no longer focus on building the plane. You are dealing with really rough weather. And when you get to a place where you feel like you can fly the plane more easily, you can start building it again.
And so they have actually at this point, given the kind of work they do been able to stabilize and they have are coming back now to that strategic planning. I think for a lot of organizations, what would have been a longer term strategic plan is looking much more short term. It's looking so the end of 2020, maybe to the end of 2021, depending on where they are in the world.
So shortening timelines, not doing future planning when you're still in the midst of crisis. And then I also am seeing organizations use scenario planning a lot more, a tool that's been in our toolbox for a long time, but this is a time when it really matters. It really is, you know if you work in the school system, you have a scenario for, if kids go back, if kids go back for two weeks, if kids go back for a whole semester, and if you run an afterschool program for kids in schools, You've got a button you've had to have all of those different scenarios and having those planned out so that when it switches, you've got a plan that you can pull off the shelf.
We've already had some of those discussions.
Carol: Can you just say a little bit more about what scenario planning is for folks who might not be familiar with it?
Heather: Yeah, I think. Various standard definition would be thinking about creating kind of a matrix of scenarios. So you would think about what are a couple of different unknowns in your community that have a high chance of impacting your organization.
So I did this work a few weeks ago and the two variables we picked one was about how people were going to feel about the economy. Were they gonna feel like it was going down and hilly, going to feel like it was stabilized or maybe even going okay. The other axis we picked the other trendline we weren't sure of was, are we going to be kind of open or closed broadly?
Right. So are things going to be really open and we're going to be kind of back to normal or are we going to be quarantined or in our houses working from home. So in a very traditional scenario planning, you would actually put those on one, on an X axis and one on a Y axis. And now you've got four to five scenarios. What happens if the world is open and everybody feels really good about the economy? Well, bars and restaurants are totally full. Everybody's excited. Right? What happens if people are feeling really terrible about the economy and we're still all at home? That is our Netflix bucket, right? Like people at home with Netflix and cooking, being at home.
So figuring out those areas, whatever those are for your organization and then planning for each of the four, I'm really thinking about what might be true for us in each of those four scenarios. So that's a very traditional example in the school example I gave, there were the school system in North Carolina where I said we have an, a, a, B and a C, and we're going to pick one of these three.
So they've done that work already creating those scenarios for you.
Carol: So, what are some other trends that you're seeing right now, since you work with a lot of consultants across the sector and they're working with lots of clients. So I'm curious to hear from you kind of, what are some of the current trends that you're seeing in the sector?
Heather: So one of the trends I'm seeing is organizations, particularly 10 staff and under. Really saying, I'm not sure we need an office. We need the conference table. We need a conference room every once in a while. We needed a place to start our stuff, our swag, our records, but we don't need it. I need an office space, particularly in places where folks are traveling significantly to get to a centralized office.
And they've discovered that they can really do a lot of that work online. The second trend I'm seeing is that as kind of stress levels have risen, I have certainly seen particularly executive directors dealing with more burnouts and more burnout in their staff and just all of the challenges that come from having an overwhelm.
They’re anxious. That's maybe dealing with kids at home. So there's a lot of shifts in how people are thinking about paid time off leave alternative options for staffing organizations, but there's just this kind of increasing humanity that is coming out of this crisis. And then the third thing that's kind of related to that is I'm just hearing more and more chatter about how the kind of traditional nonprofit structure isn't working for people. And some of that is the board's not showing up well right now either micromanaging or being absentee, some of it is that we're throwing out lots of, of, of old norms that aren't working for us. And so some of those nonprofit norms are going to get thrown out, but I'm seeing a kind of increasing conversation about that piece as well.
Carol: Yeah, I'm thinking about that, but not really sure.
Carol: Cause it also feels like it's so embedded in, in all the systems the many, many systems that aren't working right now and, and the nonprofit sector has a lot of those assumptions built into. So yes. So at the end of every episode, I play a little game just to kind of shift things up a little bit.
So I'm going to ask you a somewhat random icebreaker question. And I had picked out three out of the box before, before we got on. So based on your scenario where if I, hopefully we won't be stuck in the, the economy is tanking and we're all forever and ever, but with that, what's your most recent, a guilty pleasure in terms of maybe binge watching a show or, or something.
Heather: Oh, well, My favorite. I don't know if this is a guilty pleasure, but in May I bought myself a blow up pool from my backyard and my absolute favorite thing to do. And I might do it this afternoon. If it doesn't rain, I will get in the baby pool with my Kindle and a glass of wine at the end of the day. And that just makes me so happy.
And I read a book that has no redeeming value. That just is pure floss and it's fantastic.
Carol: I don't think you need to be guilty about that. That sounds like a lot of fun. What are you excited about? What's coming up next for you kind of what's emerging in the work that you're doing.
Heather: Well, one of the things I'm really excited about in the nonprofits world is that we just launched a learning series for consultants around how to better incorporate race equity into our work.
And so I was sitting on a zoom with 50 consultants who are all trying to figure out how do we do this work better? How can we be in the work with people helping to raise these issues, helping to have careful conversations. So I'm really excited about that series and about the shifts that are coming for myself and my own consulting work and for hopefully lots of other people in those conversations.
Carol: That's great. And how can people find you? How can they can get info?
Heather: Yeah. So if you are interested in the consulting work I do, my company is called Third Space Studio, all spelled the thirdspacestudio.com. And if you're looking for a consultant or accountant or coach or other expert, you can find me at https://www.nonprofit.ist.
Carol: And we'll put all that in the show notes. So people will be able to get the links. Well, thank you so much, Heather. It has been great talking to you.
Heather: Thank you so much for having me. This was really fun.
Episode 09: This week we’re talking to Carol Vernon.
We talked about:
Carol Vernon is a certified executive coach and principal of Communication Matters, an executive coaching firm that helps leaders and teams elevate their executive presence and communication skills in order to grow their impact. Carol was inspired to start Communication Matters after years of observing that doing your job well isn’t enough. Without executive presence and the ability to communicate effectively with diverse stakeholders, leaders can’t achieve their full potential or achieve the results they seek. Previously, Carol was the senior communications director at the National Cable and Television Association, as well as acting executive director of the cable industry’s education foundation, with both people management and budget responsibilities. Prior to that she worked on Capitol Hill and on more than a dozen political campaigns.
