Associations Creating Community


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Associations Creating Community

Continuous innovation and the diverse communities of practice that support it have been more essential than ever to remaining relevant. Associations are communities—tribes of the willing who focus on bettering their professions and industries. ASAE is committed to leading that effort––as a catalyst, role model, and incubator.

How to create, maintain, and foster those communities was the topic of a podcast series recorded at the 2019 Great Ideas Conference. Hosted by Jefferson Glassie, Whiteford Taylor Preston partner and ASAE fellow, and Blake Althen, FASAE and Human Factor co-owner and producer, in a comfortable and revealing interview format, some of the leading minds in association management gave their thoughts and insights about community.

Check out this unique set of interviews that cuts across disciplines and career states to provide insights that are interesting, relevant, and inspiring.

Featured interviewees:

Also available on Apple.

Associations Creating Community

Lessons from Association Execs at the ASAE Great Ideas Conference 2019 

Associations are communities. Volunteer organizations that focus on bettering their professions and industries. How to create, maintain, and foster those communities was the topic of a series of podcast interviews hosted by Jefferson Glassie of the Whiteford Nonprofit Law Group and Blake Althen of Human Factor, LLC on site at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs, Colorado during the 2019 ASAE Great Ideas Conference.

Eleven association leaders gave their thoughts and insights about community in this unique set of interviews. They provide insights that all association executives should find interesting and relevant to their jobs. You can listen to the podcasts at the following link, but here are some of the nuggets: 

Sue Pine, FASAE, is with Association Headquarters and was recently selected to be an ASAE Fellow. She has worked as staff for many associations for over forty years. She says community is built by a series of little steps. For example, she insists the association members always state their name and where they’re from when the ask questions at meetings, which helps people remember one another. As another example, for the National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals, whose Board was having big challenges, she had the Board identify their core values as a way to build community on the Board. To expand the community to the members, she had the Board get to the main meeting early and form a receiving line for the members. As members walked in, with snappy and happy music playing in the background, they were greeted by the Board, which had a profound impact on improving camaraderie in the association. It’s also important, she says, to push people to be innovative and try to find new ways to build community, such as through community service projects.  

Lowell Aplebaum is principal of Vista Cova, which provides facilitation advice and services to associations. Lowell says it is essential for association members to feel like they belong and have the space to talk with one another in micro-communities. Many association leaders forget what it was like to be a new member and feel the need to identify association volunteers to emulate. When volunteers spend time working on problems together, that can be a powerful force toward building community. Lowell says members also need to develop a competency in listening to be able to be productive together. He says a critical distinction is whether your organization is creating things for your members or with your members. Lowell says he also has learned how important it is to have the right volunteer leaders who can create community, especially through diversity and inclusion. Another important point is to recognize that community is not just about bringing in new members, but also recognizing the members who have been loyal to the association for decades, and to mix new and long-time members. Lowell says the bottom line is that people join associations to meet and connect with other people to help solve problems.  

Christina Lewellen, at the time was with the Association of Proposal Management Professionals and is now with the Association of Technology Leaders in Independent Schools (ATLIS), and was also the former volunteer President of Harmony, Inc., a female Barbershop harmony singing group. There was a special community bond and even love among the women who are Harmony Barbershop singers, she says, in a different way than a professional society. Christina says that the most important aspect of community is providing a venue for people to connect, so they can find their tribes. This is more complex, of course, for an international society, in terms of helping members find their geographical tribes, but also professional interests across national boundaries. Making educational content accessible to all the members where they are is critical, Christina says. For both professional associations and passion-based groups like Harmony, she says, the magic really happens when people set aside ego and competition, and just focus on their commonalities and something bigger than themselves. “My role as a leader, my honor and privilege of a leader at Harmony, Inc., has shaped me as an association executive,” she says, “because … it is so important … to breathe the community.” Some association execs don’t like their members, maybe because they don’t buy into the community, she says, and it’s so critical for staff to be part of the community, too. Also, Christina says, members crave recognition, and providing that recognition helps build community, too. 

