In episode 18 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guests, Shelley Sanner and Alanna McKee discussed include:
- Trends facing associations, including the need for greater personalization
- How associations have adjusted to the virtual environment
- What the future of work could like and how associations could contribute to the workforce development of the fields they serve
Shelley Sanner, CAE, MA, Senior Vice President, Industry Relations:
As senior vice president of industry relations, Shelley fosters knowledge-sharing and partnerships to promote innovation and excellence within the association industry. Her main areas of focus include identifying association challenges and trends and translating them into resources that benefit the community at-large. She also coordinates McKinley’s presence at events and within industry publications to ensure that we serve as a resource to the community on best practices and other insights.
Before joining McKinley in 2007, Shelley served as Membership Director at a higher education association. On a national level, Shelley has served in various volunteer leadership positions, taught courses and presented at many industry events. She has a Master’s in liberal studies from Georgetown University and an undergraduate degree from Juniata College, where she majored in French and education.
Alanna Tievsky McKee, MSW, Director:
As a director within the consulting department, Alanna leads client engagements designed to maximize organizational efficiency and mission impact. She brings a creative and thoughtful approach to each of her clients, combining skills acquired through her training and experience as a consultant, clinician, and coach. During her time at McKinley, she has nurtured an expertise in member engagement and retention, strategic planning, governance and staff and volunteer leadership facilitation.
Alanna has worked in and with the nonprofit sector for more than a decade and has supported nearly 100 unique associations as a member of the McKinley team. She is a social worker by trade and feels passionate about helping individuals and organizations solve challenges and reach their full potential. Alanna holds an MSW from the University of Pennsylvania with a concentration in nonprofit management and a B.A. in developmental neuropsychology from the University of Rochester.
Contact our Guests
Carol Hamilton: Welcome Shelley and Alanna to the podcast. Great to have you on today.
Shelley Sanner and Alanna McKee: Thanks for having us.
Carol: I’d just like to start out and for each of you, ask what drew you to the work that you do, what motivates you and what would you say is your why? Shelly, why don't you go first.
Shelley: I'm thinking of my colleague who is waiting for their CAE exam results right now. So that's probably top of mind but yeah, the CAE was really a pivotal moment for me. I passed the exam and I was in a large higher ed association. I realized that I knew a lot more after having taken the exam than I did before. I wanted to become more of a generalist and in a larger association, sometimes it's hard to grow and move up and have more oversight over areas. A friend and colleague of mine through ASAE reached out and said, ‘I think you might be interested in my company.’ And it was McKinley. That’s what brought me to McKinley 13 years ago.
Carol: Could you just tell people what the CAE and ASAE are?
Shelley: Sure! ASAE is an association for association professionals. So anyone working in an association at any level could join, and the CAE is Certified Association Executive, and it means that you've made a commitment to stay in the field. Technically it means that you have aspirations to one day lead an association, but a lot who passed the exam or take the exam, moved from industry roles to consulting like I did.
Carol: How about for you Alanna?
Alanna: Yeah! I took a fortuitous path to get to McKinley. I started my career as a clinical social worker, working with students in schools and ran into so many systemic policy issues that, at a certain point, I decided I needed to make change at a higher level. So I went into an association and worked on mental health policy. Eventually I heard about McKinley and really saw it as an opportunity to affect change of the world at an even higher level than I was doing at my job at the association. I'm a firm believer that associations make the world go round. They impact every industry and profession that we have, and I see my role as supporting associations doing their best work. So I'm really driven by my opportunity to better every profession or industry that I touch throughout that association.
Carol: So often I feel like I have to explain to people what associations are often starting like: well, what's the field that you're in? Then, so are you a member of an organization that brings everybody in your field together? Okay. Well that means that you're a part of an association. And if one were to fall apart, someone else would say, ‘shouldn't we all be working together towards common goals’ and they'd recreate it. So, what, what would you say since you've got that higher-level view of working with lots of different clients in the association space, what would you say are some of the key trends that you've been noticing over the last couple of years as you've been working with clients?
