Wednesday, October 30, 2013

When commitment isn't enough

I have recently returned from the national conference of the organisation I work for.

We have 38 ''branches'' around the country, each with it's own CEO (or similar), it's own membership, and executive board, but also a national body, and a loose geographical hub system.  There are national sponsorship agreements that we can all take part in, and more localised programmes unique to each town/district.

One of the biggest challenges we face, particularly in a crowded marketplace, is finding a strong ''voice'' both at local and national level, that is reflective of each community, but is also unified in terms of advocacy for the NZ wide business community.  Much discussion was entered into about this, and we almost unanimously agreed that as CEO's (that's me) we need to work hard to share the ''stories'' of our National identity, as well as use this collective approach to be a more effective voice to Government, and other stakeholders.

As the conversation wore on, it occurred to me that we have some disconnect between commitment and engagement of not only our members, but also, in some cases, the boards, and even employees of these organisations.

What do I mean by this?  Well, there are literally thousands of businesses who pay a fee to belong to us.  And happily do so, year on year.  So they have some commitment.  But around 80% almost never come along to a networking evening, a training workshop, or even take advantage of the buying privileges that their membership gives them.  Many do not take part in surveys, awards, or offer feedback on local/central government issues - hence we can surmise that their engagement is minimal.

The question is, therefore: how do we move someone from commitment to engagement? Do we even need to? If they are paying the bill does it even matter?

I would argue that we can only represent our members properly if they are engaged.  We could, I suppose, assume that if they are paying a subscription each year they are reputedly happy with us - but there are many reasons for membership - some see it as altruistic, for some its tradition, for others simply a habit.  What we need, in order to be a truly effective organisation, is to have strong engagement - good conversations, for lack of a better description - with the people we claim to represent.

It means getting ''out there'' and talking to them.  Survey monkey, Facebook, e-letters simply won't cut the mustard. We need to be engaging with THEM in order to encourage them to engage with us.

Face to face conversations, personal invitations, tailored networking solutions - these things might be the start.  and it also means listening very carefully to the ones who ARE already engaging to ensure that we not only represent them well, but communicate their opinions and views to those less inclined to contribute.

We also, I think, both at local and national level need to consider which ''causes'' we can really have some impact on (where can we have the most influence), and which parts of business do we need to leave for other organisations to deal with.  How can we really help our members to be even better at what they do? One size might not fit all - and of course a big city branch can offer a whole lot more than a small town one like mine - but consistently of brand is key.  The common descriptor of ''telling the story'' really does apply to us.

I'm always glad when one of my members happily pays their subscription fee. But I'm happier still when they take part in our calendar of events, offer opinions, seek help, and use their membership privileges to the max.  That's what being engaged will do. It really is a two way conversation - and to not do this is to risk our organisation and many others like it - we are our members and our very existence depends on them.

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