How to Keep Volunteers Engaged During Your Slow Season

Slow Season?  If your chamber is like most chambers, there is no slow season, right?

Yes, but, there are times throughout the year when the normal pace is slower than usual and this is a good time to remind your volunteers to stay engaged.

The key is to keep thinking ahead of the curve and use your volunteers to identify those emerging trends that the business community is going to be dealing with in the next three to five years.

Do you have an Emerging Trends Committee or Task Force?

You probably have a handle on what's happening today - that's being reactive to what is sent your way.

Use your volunteers to be pro-active by identifying the big issues that will need to be addressed, in your community, by the business sector.  Just to name a few:

  • Economic development
  • Transportation
  • Technology
  • Education
  • The demographic shift of the workforce

If it's real work, they will enjoy the challenge!

For previous blog posts on volunteer management go HERE, HERE or HERE.

Decision-making 101: Why Practice Makes Perfect

I bet you're a lot wiser today then you were five or ten years ago in making decisions for your chamber.

Your decision-making process has probably evolved over the years.  That's called experience.

But as the title suggests, it's important to have a system in place that allows you to deliver the right decisions consistently.

That's where practice makes perfect.  It should become a natural process for you where you don't sweat the details.

We make decisions all day, every day, and having a process in place can keep you on track and moving forward.

Here’s my list of items I think about when making a decision:

  • Gather all the facts
  • Listen to different views
  • Don't make any knee jerk decisions
  • Communicate your decision clearly to all
  • Don't be afraid to re-access and change your decision, if warranted

That's my formula.

Don't make it complicated.  And don't be afraid to share your decision-making process with your staff.  I suggest you'll get better intelligence from them the next time you need to make a decision on an issue if they know the process you go through in making decisions.

Do you have a formula?

For a great resource on decision-making from the folks at Mind Tools go HERE.

What You Need to Know Before Launching an Advocacy Program

It's serious business and yes you should be very active in supporting the business community before your elected officials.

The key is making sure you have a structure in place that can properly identify, review and decide on which issues your chamber members want you to get involved in.

It's imperative that you have a government affairs committee that can vet these issues and can make a recommendation to the full board.

The full board must vote on these recommendations and when supportive you need to communicate your position to your members, non-members and the community in general.

Remember, there will always be someone on the other side of your position. That's because we all listen to the same radio station WIIFM (What's In It For Me).  That goes with any issue in any community.

And that's why it's so important to have a transparent process on how your chamber decides on what issues to support, oppose or choose to not take a position.

You will also find that some issues you won't want to take up because it may be too controversial or you have members on both sides of that specific issue.

A proactive chamber advocacy program will garner a lot of attention from the press. Use it to further your cause and the publicity can be a great membership recruitment tool.

Start advocating now!

For past blog posts on advocacy for your chamber go HERE and HERE.

Fail Forward: Learn From Your Failures

I attended an educational session recently, on the title of this blog, conducted by Professor Rita McGrath, from Columbia University.

I found it fascinating!

There are many business books out there that talk about this concept.  In fact, the business community knows this concept all to well.

Statistically speaking, over 50% of small businesses fail each year (Small Business Association statistic).

The key is to learn from these failures and not make them again.  That's what a free enterprise system is built around.  Your small business members understand this concept.

Do you run your chamber like a small business?

Are you trying to be innovative, cutting edge for your membership and delivery value while at the same time learning from your successes and failures?

It's been said before, running a nonprofit (chamber) does not mean don't make a profit.

Be innovative and create value for your members.  Don't be afraid to fail. Learn from your mistakes and move forward.

For a copy of her book go HERE.

For a great resource on performance measurements from The Bridgespan Group go HERE.

3 Steps to an Effective Board Orientation

There have been many articles written on the on-boarding process for new board members - just Google it!

The following three steps can help ensure your next board orientation is a success.

  • Official Board Orientation Meeting
  • Official Board Orientation Book
  • Official Board Role and Program Review

Official Board Orientation Meeting

It's important to have a formal meeting to get the attention of your new board members. It has been suggested to hold it prior to their first official board meeting.  You might want to have your board chair and any other key board members attend too.

