In 1989, the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation selected me as a scholarship recipient, one of the inaugural class of scholars chosen for not only academic achievement, but also for a commitment to lead and serve in their school, community, and the world. As you would expect, I was thankful for the funding that allowed me to attend The College of William and Mary.  It made an immediate impact, and allowed me to continue on a path of learning.

What was not as evident at the time was that by becoming a Coca-Cola Scholar, I was also joining a network of amazingly high-performing people who are leading change in communities across the United States and in countries across the world. I would also benefit from exceptional experiences afforded by the Coca-Cola Company, Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation, and connections with other scholars.  In the past 27 years, through the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation network I have met, experienced and learned so much:

I learned a bit of my family heritage from the Irish Ambassador to the US while volunteering at a registration table for a DC event;

I had an exceptional experience at a Leadership Summit bringing together scholars from across the many years of the program;

I heard from award winners from the International Center for Journalists, courageous leaders who are defending the freedom of the press;

I have connected to the stories of true difference makers including:

I had the honor of serving on an interview committee to help select a recent class of scholars - the accomplishments of the applicants reflected both exceptional achievement and limitless potential; and 

More recently, I have been honored to grow through service on the Coca-Cola Scholars Alumni Advisory Board.

So, this Giving Tuesday I am giving to continue invest in the Coca-Cola Scholars network ... connections that cross campus lines, political parties, state and national boundaries, disciplines and generations. 

As 1995 Coca-Cola Scholar Nakeesha Seneb observed,
"If you have more than 5,000 people
driven to make an impact on the world,
and they have this incredible connection,
a lot of change can certainly happen.”   

Coca-Cola Scholars, I challenge you to join me in investing in our capacity as a network, to support what we can do collectively. Together, we can all be better agents of change:

Last week, I had the honor of addressing the Florida Society of Association Executives.  

The program was sponsored by Hyatt Hotels of Florida, which is an exceptional supporter of the Florida association community. At the luncheon, the Hyatt team presented FSAE with a check to support individuals seeking to participate in Institute or to earn the CMP or CAE certification. It's the 30th year Hyatt has supported such scholarships.  

Bob Harris, CAE asked that I speak about association innovation as an integral part of preparing your association for the future.

Nobel Physicist Dennis Gabor wrote in 1963, “The future cannot be predicted, but futures can be invented.”  It’s a pretty neat concept in itself, made all the more interesting when you know that the author specialized in the science and technology of holography.  It’s a true example of vision and leadership, and a great example for each of us.  

What futures might we envision for our associations and our careers … and how can we make them a reality?

It was approximately 100 years earlier when Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, which provided a new way of looking at how change occurs and futures are created. In his theories, it is the combination of the external environment and individual fitness for that environment that determines how evolution occurs. The quote here, which reflects how notions of change are still relevant themes and memes in our lives, is actually from the 1963 journal of the Southwestern Social Science Association.  

What CHANGES in the WORLD around us may require us to ADAPT?

Five Changes 
That May Require Associations to Adapt

  1. New Business Models

As we look at the world around us, it is easy to see how there are new ways for us to buy, sell, and receive professional services. Advances in technology and commerce allow us to stream television shows; download music; self-publish books; advertise handmade goods to a worldwide market; create our own custom-blended Scotch; solicit seed funding for new entrepreneurial ventures; remotely diagnose illnesses of our bodies and cars; and so much more. Consumer expectations have accordingly risen for on-demand, personalized solutions priced in ways that align what they pay for with what they want. Let’s be honest … that’s a far cry from the traditional association business model in which the payment of an annual fee provides a relatively standard “membership package” … not to mention educational conferences offered once a year. The changing world of business models merits that we consider reinventing the way we package and sell our membership, programs, products and services to more directly connect cost and value with stronger ways to think about ROI. 

  • Understand what your members want and need.
  • Develop benefits that solve the problems.
  • Assess the costs to provide those benefits and get rid of anything that doesn’t provide a benefit.
  • Put a membership model in place that both aligns with the way your audience wants to pay and makes it easy for your offering to sell. 