Welcome to Mission impact, the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I'm Carol Hamilton, your host, the nonprofit consultant. On this podcast we explore how to make your organization more effective and innovative. We dig into how to build organizational cultures, where your work in the world is aligned with how you work together as staff, board members and volunteers, all for the purpose of creating greater mission impact. Carol Vernon is a certified executive coach and principal of Communication Matters. An executive coaching firm that helps leaders and teams elevate their executive presence and communication skills in order to grow their impact. Carol was inspired to start Communication Matters after years of observing that doing your job well isn't enough without executive presence and the ability to communicate effectively with diverse stakeholders, leaders cannot achieve their full potential or achieve the results they seek. Previously, Carol was the senior communications director at the National Cable and Television Association as well as acting executive director of the cable industry's Education Foundation, with both people management, and budget responsibilities. Prior to that, she worked on Capitol Hill and on more than a dozen political campaigns. Welcome to episode nine of the Mission Impact podcast.
Carol Vernon and I have a great conversation about communication, something so key to how organizations and teams operate. She explains four typical communication styles and why leaders need to be mindful of each when they communicate with others. We touch on what shows up in communications now that so many teams are working remotely, why it is so key to avoid assumptions as you work remotely and why having a conversation with your teammates, colleagues and volunteers about your communication norms is even more important now than it was in the past. We also consider how people can keep networking even while face to face events are canceled. So welcome, Carol.
Thank you, glad to be here.
So just to get started and to give people some context, what drew you to this work? How would you describe your journey?
I've worked in associations, nonprofits, and in the political world for quite some time, I always loved the work I did. I always felt very much focused on getting it done and eventually observed how you get it done matters oftentimes, just as much as getting it done. I started looking at how leaders were focusing on the how.
When did you start working with other leaders on that? And in that how, do you focus particularly on communication? Often when something isn't working in an organization, as an organization development consultant, I often hear people say, well, you know, communications just aren't working. What would you say makes communications challenging within an organization?
Yeah, absolutely. We are all different people. We as a society thrive on and could celebrate differences on many levels. But we forget the fact that communication is a big part of who we are. And we communicate differently. Each of us has preferences, and we have the ability to play with our preferences a bit if you will adapt them to other people's styles, but we often don't do it with teams. We have gender differences, cultural differences, all kinds of differences in terms of how we show up and it impacts the way we communicate with each other, which impacts our ability to work together.
Can you say a little bit more about those communication preferences? Are there some common things that you see show up in terms of the way people approach communications and they're probably not even thinking about it? It's not necessarily something that they're particularly aware of?
Absolutely. Again, communication preferences are something to some degree, they're hardwired, we're born with them just like we're born with a certain personality preference, right? We’re different. Some of us are more introverted, some of us are more extroverted. We have a communication preference, some of us tend to be very direct, very to the point and we don't need to meet face to face, we're fine right now and in the remote work world we're pretty comfortable with that. Sometimes we'll say that's more a masculine communication style, not that it's only for men, lots of us are very much a masculine, to the point, communication style. So there's some people who have a very direct to the point style, can they shift it? You bet they can. They can adapt it to talk to somebody who has a more traditional, when you use the word feminine again, does not mean that you know, speaking to you as a woman, but we tend to be more people focused, we're listening for how's that going to impact somebody, a real direct communication might not meet our needs, because we're going to listen more for how's that going to impact me or how that is going to impact my colleagues or my team or my organization. We're listening more for the people part. There's some of us who have more of a preference for the details. We're listening for the real detailed piece. So there is a communication style here, neither a feminine or masculine style, rather just a preference for more detailed, more systematic, more how kind of communication style. And then there's some of us who have more of that dialogue, I call it a why style. We're listening for the big picture. Why are we doing it this way? Not because we don't think it's a good way. We just want to hear different things. We communicate differently. And some of us are very much right to the point. Some of us are how, give me all the details systematic. Some of us are who, how does it impact me? Who's involved? Who's going to be impacted by what happens here? And some of us are, why, why are we doing it this way, not to derail it, but just want to step back, want to look at the big picture, give them time to process.
And it's interesting thinking about those as individual communication preferences and some are really more preferred in our culture, in the American culture than others. I think the direct communication style is definitely preferred. And getting to the point, just do it, all those kinds of things. And in other cultures, you know, it's the exact opposite where you know, it's people first. And if you haven't taken the time to do some small talk, ask me about my family, ask me about how my weekend went, that's considered rude.
Every organization has its own culture also, because obviously, every society has, all these pieces lay on top of the crucial part of communicating, which in the world we're living in today this is how we're collaborating. It's all about how we're, how are we communicating?
And as we're working now, remotely, what do you think is really important for leaders to consider as they consider their executive presence in a virtual world?
Well, we're using that term right now, the idea of sort of digital body language or digital communications, really being able to, to step back and it's not just about camera angles, hey, we're on zoom, and we got to make sure our camera angle looks good. It's really so much more than that. Digital communications in the remote world is just ripe for misunderstanding. There's so much here that we're not going to see, where if I were sitting across from you, I get a better sense of your mindset, I would know what you're thinking. I'd be able to pick up more on it. In fact, even, what could ultimately lead to conflict between individual leaders, between teams between whole organizations,
In the virtual world, or doing online meetings, working collaboratively, working remotely I think sometimes when we were face to face, people could assume that they knew kind of what the other person was thinking or they might pick up on a vibe from them. And they might be right about that, and they might be wrong. And so in some ways, now that we're forced to work remotely, one of the things that could invite people to do is to actually slow down, check their assumptions, ask more questions, check in with people more often so that they are getting a fuller picture of how folks are feeling, how's it going for them their work, etc?
Carol, that's a great point. There's a lot of opportunity right now, in terms of the world we're in, the world we're in in terms of digital communications, yes, the question around the idea of presence. And I think having a strong presence in the digital space is a lot about respect, a lot about trust, how do we show that in the digital space, it'll kind of have to do with the speed in which we respond to something. It could be everything from, you know, who do we see on that communication, there's so many pieces about having a strong presence offers a lot of opportunities for us to build more trust. To be more clear, in this case, some sort of short messages are not always the clearest messages, brevity could lead to a lot of confusion. Having a strong presence in the digital space is about, again, so much more than how we're showing up on camera. It's all the parts of communication, it's our words, it's our voice. And we have to think about those coming through in the different ways in which we are communicating right now.
