Saturday, January 8, 2011

Learning to Create a Business Inside Your Association

Where have you been?
I am shocked but not surprised that it's been almost seven months since I did a blog post here. When I look back over this very eventful time, it feels a lot like how I 'grew' in my association jobs--for some reason I was aggressively intrapreneurial, but otherwise content to keep my head down and plug away at the tasks at hand.

It's helpful for the image of a business to be 'out there' yet I find, even with these social media tools, I'm still communicating in my normal voice. On Facebook I am still the smart-aleck little brother to my former classmates at New Plymouth High School in Idaho (I knew Facebook was here to stay when all my classmates magically learned to type and started living their lives there). On Twitter (another New Year's resolution) I pipe up twice a day with whatever is on my mind but it's generally professional and whatever fits in a haiku. Apparently Rebecca set me up so every post there also feeds LinkedIn so I am more careful than I would otherwise be. But bottom line, to paraphrase Popeye, I yam what I yam, so there are limits to how much I benefit or reach the outside world that I care to reach, because of who I regard myself to be and who I am comfortable being.

Why don't we do marketing well?
I say all this in part because as I use another weekend to recharge and reflect on conversations during the week, it's striking how often our group personality is also very non-marketing oriented. We want to speak in our authentic voice, which is admirable but often just doesn't get the marketing job done. I'm beginning to return to my past as marketing clients express grave doubts and conflicts when direct marketing letters "don't sound like them." We heard this over and over at Marketing General (and I'm sure they still hear it everyday). I heard it at Catholic Relief Services, when fellow division heads, even bishops on our board would express that it's a shame someone as smart as me would be in marketing--as if it's a waste of brains to focus one's effort in sending junk mail, managing telemarketing campaigns, and scheduling drops frequent enough to upset your best donors.

I have always felt this missed the point, because there was a science and art behind what we did. We had to spend well and keep it simple to raise enough money to keep the lights on. If we didn't have the active support (and relevant past experiences) on the part of our CEO, I have no idea how we could have employed the right techniques, aggressive frequency, and memorable messaging necessary to raise the $45 to $60 million we did every year in unrestricted giving.

I tolerated the attitude quietly in several positions, then chose to acknowledge it to the point that we did a regular new employee orientation program at CRS called "Fundraising--The Necessary Evil." Over the years I've been struck by how many associations don't have a systematic membership acquisition program. At NACDS, an otherwise very well functioning, large trade association, I had a bear of a time getting our Services Corporation up and running. I'm still struck when friends and periodic clients have me on their mailing list and I get cute fake Christmas Cards with a message inside saying 'wouldn't you like to join?' Each time I feel as if those associations haven't been able to carve out some space where they can be businesslike--ROI focused, clear messaging, and generally ambitious in creating the growth and programs necessary to expand their reach and to subsidize the other, nobler pursuits.

Successful direct marketing techniques and business development methods haven't changed much over the past 30ish years and yet the average association still seems very far away from using a fraction of the tools and tricks that work. I'd invite comments and questions but I know nobody is reading this .... and those who need help the most don't believe they have a problem. So I'll just treat this first return to blogging as a message in a bottle, and later we'll provide some tips on how even the message in a bottle can be found, read, remembered, and acted upon.