Conference Learning: Association for Associations (Updated Tuesday @ 3:45 p.m.)

Conference Learning: Association for Associations (Updated Tuesday @ 3:45 p.m.)

This is Kirsten Wyatt’s “Weekly Update,” shared over three days at the
Associations @ Work conference in Baltimore, Maryland.

Tuesday, October 17

3:30 p.m. Update

I’m in my last session of the day. My first afternoon session was about using predictive analysis to make association decisions. It was fascinating to learn from the team at Association Analytics about how they’ve helped associations make business decisions based on available data.

It was especially relevant to organizations that have a lot of unknowns, especially around certifications/credentialing. And that reminded me of a conversation I’ve had a few times lately about whether ELGL would ever do a certificate or credential program. My answer is an emphatic “no.” Now, I know I’m not the sole voice on this but here’s my reasoning:

I don’t think leadership or management can be credentialed or certified. I think there are too many soft skills, too many emotional intelligence elements, and too many gray areas to be able to say “yep, you’re an expert” or “nope, you haven’t earned it.” I get why accountants, engineers, lawyers, etc. need continuing education and credentials. Those technical skills have check boxes that need to be checked to ensure their qualifications are up to speed. I feel like the big picture leadership topics that ELGL tackles can’t be credentialed and if we tried to, it would look like a shameless money grab. What do you think?

Back to #AtWork17. I’m now at a session about whether an association should outsource or in-house association sales. It’s made me realize how much ELGL gives away to our members – and I’m fine with that!

So many of the items that other groups monetize – webinar views, ads in a magazine, continuing education credits, books – are things that just seem out of date with the ELGL model that we’ve created and are enhancing now.

(Plus, there’s a huge emphasis on selling publication ads – I have to think this revenue stream isn’t very steady with digital media?  I’m too afraid to ask in this room because everyone is nodding their heads and has a print publication…).

In my view, our ELGL model is democratizing the sharing of information. There’s an equal playing field for anyone who becomes a member. I love that! I love that when you join, you don’t get nickel and dimed for more content or interaction.

I’ve always known that ELGL’s business model ensures that cost isn’t a barrier to participation – but this session has affirmed that, and it makes me proud that the Board of Directors passed a budget for FY18 that reflects this value while continuing all of ELGL’s awesome programs and services.


1:30 p.m. Update

I rolled my eyes so hard during the #mword session I almost broke my skull.

Just finished a lunch with a creative “lightning round” theme – five speakers talking for five minutes each. It was a nice way to mix up the agenda and do something different. And, I had nice chat about how to effectively poach talent from other organizations with the CFO of the Missouri Soybean Association, who went from auditor to CFO (similar to a career path I’ve seen in local government finance).

The session was hosted by my new friends at CliftonLarsonAllen, who will hopefully be joining the DMV Supper Club next month. They do a ton of audit work for professional associations and local governments in the mid-Atlantic.

I was still seething after an hour long session listening to ageist millennial stereotypes at the “Millennial Leaders Fostering Inter-Generational Collaboration” session. I don’t want to give it or the speaker any more credit than my flurry of tweets have already done, but in a nutshell, it was your typical conference babble about how millennials are so different and we need to adapt workplaces for them.

It included a slide deck of generalizations that would be totally inappropriate if the word “millennial” was replaced with “woman” or “LGBT” or “Asian” or “Christian….” You get the idea.

Focusing on the positive:

Earlier in the morning, I attended an incredible session this morning titled “From Corporate Sponsorships to Partnerships: Then and Now.” It was right up ELGL’s alley. They talked about moving from sponsorship model (where you ask your business partners to give you cash and then fit into some narrowly constructed benefits packages), and toward partnerships where you are working with partners to enhance member experience and build better, stronger organizations.

I am still amazed at the amount of money that some of these organizations are dealing with (one of the presenters has event sponsors that are paying $100K plus per event – it’s Big Pharma, but still…) but I’m over that now and am trying to focus on the principles at play.

