(Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash)
From the time we begin work in the morning to the time we wrap things up for the day, there’s no telling what’s going to come across our desks or land in our inboxes.
Especially now, as association professionals around the world are contending with the coronavirus and its impacts on not only our industry but those we serve, problem-solving feels like a muscle we’re exercising daily. And that can make the creativity it requires feel often far away.
Over the last couple of months, we’ve had conversations with more than a dozen association professionals around the United States, asking them about the resources they turn to when they need to get creative. We asked what newsletters, organizations, podcasts and even TV shows they found helped them work harder and smarter.
The results were as diverse as you can imagine.
We talked to association professionals from Washington, D.C., to California. We talked to some who only recently joined the industry, and some who have made a 20-plus career of it. We talked to one woman who found some of her best ideas come from so-bad-so-good pop-culture podcasts she was embarrassed to admit she enjoyed. We talked to a man who doesn’t bother with reading email newsletters because he gets most of what he needs from Google searches, and we talked to a couple professionals who lean on a private Facebook group for solving internal staff struggles.
Suffice it to say, we did a lot of talking.
“Inspiration is everywhere, said Dan VanDiver with the Alabama Association of School Boards. “I don’t necessarily look to associations for new ideas. I might get a magazine in the mail at home that has nothing to do with education or association work, but I like the design or how they approached the issue and I think, ‘Could I use that for us?’
“You have to keep your eyes open across all industries, not just your own, and continue professional development to stay aware of new technologies.”
Staying agile is incredibly important, according to the professionals we spoke with. Complacency isn’t an option, regardless of the organization you work with.
“There are some associations that have been around for 100 years,” said Shelley Wales of the Grant Professionals Association. “You’d think they’d have figured it out by now, but … and technology makes things change quickly.”
And now, here are the results of the conversations we had so the next time you’re looking to solve a problem — or just feeling a little silly for getting an idea from somewhere unexpected — you’ll know you aren’t alone.
The American Society of Association Executives: An obvious choice for many professionals, ASAE is often turned to for advice and resources. But membership is not always paid for by employers, which can prevent access to some resources.
“I’m 100 percent, both feet jumped in,” said Ashley Wilson of the American Public Works Association. “I’m as involved as I possibly can be.”
CAE education: More often than not, getting CAE certified through ASAE was often cited as a prerequisite for getting a job application noticed. But the time commitment means for many, the certification is not an option.
Local leadership organizations: For association leaders looking to make connections locally or regionally, local or regional chambers of commerce and societies of association executives offer accessible networking.
Role-specific associations: Many of the folks we talked to specifically mentioned having joined associations that tied directly to their role within their current organizations. Those who handle PR for their association, for example, were likely to have joined PR associations, like VanDiver, who is a member of an organization for people who handle PR for schools. It’s the one I find most valuable, because it’s people who do exactly what I do,” she said.
Industry-specific newsletters: It’s vital for association professionals to stay up-to-date on the issues that most impact the people and organizations they serve. That’s why many of the people we spoke with said they subscribe to newsletters for news outlets that keep an eye on their specific service areas. Jessica Strelitz of the Online News Association, for example, subscribes to the American Press Institute’s daily news brief. “They really make a great effort to present the news, and then present surrounding news for background as well as some takeaways,” she said. “It’s well laid-out, consistent … and quite detailed.”
LinkedIn: The social media site for business professionals often has leadership content pop up to the top of feeds. Sharon Kneebone of the National Society for Histiotechnology said she heads there every morning to see what’s trending. “It gives me a broad brush of what’s going on, and I like to pick disparate ideas for problem solving and not just what’s going on in the association space,” she said.
Sister associations: Many local level associations have “sister” organizations in other states and cities. Connecting with the people who run them can be greatly beneficial to solving problems at home. It’s one resource Amy O’Rourke, who runs the Florida Association of Licensed Investigators, turns to regularly. “Why reinvent the wheel?” she said.
Association magazines: Many national publications still send print magazines, which for Jeffrey Geihs of the Nevada Association of School Administrators, provide a great way to spend some time reading and thinking through what other organizations are doing to solve problems.
Reality TV: A little “Love is Blind,” anyone? Yep. Some of Tamela Blalock’s gamification ideas have come from reality TV. “I’m starting to mine Netflix for ideas,” laughed the National Cooperative Business Association vice-president of cooperative relations, because she finds “different ways to communicate content.”
Skift: This travel industry-specific publication is one that Desiree Knight of the American Railway Engineering and Maintenance of Way Association recommended. Why? Because if attendees can’t get to your conferences, then you’ve got big issues. “It’s important because I’m bringing people together. They’re traveling to my meetings, so I need to understand what’s happening in the travel industry as a whole,” she said.
Beth Ziseenis: “Your Nerdy Best Friend” is one Eileen Schuster of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists relies on often for the easily digestible association industry tips. “They’re short learning bits,” she said, “so they’re great takeaways.”
Webinars and online tools: Often, membership of various organizations and subscriptions to various online publications or even digital platforms earns you access to virtual conferences and webinars. Webinars are often cited as an easy way to stay engaged. Check out the virtual learning tools we have through our membership for Badass Leaders.
The hallways at in-person conferences: While live, in-person conferences were often cited, rarely did their sessions actually come up in our conversations. Instead, it was the networking and “hallway conversations” that came between sessions that were found truly helpful. “I get energy from talking to people,” said Nabil El-Ghoroury of the California Association for Marriage and Family Therapists, who described himself as a natural extrovert. The takeaway? Prioritize networking.
Google: When in doubt, search it out. Arkansas State Employees Association executive director John Bridges needed to find a way to connect with his members quickly as state policy needs arise, but he didn’t know of any resource to solve that problem. Like many of us might, Bridges turned to Google with a specific idea of what he needed, and he quickly found a solution in his budget.
Another suggestion? Marissa Bankert of the Central Pennsylvania Independent Electrical Contractors has created specific Google Alerts so she knows when news breaks in her industry.
Books: Sometimes, the answer you’re looking for is right there on your book shelf. Most of the professionals we spoke with cited business, psychology, management and leadership titles as regular go-to options. But that’s not all. As Sharon Kneebone said, “Believe it or not, i get some of my ideas just from fiction.”
News publications and email newsletters: You’ve got to keep up with what’s going on in the world. The most cited publications were AssociationSucess.org. The New York Times, CEO Update, Non-Profit Quarterly, the Harvard Business Review, The Economist, Business Insider, Forbes and The Wall Street Journal.