Alanna: Sure. So one, is this a real focus from the member standpoint on customer service and customer experience? I think this is a trend that we're seeing outside of the association space, but just generally in how we like to operate with the organizations and businesses that we buy from, or the restaurants we go to. I think Amazon has really created an incredible standard in terms of the customer experience. It is so easy to buy something from Amazon and our expectations as a customer or stakeholder. We want our association to deliver that same experience and ensure our website that the opportunity to engage in education, networking that we're consistently delivering a really strong customer experience with best in class customer service is necessary. So that's definitely one of the themes I'm noticing. Another would be that this previous approach of ‘one size fits all’ really doesn't work anymore. Our associations are becoming more diverse in terms of the stakeholder groups that are encompassed within an association. Those groups have very unique needs and preferences that we have to address. It's our responsibility to have a comprehensive understanding of the unique groups within our membership and deliver experiences that are meaningful and that support those groups’ needs to the best of our ability.
Carol: Shelly, do you have other observations?
Shelley: It gets to the heart of the value proposition. I think it's really customized because it's something people have created for themselves. I've been thinking recently about what I'm missing right now in my professional career and my professional development. It's the fact that I used to go to face-to-face meetings and, organically or intentionally, run into a lot of people I knew. That was the same network that introduced me to McKinley and got me my job. It's the same network that has mentored me, has supported me, has taught me things has really upped the game in some cases. I feel like this past year - and hopefully on into the future - there's been this renewed focus on humanity like that. We are human beings and people have really struggled over the past year. There's been more transparency around those struggles and honesty around that. There's also the need to connect with others, which is such a basic need, but it's something we realized we took for granted. I wonder, how can associations take the model that they have in place and this incredible ability to convene people, and through no direct action, connect people together just to provide a forum for people to meet each other. What does it mean to young professionals who don't have that? They're not going to face-to-face meetings and making connections with future employers or mentors or peers. What does that gap look like and how can association really get at the heart of humanity and get to the heart of the emotional or psychological challenges and struggles that people have and really create a stronger emotional bond and build that loyalty and that engagement with the association? I don't have an answer to that. It's actually something that's been in the back of my head, but it really struck me recently that I think there's something there because the associations are well poised to leverage that and strengthen that sense of community.
Carol: Yeah. But in terms of that humanization and being so limited now, in terms of only being able to connect people with people remotely through screens, through virtual meetings, the things that work that are hard to do and yet easy to do in terms of delivering content and information, and knowledge which has always been central to associations, has been able to continue and organizations where I participated in virtual conferences this year. Organizations did a great job of pivoting quickly to that. And yet all that hidden part, or maybe it wasn't visible because we hadn't yet missed it. It was that thing that suddenly was gone: the face-to-face meeting of the person that you meet at the cocktail hour, or in line for coffee, or all those kinds of things. In the virtual space, having to be much more intentional about how you help people create those connections, I think it can be done. I think it just hasn't - I don't know that it hasn't been created, I'm sure that there's somebody who's doing a good job in that already - but there are new tools or new ways of convening that need to be imagined so that that social aspect and that emotional aspect you're talking about can really be addressed and incorporated in a more intentional and explicit way, because I think that that desire to associate often comes from not wanting to feel alone in whatever struggles you're having in your profession.
Shelley: Yeah. And if I could give another example, because I realized there were two things embedded in what I was saying, one is that we're all individuals and that humanization piece, and then the idea of community and connecting. I remember doing a focus group - it was probably 10 years ago - it was for a healthcare association, extremely high-achieving medical professionals, doctors. I remember in the focus group a woman saying, ‘when this association first introduced a dedicated room for nursing mothers, my loyalty went up exponentially. And I knew I could continue to come to this meeting and it changed my whole sense of how this association understood and was accommodating and thinking about me.’
I think about that now with parents trying to work and be successful and continue to advance in their careers with their kids at home, struggling and trying to learn. Does the association acknowledge that formally to show that we understand that this is a challenge and then try to create a community of support or try to help solve those challenges for trade association. What's the future of the workplace? We're trying to figure that out at McKinley. Could a trade association help its members? Figure that out and come up with a few models. That's being able to rapidly adapt by paying attention and listening to what people really need as individuals or as a collective.