Yeah. And it could be that people are paying even more attention to, you know, tone of voice, etc. Because that's what they're limited to, mid range up in terms of what they can see on video if people have video on and then and I do think that actually taking the time to think about some of those things you didn't have to think about before, which is, how is your computer positioned? How are you showing up on that video screen? What are people seeing, what's behind you, what messages do you want to convey in terms of that presence is something that we probably never had to consider in terms of our home offices or our home spaces before.
Absolutely, there's no question. Everything we do is communicating something and I go back to that idea of trust. And I almost want to say grace, Carol, this word in your company's name, Grace, Social, we need to give people a little bit of grace here, we need to assume good intent is there in the way we're communicating right now. There's a lot more opportunity for misunderstanding, somebody doesn't have their camera on, oh, they must not be engaged. Maybe they don't have their camera on because something's going on in their home or wherever they're working from. From that moment, we need to assume good intent, we need to create a little space for one another. I think the strongest leaders are communicating by showing we care. And I know with my coaching clients, right now, I'm noticing those who are taking the time, I don't want to say they're, you know, taking time to find out how the weekend went. But they're taking time just to slow down and to show that they care. They're really being very intentional in terms of their presence, how they're showing up, you know, they're getting to the point, but they're not, it doesn't mean that they're not taking the time, it doesn't mean that they're over relying on that very direct, very bottom line communication style, they're flexing, they're adapting their styles. They're creating space for others right now.
And you also focus in particular on women's leadership, what are some of the things that that women in particular can do to enhance their leadership?
Oh, terrific question. I think right now, women, just like men have, like many of our male colleagues have a lot of competing priorities. And I think, again, that opportunity to just to be a little bit vulnerable here, it'd be a little bit more authentic given I don't know if it'd be more authentic, but I believe women have that, women leaders have another opportunity to really think about how they're communicating authentically, to this point, this isn't the time to sugarcoat things, this isn't the time to be sort of stepping back, and I've got to protect my team, we need to really think about, and I know some terrific women leaders who are being very much focused on being direct and to the point.
What are you seeing in terms of hearing from your coaching clients of how they're seeing the current situation that we're in, remote working, the pandemic, the protests, all of the things that are going on? How are they seeing that show up on their teams?
I think the world we're living in is causing stress for many people, and we all experience stress in different ways. Again, we're all you know, we're all so different and we're experiencing it in very different ways. We experienced it as a whole society, but each of us is doing it differently. And what I'm seeing, again, from my leaders who are challenged right now is to look at how to communicate, how to shift and adapt their communications, to get the most out of their team. A coach and client said to me the other day, I'm walking a fine line between trying to motivate my team and help them move forward and not burn out my team. And I thought, how interesting to see, he said I'm just totally intrigued by all the opportunities that are in front of us, this sort of the opportunity to do things in different ways. And he said, but I'm finding that I'm having trouble getting other people to look at those. I'm finding some of that also that my clients are challenged by how to flex that and then we're also dealing with just the realities of there are some of us who are digital natives and some of us generationally have different levels of adaptation and a learning curve with technology. So we're seeing leaders need to really not just show up, so this presence is not like just let's fake it till we make it, they genuinely are looking for ways to be to be empathetic, to show up authentically, and to recognize we're different. We're all different. So communicating the goals, they're slowing down, they're probably spending more time communicating than if we were sitting across from each other in the office.
Yeah, because I think in the office, there's sometimes an assumption that word is getting around or communicated and once you're remote, and folks are not right there, you have to think a little more deliberately about it, rather than just kind of assuming that communication will flow through the organization. In terms of that burnout, I've seen some articles recently about how with more and more folks working from home, especially in the association world, certain types of nonprofits that folks are working longer hours since it's all one thing now work, home, everything together. It's all bleeding together and how are you seeing leaders manage that? And keeping work life balance?
I agree with everything you've said, Carol, and I'm observing the same thing. And in talking with some of my clients, in fact, just this morning, I had a coaching call with a terrific leader. As we were talking through the idea of boundaries, we were noting the fact that she's had to step back and create new quote unquote norms, new communication norms around her availability. So this idea, we're so used to you sending me a message, I'm gonna respond, oh, he texts, it's even more important, I'm going to get right back to you. We need to, we need to clarify those communication norms for the world we're in right now. The opportunities here are terrific for teams to be even more effective, more flexible, more adaptive, but without communication norms to help guide them again, right from misunderstanding. My coaching client was talking about the fact that it feels like 24/7, and in this case, this particular terrific leader has young children, and 24/7, she's always sort of split between one or the other, is it the family? Or am I at work? And she said, they're totally integrated. And I think a lot of us are experiencing that crossover. So creating communication norms for our teams is key for this world. And these are norms that may have a long term impact on the way organizations work and are going to work in the future.
Yeah, for sure. And one of the other things that you do is help people be more strategic about their career progression and network. What are some of the things that people can do now, without those more traditional networking events to move their career forward in this interesting time?
I'm hearing all kinds of exciting things that I wouldn't naturally have a thought of, I enjoy the whole process of going out and networking, I've watched some terrific leaders, you know, create really terrific sort of connections with people. And in this space now there's also terrific ways of doing it. But it means doing it differently, being very intentional about perhaps some of the networking groups and opportunities that are out there to meet people in the virtual space to do one on one follow up. So in terms of career progression, and continuing to build out, build out our networks in a very strategic way. We need to think about who are some of the people we do need in our worlds? I don't believe networking is ever a quantity, it really has to be very strategic, and thinking about what do we have to give others? What kind of expertise can we be sharing with others? What kind of info do I have that might be helpful to others? And we need to think about what kind of info would help me continue to build a new sort of community? Is that sort of a traditional way of what I have to give here? And then what is it I want to get? What do I want to learn, though? I mean, what do I have? What do I want to learn about how online is offering all kinds of opportunities to connect with other people? I'm watching my association clients create unbelievably powerful ways of networking online. And then I think it's the one on one, I think it's the individual follow up. Again, it's not about quantity, we need to be incredibly mindful of who we need in our world right now. And I dare I say, we also need to be careful about what we built, who right now we need to protect ourselves from, you know, the key piece here is we need to think about our own control, ourselves, that may be one of the only things right now we have 100% control over and think about who we need and protect, again, possibly who we need to protect ourselves from.