2. Digital Mobility 

Digital Mobility means more than just mobile technology  It includes the devices we use to connect to the Internet (including the internet of things); the mobility of the people who live in a digitally-enabled, time-pressed world; the information processes that create an immersive experience in that world, which may include location-aware services, digital assistance, or an environment that adjusts to your presence (think Minority Report).  All of these factors influence behavior, including an "always on" culture, in which some have become dependent on devices and digital networks to accomplish almost any task.
In thinking about the trend of digital mobility, here are a few pieces of advice: 

  • Design with mobile in mind - Begin by thinking how you can use mobile technology to reinvent or improve an experience.
  • Think mobile first - It's probably true that mobile may not be the most frequent way that your members currently engage with your association. But the rapid increase in mobile devices, comfort, and preference for mobile solutions is inevitable. Design for the future, not the past. 
  • Think “mobile” throughout - It's not enough to think about how to market an event on a mobile friendly website ... you also need to think about how you make it easy for people to engage during the event with their devices.  Consider how mobile can be integrated into every step of the process ... you may not integrate it at every step, but the best way to have great ideas is to have lots of ideas from which to choose.

3. Video


Last week, as I was dropping my daughters off at school, “Video Killed the Radio Star” came on our satellite radio.  My nine year old daughter’s face lit up and she exclaimed “This is the BEST SONG EVER!”  Which I thought was ironic since Frannie is a child of the iTunes and YouTube generation - not the radio - MTV era.  But the blog post from which I borrowed this graphic sums it up well – Video Killed the Radio Star ... and it’s coming for your website next.

Consider a few facts:
  • a video in Google’s index is 53 times more likely to appear on first page search results
  • two-thirds of web video viewers are more likely to purchase than counterparts who have not watched the video
  • Over half of consumers report that watching videos make them more confident in making purchase decisions 
  • The quantity of video on the Internet has quintupled since 2010
One YouTube executive predicts that video will soon be 90% of Internet traffic. (Okay, that one may be a little self-serving and biased … but what if the exec is even half right?) Here are a few ways to begin thinking about video for your association:

  • Spend some time watching video to learn what does and doesn’t work.
  • Experiment by highlighting others’ videos in your communications.
  • If it’s right for your association, start small and fail fast.

4. Reputation

There is a French proverb:  “A good reputation is worthier than a golden belt.” And no, this is not a rebrand of the old “golden handcuff” that holds our members to us … it is a gift that helps our members improve their appearance and value in the eyes of those around them. Reputation is all about providing new ways of helping to build trust for members from their customers and partners. In past, the predominant ways to build reputation included familiar tactics - who you knew, where you lived, what school and church you attended … and for businesses, national brand affiliation, Yellow Page ads,  and yes, Chamber of Commerce and association membership. 

Depending on the consumer, some of these avenues are still significant parts of the buying or partnering decisions. But the playing field has radically expanded - now, consumers can turn to Angie’s List, LinkedIN, Facebook, Klout TripAdvisor and YELP to name a few.  Just as an example here are a few facts about YELP:  YELP was founded 2004, and houses over 67 million reviews which attract more than 139 million visitors per month.  It claims to direct over 400,000 contacts to businesses every day.

How can you help your members build and enhance their reputation?

  • For professional societies, how can you help your members not only gain skills and experience, but also become connected to those with employment or freelance opportunities?

  •  For trade associations, how can you help your members find talented, skilled workers?  How can you help promote the value of services your members provide, and connect potential buyers to your sellers? 

5. Networks

In June 2012, I was in the airport headed to speak on ASAE’s 7 Measures of Success at the Washington State Society of Association Executives. I was a little apprehensive, since the book was then nearly 6 years old and a question on my mind was, “Are the 7 Measures still relevant today?”  Imagine my surprise when I noticed that Jim Collins was featured on the front of INC magazine at the newsstand, and when I read the article, I found Collins referencing his work with ASAE!  

In the article, Collins' reflected that while bureaucratic management models have served us well, he senses we are moving into a new age – the age of networks. Networks are a collection of connections that come together in loosely held relationships not directly controlled by traditional command and control. Information and requests are made of the network, and when there is capacity in the network, the problem is solved by the network.   

Sound unreliable?  Think UBER - a collection of people seeking rides who send a technologically enabled request out to a collection of drivers willing to provide rides. As an UBER customer for about 9 months, my experience has been that this informal network is far more reliable, far more pleasant, and far more affordable than traditional alternatives. But your association is probably not going start and try to unseat UBER. What are some other options?
  • Consider empowering your members to host problem-solving programs on your behalf, like the Wisconsin SAE’s “innovation circles” program.
  • Look for ways to treat your membership as a network, sending a “call for short-term help” rather than a once-a-year call for committee service.
  • Open conversations to understand how you might better connect buyers and sellers as well as candidate and employers in your community.  What are alternatives to how you have always done it?
  • Consider providing ways for members to “serve themselves”.