Carol: And I think that goes to something that Alanna said around that customization that people expect and that personalization of dialing into the subsets of membership. So the woman who talked about the organization having a room for nursing. She may not have reflected the majority of that association at that point, and yet it was meeting a need that she had. So it helped her feel more connected, and that sense of belonging.
Alanna: Shelly, your thoughts also crystallize another theme that I've been seeing, not only in the association space, but generally the world, which is that younger generations are really focused on what companies or organizations are doing to better the world. Tom's is a great example of that. The shoe brand that donates a pair of shoes for everyone that's bought. For those who are super bowl fans, you've probably heard that Coke and Budweiser and several other organizations are not having commercials to promote their products this year. They are reallocating that money to support communications around the COVID-19 vaccine. That is a clear way that they're taking a stand to say, ‘hey, we hear you world. And we're going to do our part to support our communities, to support the health of our communities and better the world.’ Associations are perfectly positioned to do that same work, whether it is, volunteer opportunities for members, or thinking about how their specific industry perhaps impacts the environment. It will be increasingly important that associations consider how they can not just support their specific profession or industry, but their communities, country, or world at large, because this is something that's increasingly important to their customer base and may make or break the decision to engage as a member or customer.
Carol: Yeah. And when you look at the research around what motivates people, having a sense of a connection to purpose and mission is really key. I think younger generations, they're just more willing to put that upfront where folks in the past may not have felt like they had the agency to say ‘no, I need that.’ Yeah. What’s Shelly’s perspective on that?
Shelley: I agree with that. I was thinking about one of the other themes that's all over the literature and people are talking about it quite a bit. It relates less to the mission of the organization, or the brand, or the position of the organization. And that's been fascinating to watch, which associations are in this incubator. Over the past year, the whole world was in an incubator. The world changed so rapidly and radically. I mean, we all knew something was coming at McKinley of course, we said, ‘there's gonna be another downturn,’ economists were saying that also, but who would have ever thought it would have looked like it did and that it would have had so many prongs to it that fundamentally changed how we lived our lives every day. We've been really fascinated by associations in their response to that. And associations are made up of people who lead or execute, and this whole idea of creating an association that is something different from what it is today. So I think that the majority of association professionals we might talk to would say, ‘well, we should be more nimble and we should be more diversified.’ And I think that that is certainly a lesson learned. I think sometimes there are pitfalls of categorizing it or labeling it in that way, because we know that a lot of associations that were really diversified in their revenue portfolios actually struggled throughout COVID because those non-dues products were not successful. They didn't see the same numbers or had to really reduce fees for them. There seems to be the shift back to the core membership and how important that is as a concept, but also how important it is to have some dues revenue, not 95% dependency on dues, but also not 95% dependency on a trade show and the sponsorships that come with a trade show and everything affiliated with that. Then the idea of a nimble organization. We're definitely seeing that. It's one thing to say, ‘let's be more nimble,’ but how do you really create that environment and create the processes to support that? In some cases, how do you create the mindset and the people who are leading it, or the people who are working for that organization. That's been fascinating to watch and there are certainly resources out there that help create the discipline around it. The characteristics of CEOs or other leaders that translate in the depth into that type of a culture. I think change management is a big piece of it. How do you actually move that organization in the direction more than just the systems you might put in place, but it's certainly the culture and the change management. And then creating a structure that can ensure that the organization can continue to adapt in the future as it needs to, there's a lot of associations that look very similar to what they did 20 years ago or 10 years ago. There's not a lot of impetus to change an association sector.
Carol: Also, structurally there's a lot of things that actually impede any kind of nimbleness or being able to change rapidly. It's almost like the purpose of the Senate: to slow everything down, like the distributed democracy or the board, the relationship between the board and the leadership team and all of those different stakeholders that you have to take into consideration just means that everything takes longer. It is something like a crisis that then enables organizations to rapidly move from one state to another, where there were a lot of organizations that had been doing online learning for the last two decades, but it was always a minority of organizations, maybe a small portion of what they were doing. And then suddenly everybody had to figure out how to do it.