Yeah, it's been interesting, since all the events are now going online. One thing I'm actually seeing is, in some instances, some local associations that I had been involved in, you know, now we're seeing participation from people across the country, internationally. And then another very interesting thing that I didn't really think about, until I started doing this as I would be on a zoom call, or whatever networking thing, you know, because each little box, the person usually has someone's name written there, have written all the names down, look the people up in LinkedIn, you know, follow up afterwards, if I wanted to connect and have a conversation, and I know that I am following up with and you talked about quality versus quantity. But in this case, I'm actually following up with more people from a zoom event than I would have if it had been an in person event because I know that I wouldn't, I mean, yes, if you can get someone's business card, that's great. But you know, I'm not going to go around, peering at their name tag and trying to remember what their name was and write it down and then and then do the follow up. And so it's actually made it for me, it's made it easier to be consistent about that.
Carol, I love that example. We're also different, and some of us are thriving in the online world in terms of creating those relationships. And the truth is it is definitely more challenging for some others. For those of us who are more extroverted, we need to step back and allow other people in the online world more opportunity to step up. For those of us who are more introverted, we need to make the time to be able to come to something very prepared and ready to contribute, it's not the time to step back online. When we step back, I can't tell you how many times I've heard my coaching clients say things, the team seems disengaged. And you know, we've kind of talked to is it truly disengagement? Or perhaps are people taking time to think about what we're building in ways so this idea of something we're building, a network in the virtual space, you bet, there's going to be some people who are going to thrive in it. And I love to hear that you are Carol. And I think you have a terrific practice there of identifying who, for instance, is in a zoom or any kind of networking event, and then doing the individual follow up.
Right. That's all individual conversations. I mean, the event itself is a jumping off point, but then you know that I'm taking the time to reach out one on one. And the other thing that I've been doing with that is we'll set something up and is there a zoom link? I'm like, no, let's just talk on the phone. Because we're spending so much time on video these days. For those one on one, it's not necessary to get on video. I mean sometimes it's nice, but I feel like folks are also experiencing fatigue being on so many video calls. So those one on ones, I'm definitely just just having a phone conversation. And it works just fine.
Funny to think that the phone call is becoming sort of like what was old is new again. Pick it up, picking up the phone becomes a differentiator, it really allows us to say I care, it's really different. In this world, when we all have lots and lots of emails, it tends to instead pick up the phone. And you know, something that's also pretty obvious within here that the meetings that you would set up, a coffee meeting, for instance, was getting yourself to the place sitting down there, ordering the coffee, all of the pieces that took 90 minutes to do all that. And now we don't need to be on a zoom meeting for an hour, what was an hour might look like a 22 minute meeting. This is part of the idea of communicating respect and trust and having good intent is this idea that we may not need all this time that we put into it. What I keep going to is the idea of what's the opportunity here that we want to think about in terms of communicating. We may have a whole lot more opportunity to be more strategic with how we're communicating. This isn't about quantity. This is about quality.
We'll be back after this quick break. Mission Impact is sponsored by Grace Social Sector Consulting. Grace Social Sector Consulting helps nonprofits and associations become more strategic and innovative for greater mission impact. Download free resources on strategic planning, program, portfolio review, design, thinking and more at gracesocialsector.com/resources. We're back on Mission Impact. On each episode, I play a game asking one random icebreaker question. I have a couple here. So what is something you think everyone should do at least once in their lives?
I think everyone at least once in their lifetime should go to a place that's on their bucket list. To make that happen in whatever way that is, to be able to experience how other people are living, that just can't be beat. So an opportunity to try some other place. See what it's like.
So what are some places on your bucket list?
I am absolutely fascinated right now by Vietnam. And what had been my hope this year to get to Vietnam at the end of the year, and we're going to postpone our trip probably another year. So that's what I've been reading a lot about, culture there and opportunities to travel through the country. I can't wait.
So what are you excited about? what's what's up next for you kind of what's emerging in your work?
Thanks so much for asking. And the biggest change for me is that with a lot of our executive coaching work I do with associations and organizations other than nonprofit and organizational leaders is going very virtual. So I miss the in person connection, but we're doing a lot more zoom. So trying to continue to, to build on that and find ways to work with teams in the virtual space. Again, I don't think that's going to be short term. I think when we move through this and of course we will, I think the way I'll work with teams will look different. And I'm really excited thinking about that. I've had a group of women leaders that gather over a four month training program focused on their executive presence as association, nonprofit leaders. And we're going to take that program virtually later this year. So I'm pretty excited about that as well. That's great.
Awesome. And how can people find more about you and get in touch?
Link in with me if we haven't LinkedIn, I'd love to connect with you. That way I post things there and check out my website, which is www.commmatters.com. I look forward to connecting with folks. All right.
Well, thank you so much, Carol.
Thank you so much. I really enjoyed talking with you.
Thank you for listening to this episode. You can find the links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/show-notes. We want to hear from you. Take a minute to give us some feedback or ask a question at missionimpactpodcast.com/feedback. Thanks and see you next time.
Sponsored by Grace Social Sector Consulting. http://www.gracesocialsector.com/
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Episode 03: Today we’re talking to Moira Edwards.
We talked about:
• how technology supports the work of nonprofits and associations.
• Moira explains the three levels of IT infrastructure that leaders need to consider and how an organization typically would apportion the budget to support those three levels
• the concept of the peace time and the war time CEOs come into play as organizations manage the quick shifts forced onto them by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Moira Edwards is the President of Ellipsis Partners and focuses on the impact of technology on organizational strategy. As head of Ellipsis Partners, she helps associations and nonprofits make smart technology decisions to create member value and support critical business operations.
Peace time vs War time CEO: https://hbr.org/2011/04/peacetime-ceos-vs-wartime-ceos
Mission: Impact is sponsored by Grace Social Sector Consulting
Carol: Welcome Moira. It's great to have you on the podcast
Carol: Just to get us started, tell folks a little bit about what drew you into the work that you do, and how you got to where you are now.