A Few Thoughts on Fostering Innovation

Each of us in this room has the capacity to be innovative, and each of us has a role in innovation for our organizations. Innovation is not just about creating something entirely new - it is also about a continual commitment to improving and adapting our processes to be more enjoyable, efficient, and effective. 
Here is a leadership framework for innovation:   
Closing Comments

In closing, I shared a short poem about a commitment to continuous improvement that has been quoted in my family for at least two generations:

 I wish you each success 
in being your very best in 2015! 

For a slide version of this post,
as well as other association management presentations and thoughts, 
follow me at  

One thing I love is when marketing materials include fantastic content.  Few people do that better than Richard Millington, an online community expert who runs Feverbee.  In support of his upcoming FeverBee SPRINT program, Richard shared the advice below.  Fantastic for anyone looking to make the most out of in-person meetings.  And, I am very sorry that I cannot make the October 29 to 30 program in San Francisco -- it looks truly stellar, as is most everything that Richard does.  Hope some of you can make it!

The Real Value of Events - by Richard Millington

"The real power of events is bringing quality people together. This includes people who you can help and hire. People who can solve your problems. People you might become friends with.  At Lithium’s Linc event, I met Caty Kobe. She began working for us last week. Too often, we waste the amazing value of events. I see people looking at their phones during valuable free-discussion time. At FeverBee SPRINT, all the stars of our field are going to be in the same room. All the top companies in our sector will be there. We’re going to do everything we can to create the perfect social environment to meet all of them. However, we also want you to help yourselves.
We know there many introverts among you. We’ve put together a few tips that have helped us over the years. 

20 Tips For Being Popular At Events

1)    Research the attendees beforehand. Make a list of who you want to meet and what you want to ask them.

2)    E-mail the top 10 people you want to meet in advance. Ask them for coffee before you meet up. If any are local, arrange to meet at the airport, share cabs, hotels, etc...

3)    Be the organizer. Be the person that brings the fun. Organize a small, exclusive, pre-event meetup, book an airbnb house with 6 rooms, and let 5 others join you. Host a small after party at yours (please don’t go crazy). Suggest shared travel. Invite 5 people to join you for a lunch group. Go outside the venue to have lunch with a few others.

4)    Say something remarkable within the first 30 seconds. We all know the elevator pitch. The goal isn’t to sell the product, the goal is to intrigue the person enough to continue the discussion. How do you answer the “what do you do” question? I used to say “we help companies build communities”. Yawn.

Try different lines…for a year I would say “we figured out a specific social science principle to ensure every community reaches critical mass”…you can guess what their next question is right? Focus on the vision with an interesting twist, not the functional aspect of what you do.

5)    Tell stories. Have a few funny/interesting stories about your work you can share. Make sure it has a beginning, middle, and an end. Get comfortable telling the same few stories about your work. Don’t give facts, give interesting examples. Put together your best stories that you can drop into a discussion.

6)    Know your strengths. Be clear about how you can help people you meet at an event. Don’t be shy about saying what you’re good at, but counter-balance this with the next point.

7)    Know your weaknesses. Be clear about what you need help with. People want to help you. You need to know what you want help with. Be specific.

8)    Know who/what you’re looking for. Similar to the above, if you met someone you want to work for, recruit, or interact with at some point, how would you know? What qualities would they have? Most of the people we’ve hired are those we’ve previously met at an event.

9)    Introduce yourself. Get comfortable turning to the person next to you and say “Hi I’m ….”. if you do this 100 times, you’ll never get a bad reaction. Follow a 3-second rule. Do it within the first 3 seconds of sitting down.

10)    Join existing groups. I go up to existing groups and say “mind if I join you, I’m Rich”. I shake hands with everyone, let the discussions continue, then join in with my opinion.

11)    Set a deadline. I’m told this advice originates from pickup literature. If you’re keen to speak to a star within the sector, let them know you only want to speak to them for 2/3 minutes. This eases the fear that they will be stuck in one discussion for hours.

12)    Speak slower and watch your upward inflection (or high-rising terminal). Slow your speech down a little. You will sound more authoritative. Unless it’s a question, don’t let your last word end on a higher pitch. This is perceived as portraying insecurities.

13)    Ask the golden question. If you’re looking for work or clients, get used to asking “So what brings you here?

14)    Leave others before they leave you. Or, put more simply, don’t be clingy. If someone moves away and you follow them without being invited, you’re being clingy. Don’t panic, we’ve all done it.

Far better to end the discussion at a high point and find someone else you can meet. You will circle back round later. If you have a pause in the discussion and can’t think what to say next, it’s time to meet other amazing people.

15)    End discussions politely. If you want to end a discussion, offer your business card and then say you’re going to circulate the room a little. We can all understand this.