John Graham is president and CEO of ASAE, and believes community is critical for associations. “Community is near and dear to my heart,” he says. In the past, associations did education programs and trade shows, and “the view was that community was a byproduct of those activities.  I think now we are at a place where we recognize that we had it backwards, 180 degrees backwards. A byproduct of community is education, or learning, or forming relationships, or professional development.” Associations are really all about, first and foremost, creating community. The community path has evolved so that technology has also enabled it and can assist in creating community, including even taking pictures at meetings and posting them on association sites.  Community can be formed in many ways, ideally face to face, but in many different ways, John says, pointing to the ASAE Collaborate site as an example. The whole essence of forming community is getting human interaction. A Board has community, but for a defined short-lived period of time, he says, and the needs of the Board community have to be carefully determined. But association members engage in many communities that are part of the overall community. Chapters, on the other hand, often form their own community outside of the national association. “At the end of the day,” John says, “first and foremost, [associations] are a catalyst to form communities.” Because the most important thing associations do is put people together. Being in an association community can be professionally rewarding, John says, but also very personally rewarding.  

Nicole Araujo has been in the association community for over twenty years in a support operations role to help associations. The way associations develop community, from a vendor’s perspective, really depends on the specific association. The best solution, she says, is not having all your eggs in one basket in terms of creating community, and engaging members across multiple platforms. It’s important to stay in the forefront technologically. As an example, ASAE does a really good job of partner/vendor/supplier engagement and incorporating them into the association, listening to them, and helping them be successful. Having conversations with vendors or suppliers is critical to bringing them into the association community, as well as providing them with appropriate recognition. Nicole also says it’s important for vendors and suppliers to show up at events, hear the conversations that are going on, and be present and focused to make connections and develop relationships. 

Katherine Shamapande with National Association of Surety Bond Producers, with co-host Eileen Johnson of the Whiteford Nonprofit Law Group.  NASBP members have a solid community as a niche industry and consider other members to be family and friends who they can call on when in need. The Association tries to give them as much room for networking as possible. The Association just rolled out a new Learning Management System, which is designed to promote community through educational programming. When choosing the LMS, the Association focused on community in making its decision as to constructing the platform. The Association also has a Collaborate-type site that is designed to create community too, and the members are also active on social media, including Linked-In, FaceBook, and Twitter. New Association members go to a Level 1 school when joining as a way to meet other colleagues. They also started a committee for those in the industry between five to fifteen years, so that they can learn more about how the Association operates.  Members of the committee are also required to join another operational committee of the Association to learn more about governance. The Association committees are also very active and meet face to face twice a year as a way to promote community. For one of the committees, they had a hat day where volunteers and staff all wore hats as a humorous way to break down barriers.The Association also brings in partners organizations as a way to promote community with associated industry areas. The Association also allows communities to form mainly by providing time to network and hang out together. 

Silvia Quevedo works at the Association for Profession Control and Epidemiology (APIC), which is membership association with about 15,000 members and is primarily concerned with patient safety and mitigating risks from infection.  This session was co-hosted by Kellie Newton of the Whiteford Nonprofit Law Group. Sylvia says, by virtue of being an association, we are communities that come together around a cause, profession, or a goal. “Our members come together around preventing the spread of disease.”  APIC also holds a fashion show at the APIC annual meeting with demonstrations of personal protective equipment, which makes the demonstration of such gear fun for the members and helps build community. APIC also holds a video/movie contests on hand hygiene with submissions all over the country and the world, which also is a lot of fun and helps promote community. It is important in a very serious profession to inject humor as a way to create community. APIC also conducts research on why members join and what builds community, and Silvia says it is important to understand that associations have to go where the community is, in addition to coming to the association. She also talked about the concept of a “third space,” which is a mind-set separate from home or office for people to prosper in communities and subcultures. Silvia says it is also important to focus on inclusion beyond just diversity to build strong association communities. She also spends a lot of time for APIC on the road working with other associations and organization in their community who are interested in disease prevention. 

Silvia is also chair of the ASAE Foundation Research Committee.  The Foundation has several research projects on the future of membership and the decision to join that look at communities in associations. The ASAE Foundation research helps associations focus on what is important in building community in different types of associations. Silvia mentioned the new ASAE Collaborate site for the Foundation Research Committee, which is intended to connect people with the available research and to be a place where people can ask questions about how to conduct research or provide input to the Committee on future projects, and will hopefully be another beneficial community for ASAE members.  Silvia feels her participation with APIC and as a volunteer with ASAE is like family, since a sense of belonging and connecting is so important to community.  

