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Take, for example, the New Jersey Tooling & Manufacturing Association, Fairfield, which has a staff of only three: an executive director, a chief financial officer, and an administrative assistant who also serves as a benefits administrator. Even with this limited staff, NJTMA has successfully accomplished the nearimpossible goal of administering their own self-funded member health insurance plan for the past 10 years.

Or draw courage from the proactive steps this association took when faced with uncertainty. Looking into the future, the Association of Container Reconditioners, Landover, Maryland, realized that nothing short of revolutionary change would keep their association relevant and thriving. With a staff of just four, ACR successfully lobbied for buy-in to broaden its membership scope, rename the organization, and restructure its governance. Two years later, the newly coined Reusable Industrial Packaging Association is flourishing and the organization is stronger than ever.

Still nervous? Five years ago the National Association of Legal Assistants, Tulsa, Oklahoma, began eyeing the Internet as a way to provide more member services, in particular, an educational resource for its certification program. Although they encountered numerous difficulties the first time around, NALA's staff of eight didn't quit. After carefully reviewing its lessons learned, NALA refocused their efforts and successfully launched a new continuing legal education Web site for their members.

Small staff associations can and have accomplished amazing feats with very little resources-and you can, too. Read on to find out more about how these organizations sought success despite their numbers.

Tutorial Technology

Marge Dover

Launching an online continuing education program with limited staff can be daunting. Lesson learned: don't quit.

WHEN THE NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF LEGAL ASSISTANTS, TULSA, OKLAHOMA, rolled out a new continuing legal education Web site in August 2000, no one could tell how bumpy the road had been getting there---or that we'd had to replace all the wheels that had fallen off the business model on the way to our destination.

Now that enrollment is steadily increasing, the Web site is functioning as intended, and course evaluations are overwhelmingly positive, we can safely procliam that the NALA Campus ( is a success. The Web site serves our members, supports paralegal profession as a whole, and is proving to be a valuable resource for academia and in-house training programs for a number of business fields outside the legal profession.

Looking back on the project yields some valuable lessons, some of which we got right the first time and others of which we learned by experience. We learned, for example, the importance of focusing on basics such as our association's mission and knowing who our audience really is.

We also came to realize that the Internet is virtually unlimited in terms of how far it can reach---and how fast. Associations wanting to exploit this enormous resource need to have a firm idea of what they want to do, who they want to serve, and how they will allocate their resource---human as well as financial. And, it is crucial to be prepared to take corrective action quickly when you make a mistake.

Starting from scratch

In 1996, with a staff of eight and an annual operating budget of $1 million, we began looking into using the Internet to provide more services to our members and the entire paralegal profession. The primary idea driving the quest was the development of a substantive program to serve as a review course for the Certified Legal Assistant examination. This nationally recognized certification exam for the paralegal profession is a bedrock service that requires intensive study and continuing education by legal assistants seeking to earn the CLA credential.

With support and guidance from an enlightened board of directors and the association's continuing education council, we started doing our homework. A membership survey revealed valuable information:

1. Continuing education is the number one reason paralegals joined NALA.

2. Members typically spend about three days per year outside their offices participating in continuing education programs.

3. Only 70 percent of employers cover travel and registration expenses for these programs.

4. A large percentage of our members, and others involved in the certification process, are Internet-savvy and have access to the Web.

We examined our potential market based upon the growth of the certification program, and took into consideration more than 10,000 certified legal assistants who need to meet continuing education requirements to maintain certification.

It followed that offering online continuing legal education would be a valuable benefit for members, particularly if we could minimize registration fees.

Developing content and delivery

Our vision for this program included the development of course material by respected authors with acknowledged expertise in the various subjects. We took our market data and ideas to Virginia Koerselman, an author and director of the Metro Community College Paralegal Program, Omaha, Nebraska. We had previously tapped Koerselman to write our CLA Review Manual. With her input and some collaborative research, we determined a format for our online courses.

The Internet medium offered a bewildering array of possibilities, including live programs, but we settled on presenting the courses as text with matching audio and slides to graphically emphasize points and illustrate examples. Online tests were included to provide an interactive assessment by indicating which answers were correct or incorrect--and why. Answers featured linked references back to the relevant course material for further study.

This format exploited the Internet's capabilities for interaction and allowed students to study at their own pace, in their own style, and on their own schedule--around the clock.