Moira: You know what gets scary as you get older? How much this spans decades rather than years; but I’ve always been an analyst of some sort, right out of college my first jobs were about finding problems and digging into them to find sometimes a software solution, sometimes a statistical model as a solution. Actually, the first job I had in the U.S. after I came here from Ireland, I was at the Federal Aviation Administration and I worked on the Land and Hold Short Operations Program. So what's fascinating about that is if you imagine any air course that has multiple runways, some of them intersect and the Land and Hold Short Program was that the larger aircraft would use the entire length of one runway and the middle of smaller complex Sesnas and things would land on a different runway and hold short of the intersecting runway. So what I did was I gathered all of the stopping distances for the little tiny aircraft and calculated what length of runway they would need in order to stop and safely land and hold short.
After that, I went to work for my first association and that was providing help-desk support to people who are using members who are using software that the association has actually developed. During that time is when it became really clear to me that technology is about people really, and truly. For our members to get value from the technology that we offered, it had to not just work for them, but it had to work for everyone involved in delivering it. So the developers have to say, ‘yeah, that software works’ and the people who offered support and the people who did the training and the people who mocked this, everybody all have to say; ‘yeah, that works well.’ We have this concept of an elegant solution that, when we were developing a new iteration of the software, we didn't want it to be like this old Victorian house with staircases to nowhere and lots of additions cobbled on that. We want it to be this really elegant, seamless solution that people could use. So I think I still do that.
I still try to help associations and nonprofits make really good decisions about technology and understanding what everybody wants to do. The members of staff, understanding the systems, fitting it with the organizations and their strategies and their capabilities, and making sure that the technology would work for the future and bringing it all together into a decision and a solution that everybody goes: ‘yes.’ You can almost hear the CyberKnife. Everybody goes, yeah, that works. So that's what I do. It's been an evolution along that path for 30 years and I get to do what I love. I consider myself so fortunate.
Carol: Well, I love your analogy of the old Victorian house versus the modern house with the essential elements really there, because I find that not just in technology and the technology infrastructure that organizations need to do their work well, but also in so many things that nonprofits do, they end up adding. It's like this Victorian house that's had lots of different additions built to it and no one ever stopped to say, ‘what are we actually going to get rid of and stop doing, before we add something new on,’ and I've gone over this, she's talked to me about those staircases to know where they’re forgetting to take it into a dead end in the software or in the process. It's very choppy and I think that sense of bringing it all together and understanding how the technology supports the overall goal, and also keeping up with technology because it changes, and if you don't change with it, to some extent you do that cost and stagnate and are kind-of trapped by it. So it's about recognizing all these cool new things coming out and figuring out how to use them. For many organizations, I would guess that some kind of technology investment is going to be one of their biggest investments in terms of infrastructure, some of their bigger projects, when you're helping leaders think about and move through one of those projects, what are some of the key things that they need to keep in mind?
Moira: When we think about how leaders use technology or work with technology. Sometimes I think it's really scary for many of those in a leadership position. I mean, in many ways, technology is as essential to achieving their vision as people as money. Right. It's just one of the things you've got to factor in. I think that for many leaders, they're thinking ‘I have this vision, I need to take a risk and I should, but I don't know how to use technology to do that.’ So one of the things we do is try and make this a little easier to understand.
We divide technology into three levels and the foundation, the basic level is technology is operations. So this is all about, ‘do things work? Can I send an email? Can I open a document and work on this? Do I have a laptop? Do I have a secure connection? Do I have the basic skills to run the organization and to do my work.’ that technology is operations, it’s foundational. It's about keeping the lights on and that's where your managed services provider is an absolute godsend, because this is very much a foundational operational support that you get from your managed services provider. There are certainly things you can outsource and, as a leader, you don't have to pay as much attention to it. Apart from the security aspects, you just need to make sure your managed service provider, the people who provide your desktop support, who would be your call center? They would probably provide your email solutions, they're probably the people who have put your servers out into the cloud. They're the people who crawl under desks and figure out what's going on under there. These days, most organizations do not have a server in a closet in the office anymore. They have a managed services provider who's taken over all of that for them, and it's great. As Reggie Henry says, no association or nonprofit should have a server on premise anymore. It should all be out in the cloud and managed by people who do this for a living. You can outsource a lot of technology operations these days.
The next level, if you're a leader and you're trying to think about the next level up is technology as service. At this level, you're serving your staff. Do they have the software they need to do their jobs in terms of running membership and offering events and doing learning. These would be where your enterprise-level systems come in, your AMS, your LMS, and you're also serving your members. Can they come to your website and do what they need to do easily and efficiently or is everybody doing a work-around, do you remember having to call in to get something done? Do your staff keep having to export things to Excel in order to get things done? If that's the case, then your technology as a service is maybe not working so well, but you can conceptualize that. Okay, I'm serving people and again, this is important to do, and you need to invest money in us because this is what makes you different to your members. This is why they come to you rather than any other organization, this is how they know they experience it as good service.
Carol: You used a couple acronyms and I just want to make sure people know what they are. AMS and LMS.
Moira: AMS is an “Association Management System.” So that's going to be a membership database, and it's also going to be the place where you run your e-commerce, maybe you run your login for your website. It's a pretty central ERP - enterprise, relationship, platform.
Carol: If an organization isn't an association, what would that typically be called for a non-association, nonprofit, that'd be IT customer-relation management or CRM, or some kind of donor relation management system something like that, and who you're serving as well, so that central database that holds all your essential information about the people you serve, the people you work with.
Moira: Exactly, that core operational database. You want to get that right, the elements of your learning management system. If you're offering any learning to your members, to your constituents, you might have a learning management system (LMS). Again, how do they experience your organization? Whether your LMS is smooth, easy to log into, easy to access, easy to see where you are in their learning progress, then they're going to have a positive experience with your organization.
So when we think about leadership having a vision moving forward, that really comes into that top level, which is [that] technology is innovation. So if you think about [it], we've got a foundational level of technologies [and] operations, making things work with a middle level of technology, a service really making things smooth and work[ing] well.
