SPJ has a new Executive Director. But rather than write a standard profile of him, Quill asked John Shertzer to write about his informed thoughts on the challenges facing membership organizations.
I love membership associations.
From the time I wore my blue corduroy FFA jacket in high school, and then my fraternity badge in college, and, soon after, my Kiwanis pin as a working professional, I have been attracted to organizations with missions devoted to making men and women better.
SPJ is that type of organization as well. Members and those who at least follow its efforts know that it’s a valuable and essential vehicle that should be sustained and protected.
And yet, for many reasons from simple to complex, the landscape is challenging for member-service organizations. The social and economic climate in our culture is changing and some associations struggle to adapt. The problem is compounded when the industry the association serves is dealing with significant structural upheavals, much like what the journalism and media industry is experiencing today.
Fatal problems? Not at all. But challenging nonetheless.
But with those challenges come the opportunities to explore together what the next era of member-service associations will look like.
I often use the analogy of a college campus. As a former campus administrator, I spent many years on college campuses. Strolling through one still gives me quite a lift. Many campuses are meticulously designed to be beautiful and aesthetically inspiring so what you often see is a well-planned network of sidewalks connecting the various academic and residential buildings. Interspersed are mature trees, well-manicured landscaping and small pastures of open green space.
If you look close enough, though, you might also see dirt paths worn through some of these otherwise perfect green spaces, where students have defied the sidewalk structure and, instead, made their own pathways.
In my storytelling mind, the groundskeeper is eternally frustrated by these dirt paths on the otherwise perfectly serene Kinkade-painting of a campus. I imagine a gruff response akin to an elderly man telling kids to “get off my lawn!”
The groundskeeper may cordon off, reseed and replenish the trampled areas, only for the makeshift paths to appear yet again once the temporary barriers are lifted, proving of little help against the desires of college students to charting their own course.
It’s similar to what those of us who love associations (as we know them) experience when a new generation tries to engage. We know what works! We have the path very easily laid out. But, wait. What are these new pathways we didn’t plan for? What are these new members thinking by suggesting there might be other ways to achieve our goals? Don’t they see how smart our original plans were?
Like the surly groundskeeper, those who refuse to budge from what currently exists may never find the success they want — especially if they define it as a return to the way things used to be. The message being delivered by the students is clear. So perhaps the smart college campus doesn’t resist these new pathways. Instead of reseeding and fixing and fencing, what if they paved over these dirt pathways instead, making it easier on the travelers? Some campuses do this. They demonstrate openness by listening to the “members.”
A question all longstanding associations need to ask: What pathways in the grass are we observing, both internally and externally, that impact our future?
The follow-up question: What do we do about them?
Now to get specific. Let’s think about a pressing issue for today’s associations: attracting younger members.
Associations, many of whom are seeing declining ranks, worry that both rosters and leadership structure are getting older, leading to a stronger desire to appeal to younger members. But how? When searching for answers, it’s easy to look to things like a bigger social media presence or and more youthful look and feel in branding.
Those can help, of course. But I think the wiser move is to look at the pathways.
Young people, as a group, have a different view on brand loyalty than many previous generations did. Think about television. Instead of footing the bill for one-size-fits-all cable or dish services, they now subscribe to streaming services more tailored to their preferences. They can add, subtract and change providers in a blink of an eye. Such contract-free “subscribing” can bleed over into what is expected from other aspects of their lives.
In this environment, should we expect excitement about joining traditional organizations and paying dues, accepting long-standing requirements on their time and talent, and living within the bureaucracy that once ably served these organizations? We want them to sign contracts but they, instead, want only to subscribe.
That’s not the only challenge we face or reality we need to consider if we want to attract a younger population. There’s also…
…the Value Proposition
Today’s consumer has an almost overwhelming amount of choices. And that includes association membership and conference attendance. Thus, associations need to be ready to make the case for why their organization and their events offer the most value. One question many groups such as SPJ need to wrestle with is do we try to broaden or narrow our focus? A broader focus is a bigger tent, but a narrower focus is easier to package and sell.
New technologies, including robust member database solutions, make it easier than ever to use data to inform larger organizational decisions. Association leaders can use data to identify trends starting to form or see those that have been forming for a long time. If membership numbers are declining, data can be useful in uncovering where, when and how this might be happening, and where new opportunities exist. Yet even in this sea of data opportunities, too many associations still make decisions on intuition or personal experiences or “the way things have always been.”
…Purpose and Relevancy
Perhaps the biggest word today’s association needs to grapple with is relevance. “What is our purpose?”
Think about a lens moving from a close-up to a wider angle. Zooming up close: What makes an association relevant to its current members? Member surveys, focus groups and discussions at annual meetings can help lead to the answer. Pulling back a bit: What would make our association relevant to nonmembers that we want to attract? We must be prepared that answers given by our current members may differ for those who haven’t joined.
The wider view, and perhaps most important one: What makes us relevant to the greater society? Why does the world need your organization right now? What would be missing if it no longer existed?
These are questions that a nimble association returns to frequently, with the understanding that the changing environment may require different answers at different times.
This is what it means to be driven by purpose.
A truth of organizational life is that there are always periods where the challenges seem daunting. Every long-standing organization faces a period of decline on the line graph of its existence. Some are able to pull out of those moments. Some never do.
So, how does SPJ thrive and grow in this challenging environment?
First, we must avoid the hubris (as Jim Collins calls it in “How the Mighty Fall”) of thinking we know exactly how the sidewalk paths should go. We need to be observant, to listen and to adapt the changing communities around us.
Second, we need to be open to new pathways in the grass. It is common for institutions that face major challenges to worry about the future and thus try to exert more control over the present. We need to avoid doubling down on processes that might actually be working against us.
Third, we need to keep purpose and relevancy front and center.
We exist to meet a mission, and there are likely many pathways (well-paved or diagonal and dirt-worn) that can get us there. If we remember that our purpose is central, then we are free to accept change and innovation.
Of course, there is so much more we need to do to enable a bright future for SPJ. I look forward to taking part in (and even starting, if need be) the big conversations that need to happen. We have had a strong and consequential history at SPJ, fueled by passionate subscribers to our mission. This next era will be no different.
I love membership associations.
I’m excited to now place the SPJ pin on my lapel and get to work.
Title: Executive Director, SPJ and SPJ Foundation
Education: B.S. from Miami University in Mass Communication)from Miami University, M.S. from Higher Education from Iowa State University
Family: Married to Ellen for 18 years and raising three “very loud and active boys”: Jack, 14; Luke, 10; and Bennett, 6
The Road Here: Student Affairs Administrator at Iowa State and University of Maryland; Program leader for North American Interfraternity Conference; Executive Director for Kiwanis Youth Programs, including Key Club International and Circle K International, Founded K-5 Charter School and established Mayor’s Youth Leadership Council in Indianapolis.
Weekend Activity: Watching or coaching youth sports “with many hot and dusty summer nights at the baseball fields”
Downtime: Loves to write and has authored a book (“Forever Fraternity”)
Favorite Band: Pearl Jam
Favorite Movie: “The Right Stuff”
Sports Preferences: Cleveland Browns and the Detroit Tigers “and thus has learned patience and perseverance.”
Impactful Reading: “Let Your Life Speak” by Parker Palmer, “Leadership for the Twenty-First Century” by Joseph Rost, “Built to Last” by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras. Oh, and the Harry Potter series.
Favorite Code of Ethics Line: Journalists should give voice to the voiceless.