Delivering a hit and a miss

Projecting the cost of developing such a site was an exercise in fuzzy budgeting. Since we were early in the game and there was little information to base estimates, it seemed reasonable to start with the cost for producing a comparable live seminar. We also relied on our experience in publishing educational materials to help us decide how to produce the site. This would later create a serious pothole in our road to success.

We sought out a book publisher who liked our idea and marketing plan and took on the project. The publisher supplied all technical support and agreed to market the program as if it were a book. We collaborated on actual Web site development with a contracted third party. As with a book, NALA would be paid a royalty. It seemed to be a good arrangement.

The Web site went online and was both an immediate hit and an immediate miss. Members found the site engaging as well as educational, and they enjoyed interacting with Koerselman, the author. The technical aspects of this initial effort, however, were too complicated, too slow, and somewhat intimidating. The site was too unstable to handle the needs of the users and of the coursework itself, and was down much of the time.

After eight months of frustration, we pulled the plug in 1999 and gathered our courage to reassess the situation. The important lesson here is that when something isn't working, applying more effort to doing the same thing seldom corrects the problem. We needed to take corrective action--fast.

Retrofitting to reality

We were disheartened, but our leadership continued to be supportive and pressed for renewed efforts. On the positive side, we had learned some key lessons (see sidebar, "Tips for a Technology-Based Task") and developed some important resources.

Key lessons. Our enchantment with Internet technology had led us into a site design that made the pages load too slowly, and we discovered several shortcomings related to administrative issues such as recording and storing student transcripts. We also found that the best way for authors to write the text was to use a speech recognition software application. This allows authors to create the text by talking instead of actually typing. Since text on is also recorded for the audio portion of the courses, the professional voices have a much easier time recording, and the results are much more natural.

Important resources. Thankfully, we had no shortage of material. A number of authors were intrigued by our online format and converted their PowerPoint material to the Web site.

We also realized that our audience was far greater than we had originally estimated. With the virtually infinite bounds of the Internet, we came to see that business professionals outside the legal field could find the coursework helpful. There are few realms of business that are not touched by legal issues such as communication, contracts, legal research, and other more specific matters such as intellectual property and real estate.

Improving support and functionality

As we considered our strategy for starting over, we refocused on our basic assumptions: Members want a fast and economic way to meet their continuing education requirements; this effort is all about service to members; and the product must remain simple. And while we understood the importance of this project paying for itself, we reminded ourselves that the primary objective was education. Fortunately, the board of directors agreed that the costs should be considered across the long term.

To work with us in developing a technically robust site we found a local Web developer willing to share in gross revenues--as well as the risks--from the project. Our new partner, Eufrates, had shown remarkable insight. By redefining the end user as the course author, rather than the students who we were so focused on, Eufrates developed more user-friendly software. This allowed authors to directly develop Web-ready courses and to update course material as needed.

Now that we have addressed site administration and have smoothed out many of the bumps, we are accelerating the development of new course offerings and enhancing accessibility of the site to students with hearing or sight impairments. The eight subjects available for study at this time are the American legal system, civil litigation, contracts, intellectual property, judgment and legal analysis, legal research, real estate, and written communication. We are encouraging our state and local affiliated associations to develop courses dealing with state laws and procedures. We recently added a feature that allows visitors to take a free look at how the courses and tests actually work.

After nine months of the new, nearly 10,300 visitors have logged on to the site, resulting in about 1,625 enrollees. Revenues are stable, if not spectacular, and NALA's vision for Internet-based continuing legal education has been fulfilled.

Marge Dover, CAE, is the executive director of The National Association of Legal Assistants, Tulsa, Oklahoma (staff size: 8; annual operating budget: $1 million). E-mail:


William H. Eames

For one small association, creating a self-funded insurance plan for its members carried big risks--but also big rewards.

MY IDEA OF THE PERFECT ASSOCIATION HEALTH PLAN IS ONE THAT OFFERS independence from commercial health carriers and all the problems that go with them. You know the problems I'm talking about endless voice mail menus, total disregard for customer service, and a propensity to deny claims rather than pay them.

What would the perfect health plan offer instead?

* A combination of stable pricing, the best benefit mix possible, and heath care members could reasonably afford.

* A plan that we--the board and chief executive--could directly influence so that we could make our members concerns the top priority.

