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Be Courageous, Get Feedback, Secure Allies, Publicize. Want to Make a Change? Seek Buy-in; You’ll Need It!

This article was written by Tatia Gordon-Troy, Esq. (pictured) as a special contributor.

The membership of some associations isn’t always quick to embrace change, and in my experience, attorneys especially tend to move pretty slowly when it comes to embracing the inevitable. For example, my association accepted submissions for our member magazine in both Word and WordPerfect for several years; we simply chalked it up to the nature of the publishing business and our slow-to-change members—immigration attorneys. Eventually, WordPerfect was phased out in most of our members’ firms, but it seemed like an eternity.

A similar, albeit slow, change occurred when our members began to move away from the use of Blackberries in favor of iPhones. There were some growing pains and complaints even among staff when the association directors were forced to turn in their Blackberries.

But change can prove to be a good thing. Using iPhones for us was less expensive than maintaining an email server dedicated to our Blackberries. Besides the cost savings, we realized we could do so much more with our new phones, which brought forth a floodgate of ideas. Video capability, audio recording and especially picture taking allowed us to engage more with our members on-site, capture moments in time, and add new content to our news vehicles.

But the one thing that made the difference was the IT director’s quest to gain buy-in from the directors before forcing the change on us. He explained to us the benefits of switching from Blackberry to iPhone—for us and for the association. By the end of his presentation, he had accomplished his objective.

During my nine years as director of publications, there were several instances whereby I needed to gain buy-in for a necessary change. One in particular involved sunsetting an annual publication that had run its course after eight, very lucrative years. I had noticed a steady decline in revenue from year to year as well as changes in technology that were directly impacting the usefulness of the publication. My plan was to replace it with one better-suited to the times.

Introducing change to a product or process to which people have become accustomed is a difficult and, in some cases, courageous act. In this case, the task was even more herculean as it involved a very loyal and reliable cadre of authors and editors—106 to be exact. All the more reason why getting the right people’s buy-in can help you succeed; and the more people impacted by the change the more buy-in is needed. The following steps are actions I took to implement this much-needed change:

Ensure the change aligns with your mission. Make sure you’re on the right track by questioning how your members and staff will benefit from this change:

  • Will this change benefit the association?
  • Will this change bring forth greater efficiencies or streamline certain activities to allow staff to better focus their time?
  • Will its return on investment eventually be greater than its cost?
  • Will the new idea appeal to a broader audience so that there are more marketing opportunities, thereby translating to more revenue?
  • Will it benefit the members or end users?
  • Will the change offer greater accessibility and more convenience?
  • Will the members realize a cost savings?
  • Will there be access to more information than before?

Gather feedback from members. Next, build a foundation by laying the groundwork for your idea. If the change will affect your membership, then feedback from members is crucial. Try all the ways you can think of to gather member feedback to help you decide if the idea is worth advocating for. Start with a survey:

  • Get some quick answers by posting a question on your website for an easy yes or no.
  • Take a more detailed approach to garner your audience’s needs or thoughts by sending an all-member email with an incentive to respond. (Offer a discount on a product or conference fee, maybe even a free item.)
  • Use face-to-face communication (when in-person events return): Take advantage of lunch breaks between conference sessions to pose questions to the attendees; attend a board meeting and throw out questions to your association leaders; try one-on-one informal surveys in the exhibit hall during annual meetings.

Generally, surveys are answered by 10% or less of the membership, hence the reason why an incentive can and should be used to entice more folks to engage. But keep the survey to five minutes or less and structure the questions to get the answers you need, not just the answers you want. In other words, don’t tailor the questions to make your case; always go for honest responses.

Recruit supporters and allies. Third, get buy-in from key people within the membership who can help you spread news about the benefits and assuage people’s fears. You also need to seek buy-in from others among the executive staff and not just the executive director. Remember, your department doesn’t operate in a vacuum—you’ll need to sell your idea to the membership director, the marketing director, the communications director, even the finance director.

Big changes almost always impact more than just one department—as well as the budget—so creating an atmosphere of inclusion makes sense from the outset. Changes might mean more work for them and their staff, so be clear on how this benefits the association and eventually, them. When people understand the meaning behind the change, they’re more inclined to work harder to achieve the goal, especially if they feel part of the overall equation. Maybe even develop a team of staff from your departments who can help you plot the course and offer support when needed.

With any change, expect growing pains no matter how much support you think you have from leadership or the rank and file. Change can sometimes garner a “giveth and taketh away” scenario, depending on what the change is. Some will see the benefits, others may not, and they will be quite vocal about it.

Be prepared to take the heat from those who disagree with your actions but remain professional in your responses. In fact, have several canned responses prepared in advance of the change, and encourage the members who agree with you to be vocal in order to maintain balance in the discussion. Plus, members respect the opinions of other members whom they know, so having a respected member in your corner can aid in advancing your agenda.

Be inclusive and over-communicate. Next, consider inviting the naysayers to participate in the process. Use them as a beta test group or invite them to serve on a taskforce. Being part of the process could calm the angry lion within your most intolerable member. As part of the sunset process, I quickly went to work on developing a new publication and invited many of the naysayers and others to write chapters and participate as editors. Inclusion can help bring even the most ardent naysayer on board.

Finally, regularly publicize the impending change in as many vehicles as you have at your disposal. Begin this several months before unleashing the change upon your members. This not only acts as advance notice to the membership, but it can help you with “covering your assets” when the inevitable calls or emails start arriving from members accusing the association of a lack of transparency. It can happen; in fact, it has happened many times.

Within a four-year period, my association introduced significant modifications to certain member benefits and services, which taught us many hard lessons about how best to effect change within our membership. We made some mistakes along the way, and some of us still bear the scars of battle. But we emerged stronger than ever. Change can be painful; but with proper planning and buy-in, your association can successfully move your membership into the future.

Tatia Gordon-Troy, Esq., owner of Ramses House Publishing LLC and a 15-year veteran of association publishing, helps small– to medium-sized associations build sustainable sources of non-dues revenue while instructing them on how to recycle, reuse and repurpose their content. She can be contacted at tatiatroy@ramseshp.com.