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Calculated Gamble or Educated Guess?

Here’s a shock: people join industry trade groups primarily for networking and education. Meeting Professionals International, arguably the largest and best known organization in the meetings industry, is fully aware of this. So aware, in fact, that they’ve created a program at headquarters to raise the level of education at the chapter level – where the acknowledged heart and soul of their membership resides.

To do this, MPI is regulating the flow of funds typically recouped by chapters from membership dues and placing them in various buckets, for which the chapters can tap into and get rewarded – or rebated -- for educational spending. That spending primarily is for booking presenters from MPI HQ’s approved chapter speaker database. In theory, speakers in that database are excellent presenters on relevant topics; in fact, a number of them have been excellent speakers on relevant topics for 20 years or so. In theory, they have been graded highly in their past engagements, which is why MPI is encouraging their selection.

If I’ve got the numbers right, MPI chapters overall received scores from attendees of about 7.6 (out of 10.0) on the quality of their educational programs over the past year. I love the way Brad Shanklin, MPI’s Director of Chapter Business Services, explains it: “If I was being evaluated on my marriage and I received a score of 7.6, I wouldn’t be too happy about it.”

MPI’s intention is good. However, since the program was announced, it’s been explained a number of times – at least twice formally, on the agendas of MPI’s Chapter Leaders Forum in Orlando and Chapter Business Summit in Dallas. Shanklin admits he’s explained the rebate process “over a hundred times” (I interpreted him literally). And for whatever reason, people still don’t get it. In fact, in Dallas during an explanation for people who no doubt had heard it multiple times, one delegate walked up to an easel and started writing it down to help make sense (see picture).

The problem is MPI has taken the discussion away from the very subject they want to address and improve – education. Every session I’ve attended relating to MPI education has focused on managing the new rebate formula. When the Greater New York Chapter tapped me to be their VP of Education, I think it was because, based on my background, I understood how to direct industry content and activities to relevant topics in provocative formats with dynamic speakers. But that was hardly my priority. Excited to meet other chapter education leaders and debate “single speaker vs. panel,” “charismatic vs. knowledgeable,” “live vs. web-based,” “hot new topics vs. solid old ones,” my role was relegated to math student. What’s more, a lot of enthusiastic Education volunteers hoping to bring new ideas to the table have been reeled in by the confines of figuring out formulas and managing numbers – not noggins.

Association leadership is relatively new to me – which I think carries with it more plusses than minuses for a group like MPI. At our chapter, there has been a heavy emphasis on putting the right people in the right jobs. In fact, I was asked to make a transition over to VP of Marketing and Communications when a vacancy arose there. Maybe they felt they needed someone with more math and financial acumen in the educational role. If that’s the case (I don’t really think it is) and even if it isn’t, MPI has to ask itself whether it is doing more harm than good with its complex new “educational” initiative. Ironically, in the end, I’m afraid it will be the numbers that tell the story.

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