* Premiums that would go primarily to benefits, not overhead.

* And--oh yes--a strong inducement to ongoing membership in the organization.

In 1991, those benefits were what the board of directors set out to provide at the New Jersey Tooling & Manufacturing Association, Fairfield. These ambitious goals are the same ones you hear policymakers in Washington, D.C., espouse as the ideal for American health care--though you also hear that those goals cannot be met. Today I'm proud to say that NJTMA is doing it--with a staff of only three and annual operating budget of $215,000.

But nobody said it would be easy.

Trouble ahead, part one NJTMA members are tool and die shops as well as small manufacturers in precision metalforming and related manufacturing operations. The average member has fewer than 20 employees--and a very big problem finding affordable health care for those employees.

For perhaps 15 years our association tried all the standard steps: endorsed commercial health plans, a small-group trust, and, finally, a Blue Cross-Blue Shield plan. None accomplished our goals.

As we began investigating options, we learned that two reserve funds from our commercial coverage could transfer to a self-funded plan. This provided more than $1 million in seed funds toward our initial claim benefit fund.

In 1991, circumstances were such that many organizations were giving self-funded plans serious consideration. Under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA, the 1974 federal law governing health benefits as well as retirement plans), associations could establish a voluntary employees beneficiary association (VEBA), a variant of a multiple employer welfare association (MEWA). We found an attorney with ERISA experience and took steps to establish NJTMA Employee Benefits Association (NJTMA-EBA) as a self-funded plan.

Initially we hired a third-party administrator to provide turnkey services, which included design of the initial benefit structure and premium rates. It took a lot of salesmanship on our part to convince our members to make the leap of faith into a self-funded plan. But the promise of better service, stabilized rates, and local control won the day--along with a legal structure that provided stop-loss coverage and a bailout plan. Within a year, we were up and running. NJTMA-EBA had its own board of trustees, elected from and by NJTMA's board of directors.

In essence, we set up the plan so that member companies would contribute monthly to our benefit fund. From that fund we paid both operating expenses and claim benefits. Expenses would include fees for the administrator, excess risk (stop-loss insurance) premiums, an attorney, accountants, auditors, and an actuary.

The third-party administrator was responsible for soliciting NJTMA member companies and prospective members to join the health plan; processing claims; arranging for stop-loss insurance; writing and maintaining the plan's benefits (described in a summary plan description); providing term life insurance; administering COBRA (the federal requirement that employers allow departed workers to buy medical benefits for a certain period); and billing our members for the monthly contributions (premiums) into the benefit fund.

Two years after the self-funded plan was set up, I was hired as NJTMA's executive director, with instructions not to become involved with the health plan.

Trouble ahead, part two

Those instructions were all well and good until I began to discover things that were going wrong--and we had an obligation to make them right. Because we had an ERISA-qualified, federally regulated health plan, we were subject to stringent eligibility and qualification rules, as well as fiduciary responsibilities. We found that our small third-party-administrator firm had become distracted as it became involved in other business activities. Claims payments were starting to stretch out, and we were discovering hidden costs.

As we began to investigate exactly what was wrong, we realized that we were asking our administrator for functions that were very different from typical claim administration work. For example, most self-funded plans cover one employer; we had more than 100 employers involved, each paying a different contribution into the benefit fund. Premiums varied by the employee's coverage status (single, parent-child, or family plan) and age--adding additional administrative complexity.

The most difficult association policy issue, though, was deciding who to allow to enroll in our plan. This was in 1994, when self-funded plans could still decline employees if they already had medical problems. As an association, we wanted to offer coverage to all our companies and all their employees. But as a health plan, we could not risk the plan's financial stability by admitting companies with many sick employees, or individual employees with existing serious medical conditions.

We decided to separate these medical-underwriting decisions from the association s main operations--and to take our licks for making that call. Most companies did qualify, but for several years, we did deny access either to individuals or to entire companies. And that produced significant stress for everyone involved.

Administrator headaches

These unusual features complicated our task of finding a new administrator. Ultimately, our trustees decided to move our plan to a third-party administrator. Part of the deal was that the company would, based on our guidelines, take over medical-underwriting decisions.

Moving a self-funded insurance plan from one administrator to another is a story unto itself, and not a pleasant one. But we did it, and we managed to get things reasonably under control.