16)    Book the next step. If you want to continue the discussion. Get your phone, load up your calendar, and ask them when they’re free. Arrange a meeting right there. This is powerful to do in person.

17)    Chase up furiously. Don’t chase up to keep in touch, chase up with a few practical ideas or a new thought to add to your discussion. Recommend a book or an update on what you discussed. Suggest a time to do something fun.

18)    Use the (sales)force (app). This is a little controversial, but use your phone’s salesforce app to keep an update of your interactions. Don’t update it on the networking floor, that makes you seem like the person who is too shy to go talk to people. I do my updates out of sight.

19)    Focus on fun, not done. Don’t worry so much about getting stuff done. We’ll cover that in our workshop sessions. Focus on having fun discussions with the people you meet. Suggest a few ideas.

20)    Go easy on the unsolicited advice. While you're just trying to be helpful, unsolicited advice can sometimes be irritating. If people don't want your advice, don't give any. Better yet, you can ask “mind if I give you some unsolicited advice?”"

Last month I had the pleasure of participating in a panel of industry leaders at the Winter Conference for the Association Management Company trade association, AMC Institute.  It was great to help celebrate their 50th Anniversary at the fabulous Loews Don CeSar Hotel in beautiful St. Pete's Beach, FloridaConvention News Television interviewed me just after the panel.  Here it is online - pretty happy with how the one take approach turned out!

One on One with Greg Melia at AMC Institute

Let’s recap this series:  First, I explored how the purpose of an association is to bring together contributions from members to accomplish something for those same individuals that would be more difficult to do on their own.  Second, I explored how a number of trends are changing the external environment in which associations operate.  Finally, here are a few practical suggestions for how your association can embrace these trends and avoid becoming obsolete:

  • Get familiar with the external trends that may make your current association value proposition irrelevant.

    I’ve outlined four megatrends in a previous post.  There are likely more that are specific to the industry or profession your association serves.  A good place to start is the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Industry at a Glance and Occupational Outlook.  For state associations, check with your state government on economic trends and statistics in your area.  ASAE, the professional association for the association community (and, in the interest of full disclosure, my employer) also produces a wide range of research and trend reports.

  • Review your portfolio to assess which of your offerings help potential members do things easier. 

    Better yet, have someone outside your membership conduct this review and determine if your solution is enough to convince her or him to join. If an offering doesn’t pass muster, either re-engineer it or seriously consider dropping it.

  • Closely consider the needs of your target market to determine the greatest challenges that you can help them overcome. 

    What can the collective resources of your association do for members that individual members cannot do for themselves?

 ·   How can you help employees and employers in the changing employment environment (job tenure decreasing, job mobility increasing, and dual-earner households increasing)?

·   How can you help members’ organizations better compete in the new global marketplace?

·   How can you help members manage time, their most irreplaceable commodity?          

  • Make it easy for members to get immediate quality answers and assistance. 

    The Ritz-Carlton famously instructed employees to anticipate guest needs such that the Ritz-Carlton experience “fulfills even unexpressed wishes and needs of our guests.”  Your association must do the same – meet the needs which members tell you about, and lead your members by preparing them to solve challenges proactively before they become PROBLEMS.

  • Prepare for the future. 

    Explore the business and societal trends changing the external environment in which your members operate.  Begin to develop capacities in new areas to redirect and serve future needs.  (An area I plan to blog about in the near future.  Would love your ideas on this too!)

  • Keep members informed of the value you provided to them. 

Previously, I explored how associations bring together contributions from members to accomplish something that would be difficult to accomplish individually.  Based on the positive receptions from association thinkers like Jeffrey Cufaude, Shelly Alcorn,  Cynthia D’Amour, Tony Rossell, and David Gammel I think there may be something to the idea that the value provided by associations is under fire because the world in which associations operate is changing.  So what are some of those changes in the external world that may be making association participation less necessary?

  • The Internet and mobile technology give unprecedented access to knowledge. The rise and growth of the Internet, which was only commercialized in the mid-1990s, is astounding.  Today, individuals can find and do almost anything easier, faster, and cheaper than they could in 1995 - career advice, technical training, networking connections, legislative tracking and responsive advocacy, competitive product pricing, vendor selection, buying advice, and nearly limitless content in every category. These same activities were the bread and butter of associations in the mid-90s – and sadly, many associations still see these as their exclusive domain.  The worth of these activities have not changed – people still want them all – but changes in the external environment mean that these very same activities may no longer be “valued benefits” if individuals can achieve similar results elsewhere easily and affordably without an association.

