Making the Case for Professional Development to Your Staff and Members

by Aaron Wolowiec

I was recently asked by a state society to design a session on professional development. It’s one session in a series of 11 intended for association professionals who want to broaden their understanding of association management in an interactive and engaging manner.  

Participants attend having a range of association experience — from more entry-level to more senior professionals. Although some participants view professional development as their primary responsibility, most do not. Instead, they participate in this series to shine a spotlight on the functional areas within association management for which they don’t have a lot of exposure on a day-to-day basis. For a number of participants, this is also a great stepping stone to ASAE’s Certified Association Executive (CAE) credential.

One of my goals in designing this session was to make a compelling case (within the first 10 minutes) for association professionals, regardless of their primary functional area, to gain a greater appreciation for the importance of professional development to:

  • Educate and advance their industry.
  • Create connection and community.
  • Attract, engage, and retain members.
  • Further their individual, team, or department work.
  • Demonstrate value amid the pandemic.

As a result, I turned to Marketing General Inc.’s 2021 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report. And, not surprisingly, I found a lot of good data across the report’s 80 pages. Following are just a handful of findings you might be interested in as you make the case for professional development to your staff and members:

Channels that get most new members

  • Top 3: Association-sponsored events/meetings

To me, this suggests a real importance for professional development to intentionally partner with membership. Some ideas might include:

  • Flagging name badges with member ribbons or disseminating member pins
  • Adding renewal notices to the back of names badges or in registration packets
  • Setting up a membership booth onsite for easy joining/renewing
  • Gathering audio/video testimonials onsite from current members
  • Recognizing long-term members in five-year increments during a general session
  • Tagging up with non-member attendees to discuss the benefits of membership

Effectiveness of offers for recruiting new members (very effective/effective)

  • Top 1: Conference or convention discount 

In other words, membership would benefit from working closely with professional development to consider not only the budget implications of offering a conference or convention discount to new members, but also coordinating with marketing the appropriate messaging and timing for such a campaign.

Top reasons members join organization

  • Top 1: Networking with others in the field
  • Top 2: Continuing education/professional certification 

Although the professional development our associations offer is incredibly important, we must always remember to balance networking opportunities (both formal and informal) with the learning itself. And networking requires a little more effort and structure than a room, some appetizers, an open bar, and a musical act. 

Instead, carefully consider the experience you want attendees to have, the number of new people you’d like them to meet, and the types of conversations you’d like them to have. Then, select a format that is most likely to make that happen. One format I particularly like is the liberating structure called Impromptu Networking.

Changes in member engagements

  • Attendance at webinars
  • Attendance at professional development meetings

Specifically, this question asked in the past fiscal year, how has member engagement and participation changed within each of the following areas. Attendance at webinars increased by 83 percent and attendance at professional development meetings increased by 57 percent.

That’s not surprising given the pandemic; however, it means that many associations had to consider:

  • Upgrades to virtual education platforms.
  • Staff competencies to design and deliver effective virtual offerings.
  • Exploring new deliverables with sponsors/exhibitors.
  • Translating in-person networking opportunities to the virtual environment.
  • Member behaviors related to registration and attention span.
  • Reductions to professional development income.

New opportunities associations explored during pandemic/recession

  • Top 1: Increase virtual professional development opportunities for members

Finally, as most associations pivoted during the pandemic to offer member value without the ability to meet face-to-face, most turned to virtual professional development offerings. Moving forward, it will be imperative that associations consider the growth of their professional development portfolios during the pandemic and take decisive, strategic action to determine what should remain, what should be modified, and what should be sunset. Trying to maintain the totality of the new, virtual portfolio with the past in-person offerings will not be sustainable for staff or members (particularly as it relates to their time, interest, and budgets).

Be on the lookout for MGI’s 2022 report. The survey garnering association data recently closed and I’d expect to see a 14th Edition of the Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report in the coming months.

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