Or so it seemed--until the day I discovered that some of the participating companies had not contributed into the benefit fund for five months or more, and the administrator had not noticed. The administrator also had no way to link premium payments to the individuals enrolled in the plan--not a good thing. And we found out that the new administrator had enrolled a nonqualifying participant with a serious medical condition. And the mistakes didn't end there.

Next we got notice that our third-party administrator had been acquired by a mega-administrator. Those little hairs on the back of my neck started to tingle. We began to recognize that we couldn't farm out key responsibilities to outside companies.

Just when we thought things could not get worse, everything really collapsed. Within three months, the new administrator took over the old one, closed it down, moved our records to four different locations, and basically stopped paying claims. About the same time, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 took away our ability to base enrollment decisions on health status and changed many other operational rules.

Disaster averted--just barely

We had enough information about our own plan and what was happening within the new company to recognize that we were on a path to disaster. We fired the acquiring third-party administrator and went on an urgent search for a replacement claims-processing firm.

Fortunately, around this time we were beginning to assemble and dupliate our enrollment records in-house. We had just adopted Lotus Approach, a database program that would allow us to internally design and maintain our member lists, mailing lists, and member records. We used Approach to classify and list the employees and companies enrolled in our health plan, and to design a premium billing system, linking the various databases.

This allowed us to bring in-house all management functions except for the actual claims processing. For that, we hired a small local third-party administrator over which we could exert more control. And we contracted directly for outside resources like reinsurance.

During the next 18 months, we designed unique systems to administer eligibility (who is enrolled, with what coverage, during what time period); billing (by company, by individual employee, by that employee's type of coverage, age, and status); collections; COBRA administration; and forms design and distribution. We rewrote into plain English all provisions and rules of the plan. And we contracted for actuarial services, reinsurance, group term life insurance, and many other parts of the puzzle.

How did we manage with just three staff members? Out of necessity. At so many stages we discovered that self-education and self-reliance, painful though these can be, worked better than "experts" who don't see the whole picture. We also got significant help from our three knowledgeable health plan trustees and our outside attorney, accountants, and the insurance agent who provides our stop-loss insurance.

Taking so many extra tasks on ourselves ultimately led to eliminating many fees and expenses, yet yielded much tighter administrative control with fewer people involved. Whereas our former third-party administrator had used about eight people to manage our plan, we now did it part time with just us three. We cut our total management and administrative expenses to less than 10 percent of claims paid, freeing 90 percent of employer contributions to pay claims. This allowed us not only to hold the line on health care costs but also to reduce premiums several times.

Again, when it came to attempting a full transition to "self-insurance," fear was often a great motivator. After all we went through with third-party administrators, we were afraid of losing control of our most vital information. We were also worried that no administrator could meet our needs, not to mention our customer-service standards.

Perhaps our greatest fear was the ability of others to affect our association's long-term survival. Our health plan is one of our key member hooks. Although we don't use it as a profit center, our retention rate within the health plan is exceptional, leading nearly 100 percent of those in the plan to renew their dues on time. That's why we find it worthwhile to devote substantial resources to making the health plan work.

Hard-won lessons

Today, our health plan serves 60 percent of our member companies, and insures 1,200-plus employees of 140 manufacturing companies (more than 2,500 people all told). We paid more than $5.8 million in claims last year.

Yet we answer the phones personally. (So does our claim administrator.) And members get direct answers to their questions and same-day turnaround on form requests.

As you might guess, some of our association's other programs suffered from neglect during this roller-coaster ride. Even so, during the past few years we've managed to relaunch our (partially outsourced) Tool and Die Magazine. And we've committed substantial reserve dollars to successful marketing efforts.

We've also learned a lot from our insurance experience. For others considering self-funding, here's my best advice.

1. Make it clear to your board just how daunting a task like this is. It is very hard for a volunteer board of directors to comprehend the amount of work involved, the technical detail, the legal obligations, and the overall daily administrative and maintenance requirements to keep all this going in-house.

2. Recognize that even when your association offers insurance as a member benefit, your constituents will view your staff as insurance salespeople. Perhaps because we are so involved in the administration of our plan, we forget that to members the distinction between dues and health premiums isn't all that clear. Their experience is with commercial providers, and the common perception is that "the insurance company" is making a lot of profit. By extension, members can come to believe that the premiums they pay to the plan increase the money the association makes. This isn't the case with our plan, but the perception can affect how members view the association.