My big bold assertion I’d like to make with a half day left of this conference:

If you’re currently working as a local government manager, you could be a kick-ass association manager. The principles of managing both organizations are very similar. The qualities of the speakers I admire here, are also the qualities I admire in local gov professionals. Empathy, transparency, communications, governance – all concepts that are critical to a strong local government and a strong association.

I think this is exciting – I love the idea of sharing more ways that local gov skills are transferrable to other fields, should a move or life circumstance interrupt a local government career. Or, just knowing that the career jungle gym can move into other cool areas where service is at the core, and innovation is valuable and needed.


8:30 a.m. Update

Yesterday ended with a nice reception hosted by Vault Consulting (no shrimp, Bridget and Nick, but a lot of lil crab cakes), and I had a chance to meet people from associations as different as the Educational Theater Association to the National Guard Association.

I then walked around downtown Baltimore, and went to dinner at the Pratt Street Ale House and enjoyed a local Oliver Street ale. I recommend both when our readers are here for the ICMA conference next year. One thing I don’t recommend: staying at the Marriott. My TV has been broken for two days (despite telling them about it multiple times) and wifi is non existent. So I ended my night reading saved articles online.

Now we’re getting ready to start another day of learning, including more financial best practices, that #mword session, and some exciting “lightning talks” during the lunch hour.

Monday, October 16

3:30 p.m. Update

A lot of people in ELGL have joked about how rad it would be to start a new city and fully staff the organization with ELGL superstars. Imagine what an awesome workplace and community we could create! It’s a super fun exercise to imagine – putting together a true all-star city with the best ideas, best programs, best software… you get the idea.

This first day at #AtWork17 has been at times daunting, but mostly inspiring. Daunting because ELGL doesn’t have the organizational history as some of these groups. And certainly not the money and reserves.

But, it has been inspiring because we are starting a new organization – from scratch, and we can fully implement the best ideas, best programs, best software…. And so, until we are able to colonize a new city, this ELGL experience is the closest thing to that ELGL idea of creating our all-star city. Pretty cool stuff.

One other observation:

I’m feeling a little uncomfortable with the ways some organizations talk about member communication, especially regarding finances and programming. It’s at times condescending, and always with a tone of frustration – with the implications that members will just be annoying or bothersome about the needs of the organization.

Maybe it’s because ELGL is serving public sector members, or maybe it’s because ELGL has been completely transparent from day one, but I can’t imagine treating members like they’re dues-paying cogs instead of equal partners in our endeavors.

This makes me want to be even more communicative and transparent about ELGL operations each month. It makes me want our monthly financial information to be even more accessible and formatted in really cool, understandable ways.

1:00 p.m. Update

Just finished a roundtable discussion lunch, an idea I totally want to steal for #ELGL18. Each table had a topic (there were 20 in total) and you sat at the table you wanted to chat about. Each table had a moderator to start the discussion with an example or story about the topic at hand. It was a great way to meet new people and talk about things that were relevant to your interests.

I sat at the “Innovative Partnerships to Generate Non-Dues Revenue” table. I was really excited because I was thinking along the lines of ways that ELGL can continue to provide value and worth to our event sponsors in ways that are non-traditional (e.g. no vendor halls) and meaningful.

There were some really cool ideas, but some were definitely outside the realm of ELGL’s abilities or interests. For example, one idea was to partner with a MLB team on ticket sales and game sponsorship to spread the word about education initiatives. Sounds rad! Would love to see the Astros with #13Percent on game banners or to have Ben Kittelson throw out the first pitch. But, I don’t think that level of partnership is in the cards (yet) for ELGL.

Also heard more about paying to bring in really big name speakers to conferences and events to motivate and mobilize members. Again, love the idea (and I will CONTINUE to ask Amy Poehler each year, without fail, to keynote our annual conference) but don’t know if this is in the cards for us this fiscal year.