Alanna: Yeah, this idea of being nimble and agile, it's just so important considering the rapid pace of change going on in the world today and the volatility of our markets and industries there. Shelly touched on. Some really critical points around the culture piece and change management. When we talk about that and McKinley, this idea of having a nimble culture, we're asking, are we empowering our staff to execute their role? Do we have a culture of risk-taking and inquiry? Those are the kinds of building blocks to create this culture of being able to execute your work and doing it efficiently and effectively. Governance is also a huge part of this as well. Associations are very good at having bylaws that haven't been touched in years outside of having more and more policies and regulations added to them. So it's a great opportunity to dust those off and see, we built systems that support rapid decision-making and change. Or have we created a system that slows us down and prevents that agile, nimble execution?
Carol: I really appreciate what you're saying about, it's easy to say ‘we should be more nimble. We should be able to move and be innovative and all of those things, big big catch words, but really digging into what are the behaviors, what are the mores within an organizational culture that actually supports that? Or does the opposite, right? If it's not okay for anyone to make a mistake and admit it, you're not going to have a real risk-taking culture then.
Alanna: And, in order to be nimble and agile and stay effective, your organization also needs to have a solid strategic plan. So I think that the idea of having a strategic plan has become increasingly important as well. Knowing what your organization's goals are for the next three years, let's say, and having a clear charge for staff volunteer leaders. Ensuring alignment from top to bottom, for those organizations that don't have a strategic plan and are saying, well, I just don't know that this is the right time because of the volatility that's going on in the marketplace. Rather pace of change. Well, strategic plans are also meant to be nimble and agile. They're not something that's set in stone and put on the shelf. They should be revisited quarterly or yearly to make sure that they're still appropriate. Given what's going on in the world around you, there's something that can be changed, but it's that guiding light that is going to unify the individual, the staff and volunteer leaders that work on your organization to ensure that we're all reaching that common goal. And for those organizations that do have an existing strategic plan that was perhaps created before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it's time to dust that off and take a look and, and make sure that it's still appropriate. Given what's going on in the world around you, I've worked with a handful of organizations. That needed to take a hard look. And in some cases it meant new priorities and letting go of others. For some, it was that the priority, these didn't change, but how the association was going to achieve those priorities, that shifted the approach. And having that clear plan to guide the organization forward I think, is critical. Then having the systems in place to execute your work in a nimble and agile way rounds it out.
Carol: Yeah. I think there's a temptation to throw the baby out with the bath water with, well, it's, everything's changing so fast right now. We can't possibly do planning. But yeah, strategic planning is more about setting some intention, setting some direction, creating some parameters, and it actually does help to what you were talking about before of empowering employees. If they know what the whole organization is moving towards and they have clarity around that. Then they have more agency to be able to step into their role and really fully execute it.
Alanna: That's exactly right.
Shelley: It's ironic but, to be more nimble, you really have to be more disciplined.
Carol: Say more about that because I think most people wouldn't see those two coming together.
Shelley: Being able to have a level of nimbleness requires an upfront. Dialogue and investment of time and development of structure to guide that otherwise nimbleness could take you in a lot of different directions with people moving within their departments into different areas and interpreting things differently. So it's like creating the glue that will bind everything together and then really. Putting it all together and having it be more solid. And another way to look at this is the re-skilling of professions and industries. That advocacy is always really important to associations. I mean obviously, the lobbying that happens, the presence on the Hill, those fly-ins that associations have, where they bring their members together to meet with Congress is so critical because people feel marginalized in their roles or they feel like they are not getting their burdensome regulations, or they're not being acknowledged in the way that they need to be. I think about all the hiring that Amazon is doing, and particularly in the shipping and delivery area, it's guaranteed that those people are going to be out of work within the next couple of years, because Amazon is absolutely going to automate that. They're going to automate delivery. They're going to automate shipping and packing. And so what happens to those people who during a crisis, struggled to find work and maybe found that field and entered that industry and now are going to have to reinvent themselves. It absolutely happened for meeting planners. This year. So it happens within the association community, but then it's also happening within the industry and the field. And if an association is not tight in terms of its own focus and its own approach to looking at the products and services it's offered, it's going to really struggle to be able to lead the industry or the field forward as that profession changes. So there are two ways of looking at the importance of nimbleness and looking at the importance of being disciplined to get to the nimble place.
