In this edition of the Association Press, Lamees chats with Greg Laney, 2013 President of Atlanta Area Compensation Association on his association's growth and effectiveness strategy. Read the interview below or listen to our 24-minute conversation.
"The thing most sought after by our members are subject matter experts that can give them valuable insight they can take to Senior HR and also the board room. We work hard to find speakers that can deliver that to our members." - Greg Laney
Original recording date: 12/20/2013
Lamees: Please take a minute to introduce yourself.
Greg: Thank you for having me today Lamees. I’m Greg Laney, the 2013 President of the Atlanta Area Compensation Association, founder of SalarySchool.com and I also manage the Global HR Analytics for a major international hotel company.
Lamees: Tell me about the Atlanta Area Compensation Association (AACA). Who you are and what you do?
Greg: We serve as a local extension of the National Professional Association for Total Rewards, [email protected] We look to provide members with an opportunity to learn more about the profession, network with local colleagues, open job referral channels and develop leaders for tomorrow’s workplace.
AACA was formed in 1990 by a group of compensation and benefits professionals interested in fostering education and exchange of information.
Lamees: How many members do you currently have?
Greg: We have approximately 170 active and passive members. Passive members pay dues and utilize our web resources, but may not attend meetings. Our most active members attend our regular networking events, volunteer for projects and contribute feedback to organization development.
Lamees: What do you think is the most unique thing about your organization? Or what makes your organization unique?
Greg: Almost by definition, our organization is built on a common association template where we try to differentiate ourselves is in the commitment to providing outstanding value to our members. We regularly reach out to see what our members expect from the organization, then seek to exceed those expectations.
Lamees: The membership structure is something a professional organization plans when they get started and possibly change as the organization evolve. Tell us about your membership structure. How many levels do you have? What are they?
Greg: We have two primary membership levels. The first is Board of Directors. The Board of Directors are responsible for event and resource planning. It is this group that strives to provide our members with the best experience possible.
Our second level is Active Members. They are the ones who we cater our resources to.
Lamees: What are some of the benefits your organization provide to members?
Greg: Members enjoy numerous benefits. For a low annual membership fee, they enjoy (1) four catered professional education and networking sessions, (2) an annual after-work social event, (3) a half-day conference, which includes speakers flown in from around the country, social media resources and prizes, (4) a holiday forum. Additionally, (5) members receive all the capabilities of the website not always afforded to non-members, resources such as (6) presentation documents, (7) member directories, (8) the ability to post jobs at no cost.
Lamees: What’s the benefit that really draws in members?
Greg: For a majority of members, it is the networking and professional updates. The most valuable resource is the discount we offer to members for [email protected] training conducted locally.
Lamees: How do you describe your demographics?
Greg: A large population of the group are senior managers or above, but we are starting to really branch out to newer members in the industry. We have representatives from pretty much all local industries and several consulting companies. The expertise brought to our meetings spans all possible HR fields.
Lamees: Do you have difficulty attracting younger members?
Greg: We have discussed this as an area of focus. While we have a large representation of seasoned professionals, the future of the organization lies in the relationships we can develop with tomorrow’s all stars.
Lamees: What is your best practice for member retention?
Greg: The thing most sought after by our members are subject matter experts that can give them valuable insight they can take to Senior HR and also the board room. We work hard to find speakers that can deliver that to our members.
Events and Programs
Lamees: Some of the best value professional organizations provide to their members are programs and events. What events and programs does AACA provide its members?
Greg: While we have six speaker events each year, we don’t always have them present in the same format. For example, one may be a solo-presenter with a PowerPoint deck. The next meeting may break the group into different teams and have round-table discussions facilitated by Subject matter experts. Another meeting might have a panel discussion with experts of diverse backgrounds.
Lamees: What are the most successful of these programs and why?
Greg: They all have success with differing groups of our membership. The Annual Forum is the most successful event as it often provides our members the opportunity to attend multiple sessions over the half-day conference.
Lamees: What kind of participation do you experience?
Greg: We do have a high rate of passive members and the members that attend one meeting are not always the same that attend the next. That said, for smaller meetings, we run around a 25% participation rate and our larger conference gets up to around 60%.
Lamees: Who plans your events and much work does that involve?
Greg: Our entire board plays a part in pulling off the meetings. The biggest portion of work for a standard meeting is done by our VP of Programs. They verify the location, confirm and meet the needs of the presenter(s), then coordinate the member communications. That said, they work hand-in-hand with the VP of Membership to ensure enrollment and check-in runs smoothly, and the VP Finance to make sure all bills are properly handled. Other board members play prominent roles in identifying presenters and also managing logistics for our larger events.
Lamees: How important are in-person events for you, and what size events do you offer?
Greg: The in-person events are the life-blood of our association. Standard events run 35-40 people, while the most popular standard special events run around 50 people. The Annual Forum (our conference) usually sees enrollment numbers around 100.
Lamees: What are the main funding sources for your organization?
Greg: We have three primary funding sources: member dues, sponsorships and earnings from our training partnership with [email protected] The three sources mentioned bring are actually listed smallest to largest in terms of dollars they bring in to the association.
Lamees: Do you have sponsorship program? What’s your experience in using sponsorship as a revenue generation channel?