Technology is innovation where we sometimes think about taking risks, because here's where you might develop your own software to offer to members. Here's where you might really use design thinking to figure out what they need and how you can solve their problems. So at this technology's innovation level, you're really thinking about how you could serve your members or your constituents, your donors, your grantees in ways that they have not taught you that serves them before. That's where maybe there's some risk, but it's a smaller investment that perhaps might be 10% of your IT budget and it's also where you experiment, where you use the agile methodology or fail fast to go out. You try out something new, you get some feedback and you do a more interwoven approach to technology development so that each individual experiment is not a huge risk. That's how, as a leader, you can think about technology in different ways and decide where to devote your attention, where to devote your budget. Does that make sense?
Carol: Makes a lot of sense. When I did some research a couple years ago, just looking at how associations were approaching innovation, I saw when at most it was interesting and that most organizations really saw the field as not very innovative, but saw their own organization as very innovative and one of the three top projects that folks mentioned, that when [asked] what innovative thing are you doing now? Most often it had to do with technology, and then the other one that was kind of related, was doing some type of learning online. We're recording this in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and a lot of organizations are having to make a quick shift in terms of how they're working, how they're delivering services. Technology is undergirding everything that's able to move forward, but all those assumptions that you talked about in terms of those three tiers are coming into play in terms of, if an organization has never had a culture around remote work or any of those things, or not had the the technology to support it makes that shift particularly hard. I'm observing lots of steep learning curves with people in terms of different technologies that some of us have been using for a long time, but for others are brand new. So what would you say can help organizations as they're kind of confronted with this sudden shift that's happening right now?
Moira: Well, one of the things that you and I have talked about is how do you stay strategic? How do you keep yourself focused on the long-term when you're surrounded by short-term chaos and stress? I think that's a useful lens through which to see this because we are so frantic and I know [that] at times I'm panicked by it, everything that we're trying to deal with.
I'm going to point back to a blog post that was written by a guy called Ben Horowitz in 2014 but HBR, Harvard Business Review had picked it up and talked a bit about it around then. It's this concept of there being a war-time CEO and a peace-time CEO, and I know separate to whatever has ever been done. That's been used in the media right now at the time.
What's really useful about this concept is that a peacetime CEO is the transformation leader that we've all come to admire and established as the norm in leadership thinking. We are developing goals, we are creating strategic plans, and we're moving the organization forward in a very thoughtful, collaborative way with lots of emotional intelligence. That's your peace-time, transformational CEO. In contrast, the war time CEO is autocratic, decisive, commanding, and makes decisions. In fact, it can also be just the person we need in a time of crisis. The idea though, in this post is that we actually as leaders, need to be able to move between the two styles. So those of us that are running organizations and having to make that transition to a different way of working extremely quickly, we're out there being decisive right in the face of all of this movement, our events being canceled, having to change our revenue projections, having to readjust our budgets.
So we're being wartime CEOs and managing and responding and getting things done. I think what I would say to anyone in this position is that we need to craft ourselves a little piece of peacetime in the middle of all of that. So for me, that means just spending the time that I used to spend commuting sitting with some coffee, watching the morning sunrise, and letting some of this busyness subside and reading, maybe some interesting books, or just journaling out some thoughts about new directions, new ways to take advantage of what's happening and capitalize on what's changing rather than being overwhelmed by us.
So I think putting that little bit of peace in the morning has been very helpful, and turning off the news for that hour as well so that I'm not tracking the numbers of cases and infections as we are every morning. Another thing that I'm doing and I'm seeing others doing is carving out some time for learning for me and for my staff, because there's travel that I'm not doing, there are meetings I'm not going to because of the stay-at-home orders. So there are gaps of time in my schedule that I didn’t know were going to be there and using that time for some learning is a way to crack my brain open and keep us open.
When a part of me is just responding, and somebody can be reactive during a time of rapid change. Another thing I'm doing, or I'm starting to do, I would say is so I'm having a lot more check-ins with people like I'm at home and people I haven't talked to in months, we're suddenly having zoom calls and phone calls and people say, ‘how are you and what are you doing, and how are you coping?’ So in some ways we're having the same conversations over and over, but these are great opportunities to ask interesting questions of all these people. So sometimes I'll say to them, ‘so what has surprised you about the past few weeks that you didn't think would happen,’ or I might say ‘what has changed in your life that you think will not change back when this is all over’ or I might say, ‘what do you think the new normal would be like for you, for your organization, for the world?’ Having those conversations is also another way to keep my brain from just getting stuck in a reactive mode and thinking, keeping a vision of the future, and that could be a very different future coming up and thinking about how then we can, how are we going to act in that new chair, right?
Carol: Yeah, for me, it's been when I'm noticing myself getting hyped up where I used to be able to sit and read a book for hours. I haven't been able to do that in the last month. So it's much more, tapping into [a] meditative movement, so yoga and walking outside and talking to people while I'm walking outside and taking bike rides and all the things we're still allowed to do to just keep all of that energy moving through my body, to stay grounded.
I love those questions that you're asking. So I'm curious for you, what have you been surprised by in the last couple of weeks and what do you see as the new normal?
Moira: I think the thing that has surprised me is that this feels different to my normal way of working from home, and I think the element here is one around choice, and I think that's going to be an interesting conversation for us, in the coming weeks and months is around choice. First of all, when I work from home, I choose to, [and] now I'm somewhat forced. So that's got a different feel to us, but also what I notice is that when I'm in an office and I have my door open and people come and talk with me, I have very little choice in that matter. I mean, I can maybe close my door if I want no disruptions, I can keep it closed all the time when I'm onsite with organizations and I'm part of the office environment.
At first, I love it. I love the chance to chat to everyone, then after awhile, I realized that I don't have as much control over my schedule as they do. [Now] I'm working from home, and I think in this environment where we're all working remotely, people are going to have a lot more control over their workday because you're going to have to book time on their calendars and maybe you're going to use a tool like Slack or even a text to send them a quick question. They can answer that from anywhere.
I think we are going to come to expect more and more control and choice about when we work and how we work. I don't think that's a bad thing because I think one of the things that we find problematic about the workplace is the distraction where there's the distraction from the open offices and the noise around you, or the distraction of people dropping by, or whatever it is. I think having more control over when I focus on when I'm just available to be disrupted, it's actually great. I think people are going to push back against going into an environment where they can be so easily disrupted.
