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Why Volunteers Leave

I administer one of Canada’s biggest law conferences. Yesterday, in response to an email I sent on behalf of that client, I received a great reply:

Hello Jessica, thanks for the email. I appreciate it. Last year was my first year at the conference and I quite enjoyed it. I came with several friends. However, this year, most people that I attended with are not able to attend. Are there any volunteer opportunities at this year’s conference? I would still like to attend but perhaps use it as an opportunity to help out if there is any help required or needed anywhere. Let me know at your convenience.

How awesome is that? It took me about 30 seconds to reply, and I was talking with my new volunteer an hour later to figure out how we can best help each other.

One of my pet peeves about some CLE providers is that they don’t do right by their volunteers, especially faculty members. Good volunteers are gifts – they advance the organization’s mission in countless ways (see my past post on Three PD Metrics All Associations Should Know). Unfortunately, too many staff don’t receive enough training in how to attract and – more importantly –  keep volunteers.

Most lawyers volunteer as faculty members for one of the following reasons:

  • they were asked
  • they see it as an achievement or form of recognition
  • personal growth
  • they want to give something back to the profession
  • networking, collegiality, support (a feeling of belonging)

And the number 1 reason most volunteer faculty “break-up” with CLE providers? Poor management by staff. This includes:

  • lack of support
  • poor training and orientation
  • burnout
  • underutilization
  • lack of recognition
  • inadequate feedback
  • perks that are withdrawn
  • it isn’t fun

These aren’t the result of any scientific or industry study – just my own observations and lessons from over a decade in PD. I hope they help make you a better volunteer manager.

Why Strategic Plans Fail

Having a clear sense of the future you want and putting a plan in place to get there is an essential responsibility of a professional association. So why do so many strategic plans end up abandoned or collecting dust in a forgotten drawer? Cynics will tell you it’s because strategic planning doesn’t work. I don’t agree with that. My experience is that many strategic plans fail because of simple, avoidable reasons.  Here are 6 reasons I’ve seen that association strategic plans don’t make it:

1. You have a non-representative planning group. Your stakeholders are broader than you think, for certain broader than your board. Strategic plans created without member, staff and other stakeholder input are destined for trouble.

2. You’re out of sync – with current trends and the future of the industry, and/or you don’t give your competitors enough credit and/or you overestimate your market opportunity. Some day you will cry “unforeseen external developments”.

3. You don’t have adequate buy-in at the executive, staff and member levels because stakeholders don’t understand the plan, the plan doesn’t reflect your association’s values or mission, or the plan doesn’t accurately reflect your core competencies and capabilities.

4. You’re a poor financial planner. The association is inadequately resourced – financially and/or operationally – to execute on the plan and the plan has no connection to current or future budgets.

5. There is no responsibility and accountability for implementation of the plan. You’re so worn out from the planning process and creation of the plan that you don’t have the energy to assign responsibility for specific tasks, and you don’t follow-up to measure success.

6. You’re not flexible enough. You’re so dogmatic to the plan that you can’t respond or adapt to a changing environment which means you lose new opportunities and/or fail to make necessary adjustments.

Anyone can plan. But being strategic about planning requires inclusiveness, complete information, a results-oriented focus, and flexibility. Associations that think carefully about these challenges before starting the strategic planning process will be more likely to create a plan that leads them toward the future they envision.

Reporting Feedback Data: Top Box v. Average Scores

How we report the results of survey data is an important and subtle component of how we evaluate program and association success. While lots of different satisfaction scoring scales exist (1 to 5, 1 to 7, or 1 to 10, etc.) most associations and PD providers use one of two methods for interpreting and reporting data: the arithmetic mean (or average score) and the top box score(s) (or percentage of respondents who gave the highest ratings). What you get from each method, and the consequences of that analysis, can be quite different, so choosing the method that best aligns with your survey and organizational objectives deserves some consideration.

Top box scores. Top box scores represent the percentage of respondents who gave the best responses (on a scale of 1 to 10, either a 10, or a 9 or 10). Possible percentage scores range from 1 to 100. Top box scores are easily understandable because they clearly identify how many people fall into a certain category, for example, very happy or happy. Organizations understand the difference between 76% of respondents being very happy or happy, and 69% of respondent being very happy or happy. The downside of top box scores is that they throw some data away – the middle – but also, if the bottom box numbers are not shared, important low box data. High top box scores, by themselves, can eclipse low box scores that may signal a problem. For example, if 20% of respondents were very unhappy, wouldn’t you want to know that?

Average scores. With average scores, the mean is calculated by summing all responses and dividing by the number of responses. On a scale of 1 to 10, possible scores range from 1 to 10. Average scores are easy to calculate, and take into account the full range of responses, from very unhappy to very happy, so provide the best overall statistic of the typical rating (especially valuable for year to year comparisons). On the other hand, average scores provide less understandable data (especially within a single event) ie. what’s the difference between an  8.1 and an 8.5?

So which metric to use? Ultimately, the answer depends on your priority – statistical precision or audience comprehension? A combination of the two metrics is the most honest, understandable and useful approach, often presented as a description of top box scores in the highlights or executive summary, with average scores later on. This blended approach may require more effort but it ensures that the organization and the reader receive all the data, and are therefore better able to act on the responses to make improvements.

Regardless of which interpretation and reporting method you choose one thing is certain: alternating between approaches when it suits your purpose – especially if your goal is validation versus positive change – will raise long-term credibility problems. Objective analysis and reporting of survey results are just as important as proper survey construction.

Leveraging Association Milestones

One of my clients is celebrating a pretty special anniversary so when I finally got a chance to review my November copy of Harvard Business Review, I was delighted to find a great article entitled “Anniversaries are Not to Be Wasted”. I’ve been considering for some time the opportunities that milestone anniversaries provide for associations, and the HBR article helped to crystalize my thoughts. Today’s associations are facing serious member retention and growth challenges. Some associations try to confront these challenges by competing on every metric possible – price, education, networking opportunities, etc. Ironically, that kind of jockeying tends to make associations more, not less, similar to their competitors.

Enter the unique opportunity that milestone anniversaries provide. An anniversary – especially a big one – symbolizes strength and security in a rapidly changing market. It celebrates past accomplishments and offers a plan for the future, conveying to current and prospective members that the association is doing well and will be around for a long time. What better marketing opportunity could there be to differentiate your association from and leapfrog over the competition?

If your association is nearing a milestone anniversary, consider engaging an anniversary strategist. How you celebrate your anniversary will depend on your association’s values, traditions and budget – every organization and anniversary campaign is different – but a good anniversary strategist will work with you to:

  • attract positive industry press;
  • reinforce or update your association’s brand;
  • improve recognition of your association’s contributions to the profession;
  • boost board, staff, and faculty morale and loyalty;
  • strengthen relationships with strategic partners;
  • increase new member sign-ups and membership renewals;
  • grow special event and education program attendance;
  • establish a clear, competitive advantage; and,
  • grow your bottom line.

Celebrating a milestone anniversary offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that associations can’t afford to squander. So start planning now – with a little lead-time, your next anniversary can be your biggest “sell”ebration ever.