Greg: The sponsorship is something that works great for our members and helps us control dues. We find that companies like sponsoring our events when we bring in topics that our members want to hear.
Lamees: One of the most common challenges professional associations face is running an organization based on volunteers mainly. As a volunteer-only organization, how do you effectively manage your association?
Greg: We do a few things. First we offer members opportunities to volunteer and learn the ins-and-outs of the organization. Second, we use the collective knowledge of our experienced membership to properly vet board members. Third, we ensure new board members they are afforded a transition period, where they meet with the outgoing board member to discuss next year’s plans. Oftentimes, the out-going board member has worked to address many of the early year needs. Finally, board members are allowed to serve four consecutive years. This requires members to rotate off the board. This also ensures that as new members come onto the board, that there are several other experienced board members to help.
Lamees: What are your biggest challenges in managing your organization?
Greg: Our board does a fantastic job to help the organization thrive. The biggest challenge comes from the goals we set for the organization to be a best in class association. This is a volunteer board, but our commitment causes us to forget that sometimes. We then have to be careful to balance our day-job responsibilities with board responsibilities.
Lamees: Do you use contract staff or part-time employees to do some of the work?
Greg: No. The only instance is when we have a major project and contract out to an organization for their expertise ... say for a web site re-design.
Lamees: Some organization struggle keeping members (and Board members engaged). How active are your board members?
Greg: Our Board members try to attend every meeting (though that’s not always possible). We also have six additional board meetings on alternating months to keep them engaged.
Lamees: What’s your secret? (What do you contribute this engagement to?)
Greg: We really try to find the people that are passionate about the organization, put them in positions to help us win, then give them the resources to do what they set out to do.
Lamees: How do you succeed with succession planning for your volunteers and elected officers?
Greg: Volunteers are given real tasks to coordinate and run our events. We ask them to use the same skills that our board members use every month (but with the oversight of a current board member). The experience of our current board, the opinion of our members and the rotating board schedule all contribute to the success of our leader development.
Lamees: How do you engage your members to volunteer more (it’s the same people volunteering)?
Greg: We advertise the volunteer opportunities regularly for big events and share how their part is important to our success. For our last half-day conference, we had 19 volunteers help our board pull everything together.
Lamees: How do you reward volunteers?
Greg: Our biggest thing we can offer is recognition. We recognize their contribution in front of their peers (and often-times managers).
Lamees: What level of technical skills do you have on your board to implement web applications or support your website?
Greg: On our current board, we have two people that have experience building web sites. Our last web site was built by a current board member. Some board members are Power Users whilemMany of the rest are not as versed in developing web solutions.
Lamees: Do you find a majority of board members are still reluctant to embrace new technologies, such as Wild Apricot?
Greg: I didn’t see it as reluctance, so much as an inertia to kick off the web site re-design project. The biggest challenge is determining where to begin.
Lamees: What are some of the technologies your organization uses and you like to recommend to others?
Greg: After a lot of research, we decided to re-design our website. By the time we approached our vender, we had vetted out the right technology for our organization, Wild Apricot, and chose to seek out the right vendor. While we do have members that have web site design experience, we found the only way to ensure the site could be developed correctly was to hire experts in web site design, and more specifically, familiarity with Wild Apricot. This allowed our board to concentrate on talking with our members to learn their needs. Also, having a professional organization build the web site allows them to provide proper training for your power-users. With the functionality the Content Management System offers, it was important for us to learn to run the site effectively.
We also use other resources, such as e-mail reminders for meetings and membership renewals. We also have a dedicated group responsible managing our membership in the system.
Lamees: What are some of your association’s goals for 2014?
Greg: In 2013, we identified some things that we wanted to accomplish, but knew we would not have time during the year, given how full everyone’s plate was. More aggressively recruiting members. We are seeing an increase in our membership, but the rate of growth is slower than we would like. We also want to develop more options to develop junior members.
Lamees: What marketing strategy or tools do you have in place to achieving these goals?
Greg: For membership, we have talked about other membership levels to attract students studying HR. The strategy involves reaching out to local colleges and universities to build a relation with their programs to encourage students to use our organization as a networking opportunity.
Lamees: How do you promote your programs and events? How well does that work for you?
Greg: We promote our events to members via e-mail distributions, with a link to our website for further details. We also use Linked In to reach out to former members. Additionally, we work with [email protected] to send out a regional communication of our meetings and training sessions.
Lamees: How do you recruit members? How well is that working for you?
Greg: Most current members have been recruited via word-of-mouth. This has been our most successful tool. We are starting to look at other avenues to really drive organizational growth.
Lamees: What is the number one tool you use for member outreach?
Greg: Our e-mail blasts are the primary way we reach out to members. Our website is the primary resource for providing details to our members.
Lamees: Leadership in professional associations is the main driver for getting others to act and making things happen in the organization. What’s your advice for leaders of other professional associations?
Greg: Make sure you’re passionate about the association and recruit other board members that are equally passionate. Sometimes, our board meetings can get lively, but that’s when you know that everyone cares about the impacts of the decisions you are making.
About the Association Press: The Association Press is an interview series, hosted by Lamees Abourahma, Webbright founder and president, featuring association executives covering topics related to membership management, recruiting, retention, marketing, IT, and other related topics. We’re talking real-life professional associations’ challenges and unique solutions.