Official Board Orientation Book

I think it's important to have a collateral piece that you review in your orientation meeting and something they can take back to the office.  I would suggest you spend some time on creating a professional document that outlines the expectations of board members.  It should be more than just a board member job description.

Official Board Role and Program Review

It's important to review the fiduciary responsibility of the board as well as your current committee structure.  It's also important that they understand the role of the board vs the role of staff.

While I don't suggest you get in the weeds with all the programmatic aspects of your chamber you should identify, at the 30 thousand foot level, your membership trends, advocacy, leadership program, annual meeting, and Foundation work, if you have one.

Set the expectations up front, deliver a great board orientation and your board members will be thankful.

For a great resource on nonprofit boards from The Bridgespan Group go HERE.

3 Steps to Take Before You Sit Down with Your Board to Create a Strategic Plan

The more you prep for your next strategic planning process the better your outcomes will be.

How often do you conduct a strategic planning session or retreat?  How often do you review your strategic plan?

Every year, every other year or once every three years?

Whatever your timeline is, it's important that you do your homework prior to your next retreat.

Here's three things you can do before your next planning session:

  • Background materials
  • Communicate the process
  • Set the stage

Background Materials

Tell the story of your chamber, where you’ve been, where you are now and that will set the stage for where the chamber should go.  Key items to share from a historical perspective should include, but not limited to:

  • Revenue - dues vs. non-dues
  • Membership numbers - retention rates, etc.
  • Program of work - advocacy, economic development, networking, educational programs, etc.

And don't forget to attach real numbers to the above items.  For a previous blog post on program based budgeting go HERE.

Communicate the Process

It's important to be transparent in your strategic planning process.  Get everybody on the same page.  When people know what is expected of them, they will deliver.  Key elements that should be communicated:

  • Timing – set a timetable from beginning to end
  • Outcomes – set the expectation of what you want when you’re done with the process
  • Players - who's responsible and why

Set the Stage

I'm a fan of getting a third party facilitator to run the actual strategic planning meeting. They can keep people focused on the task and it keeps the process business like and not personal.

For a great resource on nonprofit boards from The Bridgespan Group go HERE.

The Fastest Way to Lose a Member

Bad customer service!

Let there be no mistake about the business we're in, and that's the relationship business.

Have you heard the phrase, "take care of your members and they'll take care of you?"

It's so true!

As human beings, we all want to belong to something.  Make your chamber that home for the business community and your business members.

And customer service is where it starts.  Do you have a live voice answer the phone?  In my experience this is critical.  We used to have a rule at my old employer that you would answer the phone on the first ring.

That's the beginning of good customer service.

When calling a main line of a chamber, I don't want to go directly into voice mail without speaking to a person first, or worse, be sent around the organization through what I call the "type the last three digits of the last name" syndrome.

Remember, as stated earlier, we're in the relationship business and that means having real conversations, with real people, in real time.

And what a great opportunity for your staff to say "thank you for being a member."  It just might improve your retention rate along the way.

Just a thought!

3 Ways to Say Thank You to Your Staff

Yes, there are many articles written on the subject and from my standpoint one size does not fit all.

Your staff are unique and will respond differently to praise.

The first order of business is to find out what motivates each of your staff members.  You might just be surprised at the answers you get.

The key to finding out what each team member values, ask them!

I will mention three ways I say thank you since that's the title of this blog.

Empowerment - one of the easiest ways to say thank you is to let them know that you trust them.  Don't micro manage your staff.  Tell them what you want, give them a timeline, and let them deliver.

Recognition - everyone likes to be recognized.  When a staff member does something great, share it with other staff and with your volunteers. Give them the credit.  Make sure it's something worth recognizing.

Thank you - and it's also just saying the words thank you!  It's as simple as that.

What three things are you doing to thank your staff?

For a great blog post titled Top 10 Easy, No or Low Cost Ways to Tell Employees “Thank You” go HERE.

Why Snail Mail Isn't Dead

If you haven't had a chance to read the most recent Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report by Marketing General, Inc. you should.  You can find it HERE.

One key finding, and there are many, is that snail mail is not dead.