Carol: At the same time, one thing that I think people miss from when you're working remotely all the time is that sense of the serendipitous bumping into somebody, having a conversation at the water cooler, walking down the stairs that the fact that some companies have now built common stairs to force people to actually walk up and down and interact with each other. So I'm curious what you're seeing in terms of how people are building in some of that as they do remote work and how they might think about it if they haven't yet.
Moira: So I did a section for ASC, the technology conference many years ago, actually at this stage maybe six years ago, and it was about managing virtual workers and the remote workforce. When we did a survey of nonprofit folx and we found that the thing that mitigated a drop in creativity was relationships. If the organization found a way to foster relationships, then people found a way to be creative and have casual conversations. So maybe it doesn't work. Like when I think about Melissa Meyer and bringing everybody back into Yahoo, it's a huge organization. So maybe it's harder than larger organizations, but certainly in smaller organizations. There are ways to foster those relationships.
Yesterday, I was doing an online session and afterwards we had a virtual happy hour. So these are very common during the pandemic. Now people are gathering on zoom and having some sort of virtual coffee hour, a happier, conversational time. It was so powerful. I think it depends how many people are on screen. We have six or seven people at one time and it was. As good a conversation as I have ever had sitting around a table, chatting with people. I felt connected. Some of these people I knew relatively well, others not so well. I felt like I knew everyone in that conversation better afterwards. I would feel much more comfortable now whether it's picking up a phone, shooting a quick email, or using something like a sign to send them a good question because I feel like I know them better and I know how they would respond. So I think that's the thing to focus on in the long-term is building relationships and that comfort with each other so we can have those casual interactions with whatever means there is. Does that make sense?
Carol: Totally makes sense. I'm thinking of a parallel situation. I'm a member of a congregation and of course our services have gone online and we've had virtual or - I actually don't like the word virtual cause it's real, it's just online. Online coffee hours through Zoom, and what I've loved about it is that after everyone's in there and you've got the 50 people or even more on screen, they've randomly assigned us into small groups. So I've talked to people that I would never talk to in Coffee Hour. If it's a new person, great, it's easy to go say hello to them; but if that person's been a member for a long time, and you've never gotten around to actually saying hello. This is the easy way to actually get to know [them].
So it's been a great thing and a wonderful equalizer and community builder. It's been amazing.
Moira: Absolutely, and my meditation class has gone online now. That is so lovely to see a screen full of like 40 people on video with their eyes closed. That is supremely vulnerable,
it really is, it's lovely. What's so interesting, I was talking with the teacher and I was telling her what a great job she's doing. She's like, ‘yeah, I didn't know I would enjoy it so much.’ She is absolutely able to be present and really talk personally with us, whether it's a group or one on one with individual people during the session in a way that I didn't think was possible using an online medium. So I agree with you completely. Relationships and connection are very possible using technology today.
Carol: Yeah. I have had to immediately move to facilitating a number of long, multi-hour sessions from an in-person that were going to be an in-person and now moving them online, and for the one that was going to be a day long, I cut it in half. Because I just don't believe that you should inflict an eight-hour Zoom meeting on anybody. We had a really, really productive conversation and then the first group, they were a lot of people who didn't really know each other well, and just taking the time to - [and] we would have done this in person regardless, but taking the time to check in and then being able to use the small groups to move them around and you're really able to do so much with today's technology.
So wanting to shift into, again in this environment, a lot of organizations, their first reaction was to cancel all their events. How can, as they think a little longer term, like you're saying, keep that, while you're reacting, taking a moment to pause and taking that longer view, how might they approach actually moving some of those events online, especially if this goes on longer than initially anticipated.
Moira: I think it's a combination of being intentional and experimental. The intentional part is stopping and thinking a bit about what is important about your online event. So we worked with one organization where the most important thing, funnily enough, were the coffee breaks, because their attendees did not get a chance typically to meet, they kind-of came from two different fields. So the sessions were great. They would talk about the meat of the science that they were talking about, but the coffee breaks is where they would have the conversations. It's like these relationships we'll be talking about. So when they go online, what's really important to them is a way for people to chat. So breakout rooms and Zooms are our ideal for that. So understanding what are the critical things that make your event unique? Why do people come to your events? Having some focus groups, taking some time to gather requirements from your attendees, your members, your constituents from your staff, and can understand at least five high-level things about what you want to do, but you can then go and look at different platforms. Whether it's Zoom or video, you use your Learning Management System, cause they have a lot of interesting features, or maybe you go to one of the conference-capturing platforms with lots of different ways that you can do this, and you make sure that what you're choosing will support those critical needs. Then the experimental side is to really be open with your members and maybe you do an actual experiment, if you can, to try it out.
Maybe you think of it as a practice run, but the people will really accept what you're doing. If you're upfront, I've got the fact that this is an experiment rather than delivering value. So maybe there might be, either a no-fee or a reduced-fee, if you can swing it, because if you charge the full amount, he was going to expect the sole value. So how can you make this experimental, can you try a plea event with one of your committees? It's a real event, but we are planning to learn from it and by calling it an experiment you set expectations lower, people give you buy-in because they're willing to contribute to the success of this experiment. I’ve found that some sort of pilot or experimental SES really helps before you do the full offering, because don't forget you've gotten really good at doing your in-person events. You've had so many chances to perfect that, you have to go back and approach this with a fresh mind.
Carol: Yeah, and I think you might actually find that through those experiments, you learn some interesting things that you want to keep doing, even in the future or that there might be all sorts of unexpected benefits from going online. Not to say that face-to-face events won't happen again in the future, they certainly will, but I think the impact might be that things have to meet a much higher threshold to warrant a face-to-face event than they did before this, because people will realize that it is possible to do a lot of what we've traditionally done in face-to-face events online, and in some ways there's the pet peeve I've always had with conferences is the coffee hour, if you can figure out how you can reiterate that,
but I've often questioned, why did I bother getting on a plane to go and sit and listen to panels where there was no interaction, if you're not doing anything to facilitate, any kind of experiential learning and not to say that that's not possible online, it is also with planning, but if you're not doing that in your conferences, there's never been a reason for anyone to fly, except for all the extra things that happen in between all the things that you plan. It'll be interesting to see the longer-term impact.
Moira: That's so interesting because the great thing about a conference is [that] you meet people you would not have met. Otherwise you form relationships with people or you strengthen relationships because you're sitting, you're eating, you're drinking, you're having experiences together and you're sharing knowledge and experiences and time with people.