3. Keep in mind that for most members, quality of service runs a distant second to price. Although our health plan offers what we think is the best customer service in the country, members' first question is always, "Can I get it cheaper elsewhere?" Our reply: "Sometimes, but only with HMO coverage, and then with heavy restrictions." So far, the majority of companies who enroll in our plan stay in our plan.

4. Realize that you can do more--maybe a whole lot more--than you think you can. After all we've been through, perhaps you'll tolerate just a bit of bragging. NJTMA's results are supposed to be impossible to achieve. Yet our health plan meets all the goals we originally set and all the goals the federal government says should be part of an ideal national health care system. And we accomplish this feat in the nonprofit sector, close to home, with our own members serving as trustees. The process is neither easy nor smooth. But in today's rapidly changing environment, it's sometimes necessary to achieve the near impossible.

William H. Eames serves as executive director of both the New Jersey Tooling & Manufacturing Association (staff three; annual operating budget: $215,000) and its affiliate, the NJTMA Employee Benefits Association (which shares the three staff and runs a health plan with an annual operating budget of $6,549,000,). Both are located in Fairfield. E-mail: weames


Paul W. Rankin

How one small association generated the buyin to broaden its scope


En route to the annual meeting of our international confederation, I sat next to Bill Shocklee, the newly elected chief elected officer of the Association of Container Reconditioners (ACR), Landover, Marylnad. Our conversation began innocently enough: Bill wanted my views on the likely effect that a series of recently proposed mergers involving member companies would have on the association's bottom line.

As the founder and CEO of a rapidly growing industrial container reconditioning company in St. Louis, bill had a reputation as a clear-thinking on-nonsense entrepreneur. I knew he wanted a succinct assessment of our current situation, several options for the future, and my recommendation on the best course of action.

Having briefly discussed some of these issues with Bill at an orientation meeting, I knew to be prepared with the facts. I told him our 56-year-old association-with a staff of four and annual operating budget of $700,000-was facing a critical period: During the past, four years, membership had decreased by 15 percent from its peak, when we had approximately 113 voting and an additional 50 supplier and associate members. Most of the losses came from our "middle class"-the mid-sized companies that accounted for about 20 percent of the total membership. Mergers and acquisitions were occurring regularly, and we could expect more in the coming months. Family-owned businesses, once a clear majority of the membership, were poised to lose their majority status.

The forces behind the trends

What was driving these changes in our industry?

* Member companies were rapidly expanding their business portfolios to include a variety of industrial packagings. For example, 10 years earlier, 95 percent of association members were engaged exclusively in the business of steel drum reconditioning. Now, 80 percent of the members were handling other container types in addition to steel drums. This change had come about because two alternate container types-plastic drums and intermediate bulk containers (which in 1990 represented only about 20 percent of the industrial packaging market measured by capacity)-had increased market share to about 40 percent by 1996. We anticipated these market trends would continue, although at a somewhat less robust pace.

* The business of supplying industrial packagings was evolving rapidly. For many years the lines of demarcation separating manufacturers from reconditioners were clear. That was no longer the case. Several manufacturers had purchased or were preparing to purchase reconditioning operations, and some reconditioners were creating strategic business alliances with one or more manufacturers.

* A growing number of reconditioning companies were transitioning away from a local or regional service orientation. Instead, they were becoming transregional or national in scope.

* Our association's finances, always dependent on member dues for approximately 80 percent of total revenue, were beginning to suffer despite a recent dues increase. In addition, meeting attendance and publication sales were trending downward, a pattern likely to continue and possibly accelerate as more buyouts took place.

Despite these trends, ACR was not facing an immediate financial crisis. The group still represented about 90 percent of the industry (measured by production capacity). And it was the only organization of its kind in the United States. However, as the influence of family-owned businesses waned, and as fewer and larger companies paid a greater share of total dues, we presumed that support for dues increases would be increasingly difficult to obtain.

How the planning process worked

Bill and I agreed on three things. First, the association had to broaden its membership base to ensure a reliable revenue stream. Second, a merger wasn't viable. When one such effort had been attempted two years earlier, the result had been a costly and time-consuming failure. Finally, we had to consider every other possibility for restructuring-no matter how farreaching the changes might be. We followed these four steps to help us plan our future direction.

