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Membership: the CEO's role.

Membership: The CEO's Role

What the top executive can do to keep members joining--and rejoining.

Budgeting, board relations, media relations, convention and meeting planning: All of these activities and more crowd the busy association CEO's calendar. Yet, even when it's easy to see how membership development could slip to the bottom of the top executive's list of to-dos, the smart CEO isn't letting it. It's much too important.

Just what role should the CEO play in setting and implementing membership development policy? How much time should her or she devote to recruiting and retaining members? What are the most worthwhile membership activities for a chief executive?

Association Management asked five CEOs whose organizations won 1990 awards of excellence from ASAE's Membership Marketing Section these questions, and here's what they had to say.

A matter of priority

Not unexpectedly, the executives insist that membership development remain at the top of their priority lists. For Beth Waid, executive director of the National Court Appointed Special Advocate Association (NCASAA), Seattle, membership development is the top priority because of the credibility it brings to her group, organized in 1982 to represent people appointed to provide support for abused and neglected children. Says Waid, "The more members we garner, the more attention we receive among lawmakers and affiliate groups."

Clarke Price, executive director of the Ohio Society of Certified Public Accountants (OSCPA), Dublin, puts membership recruitment and retention at the top of his personal duty list as well, for a simple reason: It generates money for the society's programs. Associations can't become complacent about membership, says Price, and he speaks from experience.

"Up until two years ago," he explains, "membership was not a high priority for us; it was a given that people passed the [CPA] exam and joined OSCPA. But about five years ago we began to see a decrease in this pattern. The word about joining the society was not filtering down to entry level staff.

"Two years ago our board approved a major change in policy and began offering everyone who passed the exam in Ohio one year of free associate membership," continues Price. "Then we spent the year going to these people and proving to them what the society could do for them and how easy it is to belong. This way we got to the point that all they had to do was say, |Of course I want to continue to receive the membership benefits I've had this past year, so I'll just renew.'"

The society absorbed an $18,000 cost the first year to support the free memberships, but when 70 percent of those who passed the exam renewed their memberships after their free year, the program more than paid for itself.

Other CEOs rank membership development equal in importance to other duties. They view it as a preliminary activity that makes other work possible and necessary.

Philip R. Peach, executive director of the Oregon Lodging Association (OLA), Portland, feels membership is intertwined with government affairs. "My view is that nearly every association formed in the first place over some crisis related to government regulation of their industry. To this day the issues of most importance to members involve government affairs, so you work on membership to get the members whom you then represent among legislators."

Peach notes that at a state or local level, an association can sometimes essentially reach saturation in terms of potential members. Then retention becomes the big game because keeping the members means retaining influence with legislators. "It takes time, but we never drop a member from our roster unless we've established personal contact, and they have indicated they do not want to renew. It's easier to bring an old member back than to recruit a new one."

Steven Hacker, CAE, executive vice president of the Professional Insurance Agents of Texas, Inc. (PIA of Texas), Austin, declares, "Membership ranks as one third of my top priorities. I divide myself between membership development, financial planning, and legislative representation duties and devote my time equally to each."

Richard L. Clarke, president and CEO of the Healthcare Financial Management Association (HFMA), Westchester, Illinois, sees membership development as a result rather than a cause of his work. Clarke, whose organization represents individuals who provide financial services to health care facilities, explains that "membership level is important as a measure of the success of our services and the way we provide them. It doesn't operate in a vacuum; it's the result of the organization's overall commitment."

Level of involvement

The right amount of CEO involvement in membership activities varies, say most of the executives interviewed for this article, with the size of the staff. Peach has a staff of four (with a fifth part-time staffer) and no membership department. He says he's more involved in implementation of membership plans than CEOs of larger associations might be.

"When I became CEO three years ago, I hired my replacement in the government affairs area and worked with him to establish a membership marketing plan. My role now is to monitor membership numbers and to contact people personally when they need to be brought back over the edge and into the fold. So the government affairs director helps develop the membership plan, and we share the responsibilities."

Clarke, with an HFMA staff of 70, including a dedicated membership department, may stand on the opposite end of the scale in numbers, but agrees with Peach in principle. "The larger the association, the more abstract the CEO's involvement in membership development," he says. "Your duties are establishing policy and strategy--planning and approving rather than planning and implementing. My staff may send in a letter for our members for my approval. At that point I've been included in setting the letter's message, and I will be the one to approve it, but my staff created the letter."

All five executives believe the CEO's most important role in membership development is setting tone, philosophy, and style, no matter what size his or her staff may be.

"The membership tends to look at the CEO as their employee," says NCASAA's Waid. "So the CEO's personal image as well as the image he or she sets of the organization itself is important to them. But while the CEO helps set the long-range plan and philosophy, the staff needs to be allowed to take chances and risks on their own to actually fulfill it.

"We operate from a five-year strategic plan and a two-year management plan. Staff follows the plan, and I get involved when we get to stuck points. I try to be very visible, however, to members" as the representative of the plan.

