Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Case of the Myopic Membership Committee

I was Warned: “They’re Myopic!”

When I first started working with this particular membership committee, the Director of Membership sighed with much exasperation and declared, “Like most volunteers, they’re myopic.”

I asked her to explain.

“They just can’t see the big picture, membership-wise. They only seem to understand things in terms of what’s happened in their chapter – it’s a kind of nears-sightedness, if you will. The Chair is from San Diego and he wants to focus on a particular market segment that is significant in that region. What he’s suggesting makes sense for San Diego, but not in the context of a nationwide membership recruitment effort…”
Personal Experience is the Leading Cause of Volunteer Myopia

Volunteers are chosen to serve on committees for their experiences and their successes. That’s good. It can also be problematic because those experiences and successes are the lenses through which volunteers analyze and make decisions.

For example, put yourself in the shoes of a volunteer asked to serve on a membership committee. Let’s also assume that you’ve been chosen based on your local chapter’s success with a certain program (or targeting a specific segment). That success is probably the most significant learning event you’ve had in terms of membership development; it is the primary shaper of your thinking on the topic. Thus, it is only natural for you to think, “Hey, it worked in my chapter – it’ll work in every chapter.”

No wonder volunteers often have a tendency to be myopic; it is a natural outcome of their experiences. 

 Data is not the Cure for Committee Myopia

The Director of Membership had tried what seemed a logical approach. “I presented the membership data and research so they could see what was going on, not just in their chapter, but all over the country. They said they understood, but darned if they didn’t immediately revert back to their myopic ways; they keep insisting that what worked in their chapter applies everywhere.”  

Learning to See the Big Picture

The next time the committee met, I facilitated a different approach. I began the meeting by asking the committee to discuss their individual experiences in each of their chapters. I told them, “We are going to share our membership experiences and explore both the similarities and differences.” (By the way, the Director of Membership cringed when I did this).

After the committee members finished, I went to the flipchart and said, “We’re going to make two lists. The first list will be the major differences between your chapters. The second list will be the major similarities.” As we did this, the committee started to realize two things: 1) “What happens in my chapter isn’t necessarily representative of all chapters.”  2) At the same time, they saw a number of themes/issues that were common to a majority of chapters.

Next, the Director of Membership revisited the membership data and research with the committee. This time, they saw how their common themes and the key findings from the membership research dovetailed: for the first time they were starting to see the Big Picture. They were beginning to understand what their priorities, as the Membership Committee, ought to be; they were starting to see what strategies or programs were likely to yield the best bang for the buck.

There was a wonderful by-product of this process: it gave the Director of Membership her chance to shine as she guided the committee towards insights they would have otherwise missed. As a result, the committee had more confidence in her ability and a greater appreciation of her role as a qualified association professional. 

 The Importance of Getting In-Sync

The above process was based on a very simple principle used by high-performance organizations: investing the up-front time to get people “in-sync” pays off in the long run.

To recap:
  • The committee members were given the opportunity to get in-sync with each other by sharing experiences and comparing notes.
  • Building on that, the committee was better prepared to interpret the overall membership data and research. In other words, they were able to get “in sync” with the key facts and conclusions derived from that data and research.
  • A foundation for meaningful collaboration between staff and the volunteers was established (note: collaboration is defined as a shared act of discovery and accomplishment). In other words, the volunteers and staff had a process for getting in-sync with each other.

 The Chair Changes his Tune!

As a result of this discussion, the Chair changed his tune. He acknowledged that some of the lessons from his chapter in San Diego should not be applied to the association’s overall membership plan. He was able to see and appreciate and how priorities at the national level were different from those of his chapter.

 The Bottom Line

You want to set up your committees to succeed and that requires more than just providing them with the information they need to make good decisions: you need to help them get in-sync with each other. You also need to help staff get in-sync with the volunteers. Finally, you need to help volunteers make use of their experiences in a way that overcomes the dreaded “committee myopia.”

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