Peter O’Neill is CEO of ASIS International, whose members are security management practitioners, and a former chair of ASAE. One of the goals of ASIS is building global, regional, and local communities and the recent roll-out of its virtual communities was very successful. Peter says one of the common factors of all of the associations he has worked with is that they want to share knowledge and information with one another, especially in the association management profession which makes it a special community. 

One of the key functions during his year as chair of ASAE was to focus on building community through the diversity and inclusion effort and with younger members. Peter says association executives should absolutely take on as a major responsibility the role of building community, though it is clearly a collaboration with the board. Association execs should realize they are there to be like a sherpa or guide for their associations. Peter has been very fortunate to be able to have developed a community of friends and mentors who have helped him over his career. He acknowledges that there is a two-way street in a profession like association management where it is important to want to gain personally as well as contribute. He says he would not be where he is without the community that he has been fortunate to develop through ASAE.  

Jeff DeCagna, FASAE, and Executive Adviser at Foresight First, has been in the association profession for 27 years, and recently rebranded and refocused his work in Foresight First to concentrate on nurturing a more generative integration of stewardship, governing, and foresight to build high performing boards through the work of foresight. The focus on community is strong in connection with the work of innovation. Community can be synonymous with the sense of belonging and he focuses on building networks of relationships. “A genuine community is vibrant because it is diverse and inclusive,” Jeff says. It deeply values the experiences of all involved and expects people to contribute. We as a society are fairly splintered today, but if we can move past that toward a new reunification in our society, associations have an important role to play in rebuilding trust and collaborating with a focus on the future. Associations can adversely affect community by creating barriers to membership and collaboration, and he feels it is important to reach out to other stakeholders. He notes that the word “division” to segment members with different interests, as is common with many associations is itself a divisive term and language really matters. Even terms we use for younger professionals can be demeaning.  

If we really want to be serious about building communities, Jeff says, we have to focus on our language because the way we talk about it reflects the way we think about it. To build community, first look at the purpose for doing it, determine what is the purpose and outcome expected for the stakeholders. Stewardship is also a critical concept to consider, and how associations can lead and guide the community effort, while keeping a focus on the future. Jeff also believes boards have a duty of foresight, looking ahead and asking how the association will deal with the future. Community can be important in helping boards build a consistent practice of foresight as a moral and ethical obligation to the members and stakeholders. It is important not to have an attitude that “we know better.” Clarity of purpose in building community is really critical for associations; focus on why we are doing this.

Robert Nelson is a consultant for associations and provides strategic and governance advice to associations and CEOs. Robert says the association business is all about community; community is everything we do, he says, bringing people together to accomplish their goals. Robert believes that the emphasis on and need for community is what sets apart associations from the for-profit world. Community should be part of the branding for associations. Brand is really the emotional connection members feel with the associations. It used to be that we felt community was getting a group of people together to solve a problem; today we do that, but also focus more on how we can use a more diverse perspective to achieve a better solution. A community with more diversity leads to better results. Developing a strong community can help solve big problems and grand challenges. Association have the power to convene and the power to convene and create communities, so have an obligation to identify the critical challenges so that solutions can be sought. Bringing associations together to create communities to address cross industry and professional problems is increasingly important; associations are well positioned to convene the right people to help solve some of society’s largest problems. It’s important to have a clear vision and then step up to address the problems, and associations are experienced in managing such efforts.  

Holly Duckworth, CAE, CMP, LSP, is with Leadership Solutions International and teaches mindfulness to CEOs and executives; she has written two books on leadership through mindfulness and how to lead in these chaotic times with a sense of calm. Holly says, “Mindfulness is the practice of being fully present in the moment without judgment.” She led a group at the ASAE Great Ideas conference taking execs on a leadership intensive program at the Garden of the Gods near the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs. Mindfulness is not necessarily about being on a yoga mat, but involves setting an intention of setting your energy in motion. In creating community, it is important to first set an intention. It is useful for associations to not just focus on data, but also to bring intuition into creating community. Mindfulness can help counteract the 24/7 stress that association execs faces all the time, and can lead to more clarity, focus, and efficiency. We can create better communities by focusing on our intention in a mindful way. Holly says it is important to lead by example in creating a more mindful community. Associations should consider tech-free zones/rooms or take other small steps at meetings to help create a more mindful environment within the association. It’s important to breathe, center, relax, and think about what is the best community you can create for the association and put your intention on that.