"The CEO can definitely be too involved in implementation," notes Hacker. "My proper role is setting the community norm, the expectations, in terms of membership responsibility, and so forth. Although we have two staff members [out of 20] devoted to membership development, my philosophy is that membership recruitment is everyone's job. In fact, it's a written part of everyone's job description [at PIA of Texas].

"Everything we offer members can be quantified into a tangible benefit that can be sold to potential members, so all staff activities can, in turn, be sales opportunities. Every staff member comes in contact with prospective members in some way; we attempt to capitalize on that contact. We offer commissions to staffers--30 percent of the first year's membership dues--on each membership sold. And we budget for these commissions as a cost of member recruitment. My role is to make sure programs like the commission incentives are put into effect and maintained."

Essential contributions

Beyond directing their associations' membership programs, CEOs often take on such hands-on activities as motivating staff and members, changing the focus of an organization's membership development efforts, and improving the organization's image among its membership.

"In our budget, I set the dollar amount for revenue at $85,000," says Hacker, of PIA of Texas, "but with staff I set it at $120,000, so they have a higher goal to reach for than the one the board is expecting. The board is pleasantly surprised this way. I also serve as staff motivator: I praise staff who do a lot of recruiting. And for those who do not recognize their membership responsibilities, I'll be involved in working with them. I host |winners' dinners' to motivate staff, and I assist our marketing director in coordinating |sales' meetings and phone-a-thons."

"My greatest contribution to our membership efforts is the time I commit to local visits [to members and chapters]," says OLA's Peach. "A couple of times a month I spend a day doing this. We support my visits with advance notices in newsletters to all members and non-members in the area I'm to visit. We let them know what I'll be talking about, and if we tap the hot issues, members are very receptive and attend in high numbers.

"I went to a small town called Ontario, Oregon, for example, that tends to feel disconnected from the rest of the state--more like a part of Idaho," adds Peach. "My visits and talks with the local press made members there realize I was concerned about representing them. That feeling can, in turn, bring in new members (three in that particular case), and can help retain older ones. These visits give members a face to place with the name, and that's a big part of our retention strategy."

Price notes, "Now that OSCPA has got 70 percent of those passing the CPA staying on in the organization, I've felt we might lose sight of the hard-core nonmember: the CPA who passed the exam maybe 15 years ago and might have even once been a part of the organization. They are certainly benefiting from our work indirectly, but are not members. My personal contribution now is to devote myself to selling our leaders on recruiting these people. It's going to be a tough sell. We won't have the success level there in terms of numbers, so it's harder to get the leadership excited. But in terms of long-term income, the established CPA will bring in a great deal."

Like Price and the others, NCASAA's Waid works hard to keep her organization's membership efforts focused. "We represent those who provide assistance to the children. So while we try to keep members focused on children, we need to focus on the members' needs," she explains. "My goal is to keep our attention on the right course, so I've set up an annual member satisfaction survey that helps us with our strategic plan. It's imperative that members perceive us as being responsive to them, even as we lead them."

"When I got to HFMA," recalls Clarke, "I believed that we needed to increase the visibility of the association in the profession. As someone who was a member of the field, I was able to speak as an authority, work with staff, and do speaking and writing to achieve this goal. I work with key groups and individuals who are of importance to our members: top financial managers with health care firms, government leaders, health care partners in large accounting firms, and so forth. We publicize the fact that I'm in touch with these people through interviews I write for our monthly magazine. I do one every three months or so. And I participate in all educational programs that feature such individuals as speakers. If members recognize you as an industry leader, it certainly helps with promoting the association."

Board involvement

While some CEOs have little success--despite trying--involving volunteer leaders in membership development, many have found ways to make membership work palatable, even exciting, to their boards.

Waid acts as "ambassador at large" to court-appointed special advocate chapters and individuals across the country. A CASA volunteer herself, she sets an example and makes sure board members have adequate resources to do the same. "A set ratio of our board members is regional," she explains, "so it's possible for them to reach members personally." This system offers a sense of connectedness for both board members and members, says Waid.

OSCPA's Price says good communication and cooperation with his board happens more smoothly when his staff is communicating well internally. "I'm reorganizing our various communications into a communication department that will have every staff member who deals with external communications reporting to one person," he says. "This way information for the board, members, and public will be more uniform."

OLA's Peach has been successful motivating board members to work on membership development by actually making his board a more prestigious place to serve. "We've down-sized our board, making it more competitive to serve on. Our success here has been due to our ability to enhance the image of OLA as a whole. We've gone after more media attention and have entered and won some award contests. We've also become a major player in the process of setting the state tourism budget and have helped get that budget increased."

Today more people want to serve on the board, and they're beginning to see membership activities as part of board service, according to Peach. "Now we're more able to use board members as we use me: to make local visits for recruitment and retention purposes."

Amy V. Roberts is associate editor of Association Management.
COPYRIGHT 1991 American Society of Association Executives
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:chief executive officer
Author:Roberts, Amy V.
Publication:Association Management
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Jun 1, 1991
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