When we do surveys for our clients and they talk about ‘why do you join,’ the top reasons are often the information, the resources, the education. So people are definitely there for the topic and the speakers, but what makes them come back is the experience. And that experience is from how they felt and who they chatted with on the coffee hour and what that led to when they came back. I think you're absolutely right.
Carol: And so, with those experiments of trying to do some of this online, I think being really intentional, as you said, about what those main things that people are looking for are and how might we, not necessarily replicate, I mean, it's not going to be replicating, it's going to be different, but how do we foster those same or similar experiences, as people come together.
Moira: Right, because your online event is not just about putting a speaker or a panel in front of you, it's the interaction afterwards. So the educational session that we had yesterday, for AWTC - the Association for Women Technology Champions - which is this nonprofit that I'm on the board of. We had a speaker, she gave an amazing presentation sharing slides, then when the slides were over, but we stopped the screen share.
So the screen was full of the videos of the participants. We had a conversation, which was amazing, like a really good question-and-answer, give-and-take, back-and-forth. Then you went into a happy hour for anybody who was left, which is even more connective and informative. So we can share [and] we can make this technology support that, which is important within our virtual events.
Carol: Yeah, and same as before, it's always a tool, right. It's a tool to get other objectives done. So what I heard you saying before was [that] it's so key to figure out what those objectives are, what those requirements are. And maybe it provides an opportunity if you're going to be doing this differently, to have a different kind of engagement beforehand with members that you might not have had in a long time, if you've been doing a similar event year after year, to dig into what it is that they really need and what they’re looking for. What do they need now that's different?
Moira: This provides a huge opportunity and many of our constituents would have been resistant to some of the online technology, but now they're sitting at home, they're using zoom for their work calls, they are using zoom to have birthday celebrations with their kids and grandkids. So suddenly they've realized that this isn't that hard, or maybe the tools have actually come a long way towards not making it hard anymore. So there's less resistance. I think that we will experience our constituents going online because they now know what it's like.
Carol: So many people are familiar with the term early adopter and it's from - and I'm forgetting the guy's name, but I'll put it in the show notes - the innovation curve and part of the innovation curve. There’s a big gap between the early adopters and the early majority and something like this just pushes a lot of people over that chasm suddenly. It goes back to your original thing of choice of, in this instance, there's no choice around working from home. If you have the kind of job that's possible to do working from home, so then to use all these technologies that they may have said, ‘oh, I don't want to learn that.’ Or ‘that would never work,’ or ‘I could never facilitate that way.’ Or, ‘I could never have a meeting that way, it would never be the same.’ Suddenly it's like, ‘okay, well, are you just not going to ever talk to anyone again?’ Probably not.
So, seeing as we're coming to the end here, I like to play a little bit of a game at the end. I have a box of icebreaker questions, so I've chosen three and I'm going to ask you one of them. So, if you could meet any historical figure, who would you choose and why?
Moira: Oh, wow. I’ll tell you that sometimes these icebreaker questions, I find them difficult ‘cause I need about a second or two to think about them. Because a number of images of people have come to mind. I would have to say that it would be the Buddha. That would be the historical seeker I would love to meet because, of all of the different people in history who have changed history, given us great insights, I think the Buddha is probably going to be the calmest one. I would just like to experience that. I'd just like to be close to that and see what that felt like. I don't even know that I would necessarily talk to him, I would just like to see what radiates from that.
Carol: Just bathe in that calm, open presence as the enlightenment. Yeah, I’ve been doing more meditations recently and did one recently that talked about imagining that very calming presence, whether it's a relative, or an ancestor, or a spiritual figure. Then at the end being reminded, well you imagined that, so you have it within you. I thought that was a really interesting way to think about it.
Moira: That is, yeah, that's really nice.
Carol: So what are you excited about? What's coming up next for you, what's emerging in the work that you're doing?
Moira: Absolutely. I was sitting here today and I'm looking out my window. So from the little world that I'm occupying right now, which is my home, one of the things I'm excited about others are the leaves coming on the trees. And the days are getting longer because, in this world, in some ways we're stuck in place. It's lovely to look out the window and see spring and growth and life continue. So that makes me very happy and excited for the rest of the year.
From a work perspective, there are some experiments we want to try within Ellipse’s partners. As we look at the world and we're trying to keep ourselves open about how to do things differently in this changed environment. We're looking to try some experiments to connect people together, to share knowledge, because I really see that working. So that's a little exciting. We're figuring out what that will look like and creating new ideas is always fun.
I mentioned the AWTC - the Association for Women Technology Champions. I am so excited by that group. It's a group that formed, some of us had just met on a regular basis to talk about technology and life. So I'm one of the founders, but now we have expanded that and we want to bring the knowledge, the connection, the insights to the greater group of women who are working to promote and advance technology in their nonprofit organization.
We just became officially incorporated. We're going to file now for our 501C3 status.
Moira: We will now have the foundation too, the paperwork, the credentials to actually offer more education, more connection, more ability to advance women in the technology community and that's very exciting.
Carol: Awesome. Well, how can people find out more about you and get in touch?
Moira: Sure, the nonprofit that I talked about, AWTC, our website is awtc.tech. We use a cool ending, so I'd love you to check that out for us, for Ellipsis partners, our website is ellipsispartners.com E-L-L-I-P-S-I-S Partners dot com. Since I'm Moira Edwards, my email is firstname.lastname@example.org, and would welcome a connection with any of your listeners, it would be lovely to chat further, about anything we talked about today.
Carol: All right, well thank you so much. I really appreciate you coming on. I enjoyed our conversation.
Moira: I did too. Thanks, Carol.
Episode 00: My goal is to interview a variety of people who help nonprofit and association professionals do their work more effectively. I hope to learn from them.
I especially hope that our conversations will spark insights for you that you can apply to the work you do in your organization.
I am Carol Hamilton, nonprofit consultant and podcast host. My passion is helping organizations cultivate healthy, inclusive cultures that live their values, fostering learning, creativity and results. Find me at Grace Social Sector Consulting and download free resources.
Grace Social Sector Consulting, LLC, owns the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of the Mission: Impact podcast, with all rights reserved, including right of publicity.