By Carol-Anne Moutinho
Because they typically have so much on the go, it is sometimes easy for association executives and boards to dismiss the need for conducting member research.
Like many of these folks, you probably already do a lot in this area: You see and make a point of talking to members at association events. Perhaps you make it a habit to pick up the phone or drop in on members periodically to talk to them one-on-one. Maybe you even survey or poll them internally on their satisfaction with events, programs or new issues coming down the pipe.
These are all very important tools to keep your association connected to members on an ongoing basis...but what about when it comes to your planning activities? Typically, member feedback is used as a peripheral driver of the process, if it's used at all.
Most associations emulate private sector organizations in their structure and processes. They resemble a triangle with the board at the top making well-intentioned decisions based on what they think is in the best interest of their members. Board decisions are then passed along to committees and/or staff for implementation. Members are at the bottom of the triangle as the recipients of the association’s programs and services.
We all know that members are the de facto owners of most associations...but very few associations operate as if this were the case. The problem is that if members aren’t satisfied with what’s happening, they have few avenues through which to provide feedback or instigate change...except to vote with their feet. More often than not, the result is varying degrees of member apathy and, in some cases, dissatisfaction and membership loss.
It is critical for associations to have a solid understanding of what members want from their organization and how the organization fares in the eyes of members to know how it is doing...Hence the need for ongoing properly-designed member research that is completed regularly as a precursor to an association's strategic planning activities.
Associations that use member research to drive their planning activities effectively turn the triangle upside-down by putting members in the drivers’ seat of their organization. Members who know that their input drives the agenda are more likely to be engaged and, in some cases, more willing to roll up their sleeves in order to help turn their vision of the association into a reality.
It is a powerful concept.