1. Create a representative planning committee. Our planning committee included our elected officers, several highly respected elder statesmen, our general counsel, and a few younger members who were emerging leaders in the group. In addition, we took into account geographic representation, company size, and professional expertise (e.g., finance). The committee members, mostly company CEOs, all had the vision and creativity to act boldly.

2. Write a summary document and set the stage for change. Before our first committee meeting, each member received a memorandum summarizing discussions to date and a description of the financial, membership, and organizational issues facing the association.

At its first meeting, the committee concluded that incremental change would be no more helpful than a fad diet; things might appear different for a while, but in no time we'd be looking for fixes to the same old problems. Therefore, we decided to propose revolutionary changes in the organization and management structure of our association.

3. Assign research. Members of the committee appointed me to develop a white paper. This research paper used ideas derived from their brainstorming sessions as well as input from other sources, including ASAE and other association executives with whom I conferred.

4. Make recommendations. As requested, the suggestions were revolutionary. My white paper concluded that "an opportunity exists to bring under one roof firms that recondition, manufacture, distribute, and recycle" industrial packagings. By expanding the group to include manufacturers, the association would still serve its core constituency--steel drum reconditioners. But we would open a path to growth and prosperity by embracing the entire nonbulk and intermediate bulk packaging spectrum.

Broadening our scope meant two things: The association would have to change its name to reflect its new membership, and we would have to allow manufacturers to participate as full members. This meant giving them the right to vote and serve on the board of directors.

The paper also suggested that AGR's half-century-old regional structure should be eliminated. Instead, it should be reorganized along product lines: steel drum, plastic drum, and intermediate bulk container. Each of these divisions, which came to be called product groups, would be largely self-governing and composed of manufacturers, distributors, and reconditioners of the various products.

Building much-needed consensus

The white paper served as a springboard for discussion. Members of the planning committee met four times in 45 days, twice in person and twice by conference call. Before each session we made sure that everyone had the minutes of the previous meeting and that the white paper was revised to reflect current thinking.

The planning committee decided to present its ideas to the board of directors at the association's spring meeting. Because this was such a critical point in the process, careful preparation was vital. Our staff compiled a lengthy memorandum explaining the issues and distributed it to every board and executive committee member approximately two weeks before the meeting. Bill and I also called each board member to discuss the proposals and ascertain if any serious opposition to the concept was forming.

Bill and a well-respected planning committee member presented the proposal, being careful to include a detailed discussion of the group's current and projected financial and membership status. Not surprisingly, the board discussed the matter at length. But in the end, Bill sought, and received, unanimous consent to move forward with the planning process.

Knowing that we had general board support, the planning committee members accelerated their schedule. Working primarily by e-mail and conference calls, they established strict timetables for developing a draft governance memorandum (e.g., mission statement, administrative structures) and consequential bylaws amendments.

Throughout this phase, Bill and I agreed to speak every day. Both of us believe in the value of personal discussion. E-mail and fax are excellent ways to transmit information, but crucial subtleties like tentativeness and doubt get lost on screen and on paper. If the reorganization was to succeed, we had to be absolutely certain, all the time, about where we both stood on every issue.

Because our association had such a small staff--only four--this planning process meant a great deal of extra work, particularly paperwork. We decided to spread the load and make it a team effort. The two people most intimately involved in the process, other than myself, were my office manager/bookkeeper, who created and revised financial statements and membership assessments; and my administrative assistant, who prepared our graphs and charts. My view is that by keeping everyone involved in the process, concerns about the effects of possible changes were held to a minimum. This also helped staff buy in to the process, a fact that was crucial to the success of this effort.

Pursuing the final approval By July, only five months after our first formal discussion about expansion, the planning committee completed a fully elaborated draft governance memorandum as well as a set of draft bylaws for the proposed new organization. The governance memorandum included

* a new name, mission statement, and guiding principles;

* a completely reconfigured organizational structure;

* revised election procedures;

* recommendations regarding dues and finance issues; and

* an implementation timetable.

Approximately two weeks before our summer board meeting, we distributed all this material to the board of directors, the executive committee, and a number of the association's old hands. During the interim period, we asked each planning committee member to contact several board members personally to discuss the proposals and answer questions.

Once again, Bill and I called every member of the board prior to the meeting.