Carol: Yeah. And I think going back to what you were saying before, in terms of being involved in workforce development and thinking about the field more broadly, you're serving the field. How are you part of essentially leading the field and being ready for things that are coming down the pike and making those necessary changes? What would you say are some of the ways we've been talking about them? What about other changes that the associations need to make to really adapt to these trends that we've been talking about this morning?
Alanna: I'd say one is really making a commitment to leveraging data, to improve your organization's performance. That's everything from collecting market research to understanding the needs of your membership so that you can deliver that customized experience to collecting data, to inform your strategic plan and tracking your progress towards achieving your goals.
Carol: So, Shelly: adaptations that associations are having to make in light of these changes, in light of these trends?
Shelley: I definitely agree with Alanna. We haven't talked about inclusion and diversity, but I mean, how can we get through a conversation without mentioning it? And associations are struggling to capture that demographic information, not everyone wants to share it, but I think there's so much to learn from this whole DEI movement, because a lot that's happening around that. It has to be more than just a statement or pledge. It has to be action. Well, that's the case for anything that you promise to your membership or make a commitment to advance for them? Capturing data and thinking about a baseline. If an association didn't capture data before COVID, it would probably be pretty disappointing because you couldn't go back and see how things changed or you can't necessarily see action and outcome and how those might be correlated because of something that you did. So I definitely agree. The data is really important. Obviously the mental health aspect of our current climate and how leaders can continue to rally volunteers and staff. I read an article recently about managers and leaders really trying to get into the thick of it with their staff and their teams, because it's not going to be enough to say, Oh, we're going to get through this. Like people realize this is very prolonged. And even when it gets better, it's not going to be better in the sense of what we knew before. So how to adapt the approach to communication and transparency and engagement of a team and motivating a team. I think that's going to need to change. And then I would just say an association really needs to look at its systems and its structure and its business model. So again, like so many organizations just get burnout or excited about the next new thing. And if you take some of these trends, we're talking about coming into a nimble organization, or really having an impact around DEI or the value proposition and being more customer centric, like a lot was talking about. You can't just do that for a couple of months and then move on to a new trend. Those have to be really embedded within the organization. People need to know how to execute on that. There needs to be a spotlight on that and accountability around that so that the organization can really fully realize the impact of it.
Carol: Anything you wanted to add Alanna?
Alanna: Yeah. So I couldn't agree more now is that a time to really invest in the organization to ensure that you're able to capitalize on these opportunities and, and thrive during this challenging time. So making sure that your staff have what they need to execute their role, that the systems are in place to support them, that they have a clear charge that they have the resources they need. Governance is another really important area that I think often gets overlooked. Our volunteer leaders are critical to the success of our organization and how much time have we invested in ensuring that they can do their best work. So do they have the orientation and training? They need to understand their role and how they're going to support the organization. Do you have ongoing training to refine the skills necessary to execute their role? Do they have a clear charge? And are they being held accountable for the work within their committee or the work of the board? I did now, was it a great time to invest in those foundational elements of our organization? Because ultimately they are critical to the success of our governance and of our staff and ensuring that we're able to execute on all of the work that we've, that we've just described.
Carol: I think it's all about moving to being more intentional about those things, because especially as the face-to-face gathering together where those things might have happened a little more informally they, they need to be embedded and, and planned for without, without being able to rely on that face-to-face -- informal mentoring that might happen or other training that might happen.