While we live in a real-time, social world, sometimes direct mail is just the right formula to get in touch with your members and non-members alike.

I talked about membership recruitment vehicles in a previous post HERE. The point I'd like to get across again is that there is not one silver bullet.

You must test all:

  • Direct Mail
  • Member-get-a-member campaign
  • Email
  • Social media
  • Etc.

Notice that direct mail is at the top of the list.  It scored the best in the study. It might not be your number one recruitment tool, but don't discount direct mail.

For a blog post on direct mail from the folks at Marketing General, Inc. go HERE.

For the most recent Marketing General, Inc. Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report go HERE.

Good luck!

Empowerment: Turn Your Employees Loose

There have been many articles written about hiring people who are smarter than you.

And by the way, I subscribe to that theory.

So why would you not want to turn your employees loose?

Yes, it's important to set some ground rules, give them a framework from which to work from and turn them loose!

You'll be fascinated by what your employees can do.

I do have one rule -- no surprises, please!

While I don't need to know the details of every aspect of their progress, give me periodic updates so when my manager asks "do you know what John and Mary are doing?" you can respond absolutely and I support it 100%.

In addition, celebrate your team’s victories and learn from any failures and move on.  I love this quote by Henry Ford:

"One who fears limits his activities.  Failure is only the opportunity to more intelligently begin again."

Don't limit your staff.  Celebrate and acknowledge their successful work. Give them the credit and watch their backs.

The possibilities for your chamber are endless!

For a previous blog post titled 4Tips For Onboarding New Staff go HERE.

Advocacy vs Information

As chambers, advocacy is the business we should be focused on for our members.

Based on a recent study titled Winning Strategies for Chamber Core Competencies Tool Kit 3.0 by the Western Association of Chamber Executives (W.A.C.E.), the following five areas were identified as core competencies for chambers of commerce:

  • Creating a strong local economy
  • Promoting the community
  • Providing networking opportunities to build business relationships
  • Representing the interests of business with government
  • Political action

Before you say it, I know, "if you've met one chamber, you've met one chamber." I believe that statement to be true to a point!

But as the title suggests, you should at least be in the advocacy business:

  • Lobbying
  • Endorsements
  • PAC's

Or, at least in the informational business on key legislative issues that will affect your small business members.

  • White Papers
  • Scorecards of legislators votes
  • Hold open forums

I hope you choose the proactive model and start advocating for your members and help them grow their business by looking after their interests before your legislative bodies (local, state, federal).

At the very least, if you choose informational you're at least informing your members of the issues and they can take appropriate action to act or protect their interests.

Depending on your chamber, pick one and embrace it!

For previous blog posts on advocacy go HERE and HERE.

Are You Still Running Programs That Lose Money?

If you are, stop!

Those are resources you could be spending on programs that make money, and could potentially make more money.

For a previous blog post on How To Stay Ahead of the Competition go HERE.

While it can be tough to drop programs that have a sentimental value, it's time to move on to bigger and better things.

Technology has made us change the way we communicate with our members.

Have you done a complete review of your program of work since this new technology has hit your chamber?

There's nothing wrong with an annual review of your program of work.

You may even consciously decide to keep a program that is losing money. But, you've made that decision for a reason and it's defensible if anyone asks why the chamber continues to do it.

Never forget to run your chamber like a business. Because if you don't, you run the risk of being out of business.

Your members should expect nothing less from you and their chamber!

For a previous blog post on program based budgeting go HERE.

Technology vs Shoe Leather

I think we can all agree that the technology revolution throughout the past five years has really changed the way we do business.

Especially now with social media and all that it affords us in communicating to the masses.

All these new technologies allow us to communicate in a timely, and for the most part, efficient way.

The big question, for me, is are we better off with the relationships we have with our members now or before we had social media?

Hence, the title of this blog post.

I would suggest the days of walking around and meeting our members on their turf made or left a bigger impression on them as members of our chamber then any communication we could make through social media.

While technology is great, let's not be afraid to wear out a little shoe leather and re-engage our members on their turf, not ours.

At the same time you might get some candid feedback that they're not willing to share through electronic communications, but happy to share in a face-to-face meeting.

