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Using Passion as a Prerequisite, Size Matters

Would you rather belong to a club of 800 with 20 percent engaged members or a club of 200 with 100 percent passionate ones?

I thought about this at a recent gathering of Meeting Professional International  Greater New York’s Board of Directors. I am entering my second term on the Board’s Executive Committee – first as VP of Marketing and now as VP of Education. In both roles, my job is to help figure out how to engage members, present chapter happenings in an interesting manner, and create programs that will draw people from their computer screens into the real world of networking and participation.

Judging from the numbers and the results, one could argue, I have failed.

Has execution been flawed? Have expectations been unrealistic? Or are we living in an age in which trade association participation is slipping on the professional priority list – no time, no interest, no urgency, no energy.

Here’s an idea: The New York chapter cuts its membership from 800 to 200, institutes a qualification process whereby applicants have to be evaluated and accepted, and starts fresh with a smaller, more focused, more inspired membership eager to learn, share, participate, influence and contribute. Programs could be tailored to a smaller demographic, initiatives could include white papers and causes of relevance, pressure on “making the numbers” would ease, and energy levels would rise. How vibrant a group this could be!

Right now our chapter is preparing a member assessment survey to figure out what is needed to drive seemingly disinterested or too-busy members to participate more. Outside of working and thinking very hard to make our programs and value proposition appealing, we can’t drag them kicking and screaming to events. And why should we?

However, if their non-involvement causes the chapter to fall short on budgeted attendance goals (based on that larger membership), satisfaction scores and overall survey results, then those members who do care and do participate would be penalized under the current MPI structure with reduced funding and fewer benefits that could have been used to enhance member value.

I heard a compelling presentation at a recent MPI/HSMAI joint education session by Rohit Bhargava, author of Likeonomics and believer that likeability and relationships are as important to business success as products and employee skill sets. He referred to a Towers Perrin survey of 90,000 employees at mid- to large-size corporations that found only 21 percent were “engaged” at their jobs, 38 percent were disenchanted or disengaged, and the rest fell somewhere in between. That’s not a high passion quotient for corporations. The association market no doubt is in a similar boat.

If you’ll accept the current skepticism about the value of trade associations, it stands to reason a new structure and dynamic might be worth considering in hope of resuscitating a lethargic membership and membership pool. Certainly, there’s easy money to be made from the many “non-participants” who blindly mail in renewals then are hardly seen or heard. It’s a nice source to boost revenue, but is it hurting the greater good in the long run?

I’m not an expert on the trade association business – just a member of many through the years (with my own wavering spurts of passion and apathy) and now a volunteer officer of one with an obligation and accountability. I appreciate the efforts of MPI at all levels in looking to serve a marketplace. But it seems to me a smaller, more passionate constituency might be the model of tomorrow, with priorities tied to member value -- focusing on improving careers and the profession -- for those who truly want it and are willing to contribute to make it happen.

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