Shelley: I was going to say, we don't necessarily need to include this, but I feel like I would really like to share it that last time it was at an HOA virtual board meeting. And it's just people from my community, the few who are willing to give us some time. And I, I really flipped my perspective and because the secretary probably talked for 90% of the agenda, And I thought, this is so relevant and familiar because we see it at McKinley with boards, and we can, it's really palpable when you go into a board meeting and you have. Individuals who are, have had a career of being highly involved in volunteer leadership roles, or they've been forced to really look with oversight across their own organizations, just by nature of the role versus those that haven't had a lot of experience to that. And it's no judgment on those people. They're just not as familiar. And if you step into board and there's a culture that's been set and you start talking about. You know the color of the table clothes or where you're going to take the next annual meeting. You think that that's your role to play? And so what Alanna said about board orientation, it's such a small thing, but it is like an essential thing to make sure that volunteer leaders know what they need to do. And also that they're set up for success because you're not going to be successful without having more information than an understanding of, of where you need to focus.
Carol: And I think so often organizations really focus on orienting people to the organization itself and the work, and they forget to orient board members to their role from a governance perspective. So that brings us to a close here. Normally at the end of each episode, I play a little bit of a game and just ask one random icebreaker question. Since we mentioned Amazon at the top of the episode, I'll ask this question. What was the last product you returned?
Alanna: That's a great question. I'm pretty sure that the last item I returned was a mattress topper. I have a wonderful mother-in-law. She is fantastic. She lives in Charlotte, North Carolina. And we drove down for the holidays so that she could see her new Grant's son. But her guest bed is very uncomfortable. And so we purchased a mattress topper in advance. We were so excited with ourselves. We finally got ahead of it. And in order that mattress topper, and we ordered the wrong size. So we had to shove that back in the box and send it back to Amazon. And that's, that's. The last thing I can think of off the top of my head.
Shelley: Well, first of all, I want to say that I just read an article about what happens to returns of major department stores or a place like Amazon. And it's actually alarming. That a certain percentage of it just gets destroyed, destroyed because it's not worth it for them to try to reuse it. So that makes me think twice about returning things. But actually the last thing I tried to return and was not successful doing was this polish for, I have like an aged bronze front door. I had my siding power wash this past summer. They didn't do a good job and they stripped some of the finish off of the front door handles and backdoor handles. So I bought this thing that had a great review online and it actually made the problem worse. Just return it out of spite. And there was some restriction around it so that they couldn't actually return it.
Carol: Yeah. That's often the challenge. Like they make it very challenging to do that, probably because of the reason that you're talking about, it doesn't serve them for you to return the item. So for each of you what's, what are you excited about? What's coming up for you and your work? What's emerging?
Shelley: Well, I have roots in membership. So when I worked at an association, I was in the membership department. And before that I worked with students on a college campus. And so I've always been really interested in that concept of serving. At McKinley, over the past year, we've definitely developed more content and more resources. And I just can't help myself. I have to think from that membership perspective, even though we're a consulting firm, how could we take more knowledge that we're gathering at McKinley and translate it into something that truly is public access. Anyone can benefit from it. And we also have it ourselves to archive because knowledge management is really hard in a consulting firm. At least it's been hard for us. People are out doing really good things and how to capture that and to share it across the organization. It's something that we're very aware we're not good at. And our staff tell us we're not good at it. So so yeah, I would say that's the future. How to develop more than resources for the association community.
Carol: How about you Alanna?
Alanna: I'm really excited about the fact that McKinley's taken a lot of time over the past several months to take a look inside and figure out what can we do better to support our staff. We have - I mean, I'm biased - but we have a phenomenal staff. We really have some brilliant, passionate individuals who work for the firm. And we've changed over time and recognized that our structure and some of our systems like I was talking about previously, just aren't allowing our staff to do the best work and and, and fully use their, their potential. So we're doing a lot of internal work to better support our staff and highlight the incredible intellect that we have. So that really excites me.
Carol: Yeah. I mean, oftentimes, so people don't see that as particularly sexy and exciting, but it's so fundamental. And then Shelly, what you were talking about in terms of garnering those insights across multiple projects to be able to see that next level of what's not just particular to one project that you're working with one client, but what are we seeing across multiple clients? So that's, that's exciting and something, I think there'll be a really huge resource to the field. So thank you both. So, thanks. Thanks a lot for coming on. It was great to talk to you.
Shelley: Thank you, Carol.
Alanna: Thanks so much.
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