There's no substitute for face-to-face meetings.

Just a thought!

Have You Kicked That Sacred Cow to the Curb Yet?

It's been a couple of years since I last talked about kicking sacred cows to the curb.

Have you had any success in dropping your sacred cows?

The past four years, with the economy and our chamber budgets, has given us the perfect opportunity to review our program of work and drop those programs that don't make sense anymore.

And the reasons could be:

  • No value to members;
  • Nobody attends; or
  • It loses money.

Let's get back to focusing on what our boards want us to do and get rid of those losers that just drain the resources of our chamber.

I strongly suggest that you look at all your programs at your next annual retreat and prioritize your program of work and kick those sacred cows to the curb.

Stop trying to be all things to all people, nobody benefits from that strategy!

For a previous blog post on sacred cows go HERE.

Recruiting New Members: Use Multiple Marketing Channels

It's important that you consider using all available communications channels when recruiting new members.

I'm sure you've already used the following at some point in your past campaigns:

  • Direct Marketing
  • Member-get-a-member
  • Social Media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.)
  • Print ads
  • Radio
  • TV
  • YouTube
  • Etc.

Make sure all the channels you're using have a consistent look and message (i.e. branding). That's key!

The following also play a major role in an effective campaign:

  • Frequency - the number of times you mail your offer will improve with the frequency in which you send.  And remember, you should know the lifetime value of a member. Think long-term and not short-term when it comes to your campaigns.
  • List - the most important aspect of your campaign. You need to have clean data. If your data is bad, your results will be equally so. You can read all the articles you want on recruitment, sales, etc, and they will all tell you the same thing - it's the list!

Also, always remember the four key elements of your campaign. Each will affect your results:

  • List
  • Offer
  • Timing
  • Price

Clean your data first, then start your campaign.

Measure your results and tweak as needed!

For a couple of blog posts on a marketing plan by Marketing General, Inc. go HERE.

What Blogs Do You Follow?

In the old days, I bet you read up to two papers a day, two magazines a week and a couple of books each month to keep up-to-date on current events and every day management issues.

Enter the technology age.

Now all you have to do is follow six blogs and you're covered.

And today's technology makes it simple!

You can follow the blogs you want through an RSS feed to your personal blog or feed it to your Twitter account.

Isn't technology great? It's also fun and for the most part, free.

Here's a list of blogs I follow and have delivered to me directly every time there's a new blog post by the author or organization:

Not only will this save you time and money, but you can set it up that you get what you want and avoid all the white noise that can come with social media.

Only subscribe to what you're interest in and what will help you do your job better.

For a link to the top 150 nonprofit blogs go HERE.  For a great resource on how to grow your blog go HERE.

The Four Levels of Competence

There have been many articles over the years written about the four levels of competence.

I remember coming across this concept years ago in my training days when I was in the grassroots business for a DC based grassroots company.

Every new client brought a new project with new issues we had to get up to speed with in a hurry.  Hence, we were always starting out at the bottom rung of the ladder.

As trainers, it was our job to get the staff up the ladder so they could get on the phones and start selling.  Yes, grassroots is selling just like membership you're just asking them to write a letter, make a phone, etc. instead of asking for membership dues.

When you hire a new staff member at your chamber it's likely they may not be familiar with our industry or what a chamber does for its members. Again, they're starting at the bottom of the ladder.

Whether you're familiar with this concept or not, as leaders you've been helping folks climb the ladder on a regular basis.

The four levels of competence in a nutshell are:

  • Unconsciously competent - you don't know you know.
  • Consciously competent - you know you know.
  • Consciously incompetent - you know you don't know.
  • Unconsciously incompetent - you don't know you don't know.

As stated before, we all start out at the bottom rung of the ladder (I've ordered them this way for illustration) in our first job, new job or a new assignment.

The goal is to make your way up the ladder with the ultimate goal of leaning towards the top ring.

The problem with the top ring, in my opinion?

That's a place where boredom sets in.

As managers of staff, that's a red flag for its time to potentially find a new job. The reason?  There's no challenge anymore.