  • The commercial landscape has changed.  Nearly every association is also directly impacted by the economic condition of its members.  And the reality is that the external operating environment is wreaking havoc on many of those members.  The rise of the Internet has facilitated interstate and international commerce in ways that challenge traditional business operating environments (such as location, fulfillment, design, even staffing) and often create a race toward the lowest possible price.  Consumer access to increased amounts of information puts new pressures on profit margins and operating processes, as well as providing consumers with a powerful collection of feedback from other customers that influence buying decisions.  The new normal is an intensely competitive, open environment, often accompanied by with less generous profit margins.

  • Competition for resources has increased.  Regardless of its focus, associations are impacted by the people who comprise its membership.  And the external environment of those members is changing too.  During the 1990s, the number of dual-earner households broke the 50% barrier, making two working parents the predominate model.  It is not a surprise that in 1995, a Cornell research study found that more than half of Americans reported that they “‘almost never’ have time on their hands.” More recently, a Harris Interactive poll reported that leisure hit an all-time low, decreasing 20% from the previous year and a total of 10 hours since tracking began in 1973.  And if that were not enough, household debt, which has risen slowly over a long period, doubled between 2000 and 2007.  Our members ─ and potential members ─ have less time, less control of their schedules, and increased financial commitments.          

What are your reactions to these statistics?  What other significant external trends do you see that challenge the value that associations provide? Join me in my next post to see my thoughts on what associations should be doing to prepare for the future.

The fabulous Shelly Alcorn, CAE is "SICK AND TIRED of the questions about ‘what is the value of membership.’" I loved her post, most of all her observation that you can find the roots of modern associations in the associating that happened in the symposiums of Ancient Greece, guilds in Medieval Europe, and salons of the Renaissance.  Shelly points out that associating is rooted in the universal human need for connection.  I’d add that associating also reflects a human need for individuals to come together to accomplish things they cannot do easily for themselves. 

 “Associating” bodies whether a social club, fraternal organization, neighborhood, workers union, sports team, trade association, professional society, Facebook, credit union, LinkedIn, or Kickstarter – whether formal, enduring structures or short-term collaborations – all have a cost of participation.  It may be giving of your time; your attention; your talents; a commitment to your fellow members or certain ideals; or giving up the freedom of choosing the color to paint your house, conceding to be advertised to; and yes, in many cases, money – whether called membership dues, participation fees, donations, or “financially backing a project.”  Whether the cost of participation is worthwhile depends on the perceived value of the return on that investment.  That is, does participation provide a result that is 1) desired and 2) worth the effort when compared to the alternative of achieving a similar outcome another way. 

What is frustrating about many conversations about the “value of membership” is that they often devolve into “Is our price point still relevant for the programs, products and services we offer?”  What is most challenging in my mind is that these conversations tend to focus on the cost and avenues of participation, and fail to recognize what may be a bigger challenge:  if associations are designed to help individuals accomplish things they cannot do easily for themselves, we need to think long and hard about the fact that it is not as hard to do many things for yourself as it used to be.
Two quick examples: 

AAA: Growing up, we used to take a fair number of family vacations by car.  And critical to that was a membership in the American Automobile Association.  Not only did AAA give us assurance that we could get a tow if we needed one, it also got us the best available rates on hotels, and made custom highlighted TripTiks®, customized step-by-step maps to navigate our trip.  In the 1970’s, all three of these were extreme value adds.  In fact, to this day, I remain a member of AAA because they still have the best hotel rates, and they will take care of tracking down an available tow truck, making a potentially stressful time a little less stressful.  But there may very well come a time when I decide that paying $70 or more per year for these savings of convenience and hotel rooms is simply not worth it.  And it’s not because of AAA … it’s because smartphones and the Internet have made it easy for me to find a good price on a hotel, roadside assistance, and customized travel directions.

Guilds: Guilds dominated the career pathway, standards of practice, and access to markets in much of Medieval Europe.  To become a practicing craftsman, individuals typically had to endure years of apprenticeship and demonstrate proficiency in techniques determined by the appropriate guild.  In short, the guilds single-handedly controlled the pathway to being a successful craftsman, which was difficult (if not impossible) without participation in the appropriate guild.  Despite what seems like the ultimate “golden handcuff” benefit, the guild model failed … not because of the change in its value proposition of helping interested novices become skilled craftspersons, but because the external world changed ─ the rise of standardized manufacturing techniques undermined their proposition and shifts in social attitudes about free market economics changed the social acceptance of guilds. 

In my next two posts, I’ll build on this idea to look at external trends impacting associations and provide a few thoughts on what you and your association should do to ensure your continued viability. And I would love to hear your feedback and add your examples of how the changing world has impacted specific associations.