Chapter Corner

Belonging is More Than a Transaction

Posted in: Chapter News, September/October 2017

A professional will initially connect to your organization because it aligns with the industry where they are employed or do business. They will have a transaction when they find a product, program, service, or experience that presents a solution to their specific problem. They may even join – whether for a discount or from the recommendation of a colleague. Most often, associations want the stakeholders to take the next step – and belong.
Belonging is a feeling. Belonging means that the member feels that they are a part of the association community. It is the delicate balance that recognizes that each individual comes to the table with the perspective of a unique personal story and need but can rely on the collective history, wisdom, and experience to help them succeed. It is feeling that the organization recognizes and appreciates their participation. In short, it is the ‘Norm’ experience from 1980’s show Cheers – being able to walk in and have everybody know your name.
Those members who belong, who feel part of the association community, are more likely to renew, and if higher retention numbers are a priority, then an increase in the sense of ‘belonging’ should be part of the association’s strategic goals. Here are some places to start:
1. The Face of Your Membership
If a picture is worth a 1,000 words, how are you showing who makes up your membership community, and not just describing it:
  • Member of the Month – Sharing a picture with a quick bio on your site can be a great, free recognition tool for anything from uber-volunteers to welcoming a new member. You can align who you recognize with the member segments that your organization has prioritized in its strategy, and for those just coming to your organization for the first time, they will see that individuals are recognized within the larger membership.
  • Quarter in Review in Pictures – Take a look at your organization’s calendar over the next quarter. Include everything you are running – from conferences, leadership meetings, educational sessions, or hill days, and include those events that are taking place locally, as well. If you were able to get one, captivating photograph from each of those events, you could assemble at the end of each quarter a presentation/publication capturing the accomplishments of your organization through the eyes of its members. Ask for pictures, recognize who takes them, and utilize social media streams like Instagram and Facebook to find those authentic, member engagement moments at your association activities.
  • Community Highlights – Associations that have a private, social community can still provide insight into the activity and value taking place past the firewall by recogniing on the organization's public site those that are leading key converations. Some organizations will even share the topic areas under discussion - though members then have to sign in to see the full dialogue or learning piece.

2. Meeting Connections

Attending your association's conference can be a make or break experience, where a member can walk away energized with an expanded network or having not had a single meaningful conversation. As associations program the top-notch content that will help develop their industry professionals, they should be giving similar priority to helping create easier connections between colleagues. Here are a few approaches:

  • Who's at the Meeting? - While a meeting can be a powerful networking experience, they can also be overwhelming for those who get past the registration table and are suddenly in the sea of thousands of colleagues, perhaps without knowing anyone else in attendance. Throughout the course of the meeting, with a smartphone and a volunteer or two, you can help bridge that gap. Ask the volunteers to download a live video app (I prefer Periscope) and provide them with 10-15 quick, simple questions. The volunteers can go around the conference, stopping a participant and asking if they can interview them for a few minutes. The video is live and connected to your social media feed, and it gives an authentic face and voice to the wide range of members in attendance. Better yet, the videos can then be uploaded to a dedicated YouTube channel and you will walk away with a bank of member profiles to tag and share for future meeting marketing. This is a great volunteer activity for young professionals.

  • First-Timer Orientation – While many organizations hold such a session, often it consists of new attendees sitting around a table, saying their name, and then a volunteer leader or staff reading through the schedule of the conference or perhaps that benefits that come with membership. The orientation session is the opportunity to make those first, meaningful connections that can be the start of longer conversations and shared learning. Use the time to run a dynamic ice breaker or two, where conversation is encouraged. Identify a number of key industry trend areas and allow first timers to choose their topic for group think time. Perhaps most importantly, at some point during the first timer session encourage two attendees to set a ‘later date’ when they will get back together at the conference.

  • Deep Thoughts – Polaroid cameras may not be today’s technology, but the instant snapshot is. As each of your sessions end, have staff on hand to grab an attendee or two and ask for a key point learned or a question that remains. Take their picture, their business card, and their deep thought written out on a business card and place it on a public deep thought wall. Other attendees can be encouraged to reach out and connect with these members, and their thoughts can be collected, shared, and recognized after the conference as a means of ongoing content.
3. Belonging Is a Relationship
If belonging is more than a transaction, then implied in the relationship is not only what a member gets, but what they give. Organizations that can shift their volunteer management strategy to create more  opportunities with targeted focus and outcomes will build a system of greater member ownership of their programs, community, and organization. Volunteer shifts to consider:
Small, Easy Asks – Look at every piece of programming that you do – from virtual webinars to special interest group discussions. Add an additional step into your planning process – if we were to create opportunities for more members to get involved with the program, what would that look like? If it is a webinar, what if we ask three attendees to capture three key points to share with the larger community after? If it is a chapter meeting, can we ask members onsite to step up and help with anything from nametags to running the microphone for questions? If it is your annual meeting – what if we placed a hidden $5 Starbucks card under one seat at each table for lunch, and that person is asked to facilitate a table discussion on an industry topic of their choosing? Shifting volunteer structure so that opportunities are without a year long commitment will inherently expand the pool of member who feel like they belong because they make the program happen.
Expand the Askers, Maximize When – Members gain a sense of belonging when they are personally asked to get involved. Suddenly, a general call for anyone turns into a specific ask for someone. Create small volunteer opportunities that your board members and senior volunteers can carry around in ‘their back pocket.’ As hese volunteers meet members, they can offer an involvement opportunity on the spot, based on what they learn about the member. Additionally, if the organization conducts a broader call for volunteers, think about when that call happens. Members often have the strongest feelings of affiliation when they are attending an association event alongside their colleagues, and are having a shared experience. That is the moment to ask for further involvement, rather than when they are sitting in their office at their computer in the middle of the workday and receive a solicitation to fill out a form for the call for volunteers.
Above All Else… Recognize Effort – The other bookend to a personal ask to get involved is the organization’s recognition of that effort. Whether the task completed took service on a committee for a number of years, or just five minutes, organizations need to build systems of acknowledgment that identifies the person involved, the effort they made, and when possible, the achievement they reached and the impact on the organization. There is a large difference between a general thank you email that goes to a large group, and a personal note from a chair to each task force member that highlights their particular effort. Recognizing volunteers reinforces their feeling of contribution and can highlight to other members the involvement that the association finds valuable.
A member who feels like their presence in an organization is important, that what they have to contribute is needed and appreciated, and that they will find colleagues who help them learn, grow, and succeed in their career are going to have longer member relationships with their organization. Focus on belonging, and renewal will follow. 
Lowell Aplebaum, CAE, is the CEO of Next Connextion. He works with associations on value-focused approaches to organizational vision, strategy development, and value proposition evolution. His work on global efforts for associations has included experience across five continents, hundreds of volunteer groups, and all 50 states in the U.S.