But what I did take away as a positive, is that ELGL is on the right track by thinking differently and boldly about how to break outside of the traditional model of partnership and sponsorship, to create value for everyone in our organization – vendor members and individual members. I like seeing that the professional association field is also looking at these new ways to embrace authenticity and move away from just spending money or creating vendor halls.


I also attended a session on moving from a brick and mortar work environment, to a virtual environment. There was definitely some interplay between this discussion for professional associations, and local governments. There seems to be a real hesitancy, especially from associations with hundreds of employees and an office building, to embrace cloud- or virtual technologies to conduct work.

This seems to mimic local government environments where “giving up a position” might seem anathema. While I certainly understand not wanting to take a step backward in staffing or budget, I have never understood keeping the status quo because you don’t want to “lose ground.”

For example, why would a local government organization keep an administrative assistant when the newly-hired director is perfectly competent at computer and administrative tasks? Similarly, why do professional associations refuse to move to a virtual environment because they have too many unskilled workers to “trust” in that environment? This will continue to be a topic I am interested in and will explore.


11:00 a.m. Update

The day started with a great speaker on happiness. As many of you know, I’m not a huge fan of touchy-feely stuff. But this session was fantastic. The speaker combined a lot of practical ways to use empathy, gratitude, and happiness to motivate your workforce and association. She also had some great videos and memes, which I always appreciate. Here’s more about Jen Moss and her organization. And here are some tweets from the session.


Just finished the first breakout session of the day, “Are your Reserved Aligned to Enable Your Strategic Plan?” Is there a word that combines extreme anxiety with extreme excitement? Because that’s how the session made me feel.

Anxiety because ELGL’s concept of “reserves” is practically nonexistent. Excitement because ELGL’s way of doing business – including our low dues, low barriers to engagement, and welcoming environment for new members and programs – is pretty revolutionary.

I walked away from the session with some ideas for the board on budgeting for reserves in a tiered category – not just looking at a total percentage of our operating revenues but also taking into account the programs and initiatives we’re pursuing.

Sunday, October 15

Yep, you read that right. I’m headed to a professional conference, hosted by a professional association for association executives. An association for associations. So far, ASAE has been a great organization and I’ve used their message boards and online resources to get helpful feedback on association management software, financial policies, and association policies.

The conference I’m attending is called “Associations @ Work,” and it’s described as a:

“…business conference that addresses the interrelated business functions—executive management, finance, development, operations, human resources, and fundraising—in associations. You’ll experience learning designed to help you collaborate, because when we work together we work smarter.”

My posts from this trip might not be specifically relevant to our ELGL mission to connect, communicate, and educate about local government. But, since I’m spending this time learning about how to make ELGL even stronger (and on ELGL’s dime), I do want to share what I’m learning and some of the cool trends and topics in association management.

My career shift from local government management to association management hasn’t been hugely dramatic. It’s not like I was formerly an assistant city manager, and now I’m a dog groomer. There are similarities between managing a city and managing an association.

Communications, transparency, financial management, reporting to a governing board, budget allocation, program management, volunteer management – these are all required KSAs in both roles.

But I’m also learning there are many things I don’t know, and so attending this conference is my first step in learning more and finding out new ways that ELGL can preserve our unique way of doing things, while building a long term, sustainable organization.

I mention our “unique way of doing things,” because my first observation from #AtWork17 (that’s the official hashtag, BTW) is that ELGL likely has a lot less money and a much shorter institutional history than some of the other associations in attendance.

Looking at the attendee list, I can see attendees from groups that we’re familiar with in local government like NRPASHRM and CPSE, but then also attendees from big medical associations, and even the Envelope Manufacturer’s Association (I’ll keep you posted if I make any clever envelope puns).

Here are the sessions I’m attending (the * means it’s a session that seems transferrable to local gov – I’ll let you know if that’s the case):

MONDAY:

TUESDAY:

You’ll note there’s an #mword session and I’m attending it… it’s at the same time comforting and discouraging to know that every industry – not just local gov – likes to call out generational differences at conferences.