I don't know about you, but I like a job that continues to challenge my intellect and curiosity. I want to keep trying new things (i.e. programs, projects, or services).  That's what keeps us sharp.

Where do you fall on the ladder?

Here's to climbing the ladder - consciously!

For more information from Wikipedia on the four levels of competence go HERE.

Or for a great article titled The Conscious Competence Ladder from Mind Tools go HERE.

Who Are The Leaders in Your Community?

Are you new to your chamber job?

If you're not from the area, how should you go about identifying the leaders in your "new" community?

At the very least, the following exercise will give you a chance to identify who the community leaders are on your terms, not just from a sheet of paper someone at the chamber gave you in your CEO orientation packet.

Here's a place to start:

  • Identify board members of the other local business and community groups;
  • Identify business sectors and size (retail, manufacturing, health care, etc); and
  • Finally, meet with the leaders of those sectors (i.e., hospital CEO, plant manager of the biggest manufacturing plant in town, etc.).

Once you've collected this information see where the lists overlap. That's a great place to start.

From that list, meet with them individually and ask them questions about the community.  Find out who is in their inner circle of friends by asking them if there is someone they know that you should meet.

Sound familiar, we have a circle of friends in the social media space.

This time meet face-to-face with these folks. You might find that some of these individuals are not current members of your new chamber.

Ask why?

Let them know you're the new leader of the chamber and invite them to join or rejoin.

For a previous blog post on a new chamber CEO's first hundred days go HERE.

Creating a Government Affairs Program

I was recently meeting with a local chamber CEO and they asked the question "How do I start a government affairs program at my chamber?"

It's very simple!

Start by:

  • Forming a governance structure, identify a chairman (current member of the board) to head your Government Affairs or Advocacy Committee;
  • Survey your membership to identify the issues that are important to them;
  • Have the committee discuss the issues; and
  • That committee should make recommendations to your full chamber board on what position to take on any legislative issues.

This new government affairs committee does not have to meet every month. I'd suggest quarterly will do the trick as you get started, unless you have a very active legislative session.

Who should you pick as your chairman?

A current board member without an ax to grind and a consensus builder would be a great choice.

Like any chairman, it's important to pick an individual that will put on their "chamber hat" and work on issues that affect all businesses.

And there will be times when you will have members on both sides of an issue, don't worry that's what your committee is for.  My guess, in those situations you won't take a position.

But once the board has approved a position (support or opposing an issue), communicate that position to all stakeholders:

  • Your members;
  • The legislators;
  • The media; and
  • Your community.

Chambers were created to stand up for their members and take pro business advocacy positions. We are membership organizations, right?

It's as easy as that.

For a related blog post on Advocacy: Three Elements of an Effective Program go HERE.

Or you can access this blog post titled Advocate: What's Your Chamber's Role HERE.

Effective Messaging

I recently read an article in AssociationsNow magazine that quoted James Carville as stating:

"...for a message to be effective, it has to be simple, relevant, and repetitive. It has to fit all three elements."

So true!

I also recently attended a special training on executive communications.
  While there are many keys to an effective presentation, the three themes I learned there were:

  • Be yourself;
  • Be energetic; and
  • Start and finish with the same point/message.

As chamber executives it's important to keep these suggestions top of mind. You remember the KISS theory, right?  Keep it simple stupid.

I'm suggesting the same thing here!

Don't over complicate the message. Keep it in bite size portions so people can digest and understand what you're saying or what you’re asking them to do.

It's like the 30-second elevator speech we're all familiar with and I wrote about in a previous post HERE. All your staff should have that speech down pat when asked what your chamber is known for.

So, continue to educate yourself on becoming the best communicator you can be. Your chamber will be the beneficiary. You'll benefit too!

I'll end with another quote from James Carville from the article:

"...if you want people to know three things about you, have three parts to your message. If you want people to know nothing about you, then have nine."

Who Should You Follow on Twitter?

As a chamber executive, I use Twitter to keep abreast of the latest technology, management and nonprofit issues affecting the chamber/nonprofit industry from people I choose to hear from - influencers.

I only follow about 30+ people.

But to me, those are the leaders in their fields that I want to hear from.