The committee met by conference call before the board meeting to discuss member comments, make needed revisions to the proposal, and outline a game plan for the board meeting. The committee selected an articulate speaker to make the presentation to the board and requested that it be done using PowerPoint, with handouts for all members and observers.

Chairman Shocklee set aside 90 minutes at the board meeting for the presentation and discussion. We knew from our phone calls that support was strong, but we were hoping to gain unanimous approval.

The presentation went well: brief, to the point, but with no relevant detail left out. The most controversial issue--allowing new manufacturers the right to vote and serve on the board--generated some heated remarks from a few of the association's elder statesmen. But they eventually realized that change was essential to the association's long-term survival. The board recommended several revisions to the proposal, all of which the planning committee agreed to.

The 21-member board then approved, with just one dissenting vote, a motion to adopt "...the planning committee restructure ACR and establish the Reusable Industrial Packaging Association."

Using the same open-information strategy, we revised the governance plan and drafted bylaws in accordance with board recommendations. Then we distributed them to all of our members 45 days before the annual meeting. A detailed presentation of the plan took place at the general membership meeting. After discussion, the members approved it without a dissenting vote.

Our major success factors

Today, two years after the change, the Reusable Industrial Packaging Association is thriving.

Members believe the new structure has made us stronger and more effective. Although mergers and consolidations have in fact whittled away at our membership base, the product-group structure has attracted many new members. Income from dues is a bit higher than it was two years ago; income from publications and meetings is still declining slowly. But manufacturers have become an integral part of the organization. In fact, several manufacturer representatives serve on our hoard and executive committee.

I attribute the speed with which our changes took place to two main factors: One was Bill Shocklee's will to move forward. He recognized fully and early the need to expand the scope of our membership base and create a more inclusive operating structure.

Second, the board and membership trusted me to make sound decisions. When this process began, I had been president for eight years, during which time I got to know every single member and visited more than 40 member plants. In addition, I worked hard to make all administrative decisions in as transparent a manner as possible. Many minor decisions that could have turned contentious were handled "behind the curtain"--thus enabling the process to move forward rapidly.

Trust among the board, the membership, and the executive is a prerequisite to any restructuring effort. Looking back, I would not do anything differently.

Paul W. Rankin is president, Reusable Industrial Packaging Association, Landover, Maryland (staff size: 4; annual operating budget: $700,000). E-mail:

Tips for a Technology-Based Task

In developing an online educational tool, the staff at the National Association of Legal Assistants, Tulsa, Oklahoma, discovered the wisdom of sticking with the basics. Here are some suggestions to keep in mind when considering such a project for your organization.

* Recognize that the Internet is simply another communication medium. Don't lose sight of your association's mission and the fact that the Internet is only one way to communicate what you are trying to say. You still need books, live seminars, and personal interaction to round out your continuing education strategy.

* Develop strong business relationships with the right providers-and keep them. Good relationships with vendors who do not have the expertise required for your project are of no help. When seeking a vendor, we looked for these three key qualities: a good local reputation; knowledge of the industry, as well as being on the cutting edge with a similar product; and diligence.

* Open your mind to the possibilities offered by the Internet. With the flexibility of the Internet, you can consider individualizing your online product for different markets by customizing home pages and using different domain names. Don't hesitate to include authors in your market analysis and never rule out markets beyond your own membership.

* Don't neglect administrative requirements. Internet users expect immediate, individualized communication. This is one of the attributes of the Web that makes it both attractive and administratively demanding.

* Remember that it's all about service. Never allow the pressures of developing a Web site to overwhelm the needs of the users. We had to remember that members' needs come first--they don't care about staff or Web site limitations, only that they want affordable continuing education delivered more conveniently.

* Don't be dazzled by bells and whistles. This tendency will be moderated as greater bandwidth and higher speeds are developed, but for now you have to aim at the lowest common denominator, While beautiful graphics, animation, live programs, and music are all possible, users with slow modems and outdated browsers will find these features infuriating.

* Be confident that you can do it. Software and support are available right now to allow you to develop your own Internet program in a few weeks.

* Keep your association volunteers involved. The heavy lifting can be done largely by staff and a strong business partner, but the support of leadership and key members is essential--especially if the wheels come off of your business model and you must convince members that you can put them back on and make it work.
COPYRIGHT 2001 American Society of Association Executives
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Publication:Association Management
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2001
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