If they send something out and I want to dig a little deeper on the subject matter, I'll click the link that normally accompanies a tweet!

The following are just a sample of who I follow on Twitter:

What's nice about Twitter, in this aspect, is if I like the headline I can go to the full article. Otherwise, I get the headline and move on.

Reading the headlines and finding out if anything is trending is important even if you don't read the entire article.

It gives you a working knowledge of the issues of the day and the topic de jour at your next reception or networking event.

In my humble opinion, the less you follow, the better.  Who's got time to follow thousands of Twitter handles?  Not me.

Something to think about!

Facilitation: Master the Art

Do you think of yourself as a facilitator?

As chamber executives aren't we in the business of facilitating everyday?

Yes, we are and those that have mastered this art are the successful chamber executives across the country.

Whether it's at your monthly board meeting or connecting your members with each other, you're facilitating.  That's the business we're in.

There is an art to facilitation. After reading many articles on the subject, the following themes ring true for me:

  • A good listener
  • Understand what your members are asking of you
  • Getting input from all relevant constituents
  • Drawing out people who are hesitant to speak up
  • And finally, connecting the dots for all constituents/members

A good facilitator keeps the discussion going in the right direction without interjecting their personal views. That's the key in my view of any effective facilitator.

Think back to the many sessions you've attended where you had a facilitator. What attributes of the presenter did you like? Which did you not?

Spend the time to hone your skills in this great art. Your chamber will be better off for it.

For a great resource on facilitation go to the International Association of Facilitators.

4 Tips For Onboarding New Staff

We all hire staff from time to time and how we onboard that employee into our chamber workplace is a critical first step!

Everyone is busy, but it's important to take the time to have a formal onboarding process that will position your new staff member to be successful.

Here are four areas I focus on:

  • Job Description - what a great place to start.  Do you have a detailed job description for the new staff member of your chamber?  You might want to even have an operational manual of the duties that the previous staff member has created to help with your onboarding process.  This manual could be broken down into a day, week, and monthly list of tasks.
  • Set Expectations - it's very important to set your expectations upfront. That way there will be no misunderstandings down the road.  I wrote a blog post HERE on that subject matter.  For me there are four: professionalism; positive attitude; strong work ethic; and results.
  • Resources - give that new staff member the proper resources that will allow them to excel in their new job.  What do I mean by resources? Your time, the technology to accomplish the tasks at hand and the ability to learn your organizational structure (staff vs. volunteers) and the mission of your chamber.
  • Feedback - it's critical to be honest and constructive in giving ongoing feedback on how your new employee is doing based on your expectations and the expectations of your members.

I'm reminded of a staffing concept laid out in Jim Collins' book Good to Great. The book talks about a lot of good stuff but I want to highlight where he talks about getting the right people on the bus.

Do you have the right people on your team (bus)?  And are they in the right position (seat)?

Something to think about!

For a great article by The Bridgespan Group on onboarding and supporting a new CEO go HERE.

Membership Shift

In Sarah Sladek’s book "The End of Membership as We Know It," she discusses three shifts that will have a major impact on membership organizations.

While there have been many books written on membership, some with a doomsday approach, this book, for me anyway, just confirms the fact that you need to adapt to change and be relevant to your members.

The three shifts discussed in her book are:

  • Economic recession;
  • Demographic change; and
  • Technology

And by the way, that's not a new concept.  

She goes on to talk about how we need to solve problems and provide solutions for our members.  That's not a new concept either.

I assume you're already doing that!

So while something’s change, others stay the same.

Remember, it's been said here before that you can't be all things to all people/members.  Decide on what kind of chamber you want to be and deliver on that promise/brand.

What is your brand?  For a previous blog post on that go HERE.

If you can't answer that question, you need to go back to your board and members and survey them to see what they want out of their chamber membership.

That's called a needs assessment survey and for a previous blog post on that go HERE.

Once you know what their needs and wants are, fulfill them!

One thing I do know that's not going to change is the need to be a strong advocate for your members before different levels of government.

Explain how the chamber is in the business of advocating and solving problems for their small business which in turn will help grow their business.

Be an advocate!