Thursday, October 18, 2012

3 Steps to Get Association Boards to Challenge S.O.W.S. & Sacred Cows

S.O.W.S. & Sacred Cows Can Block Forward Movement of Associations & Nonprofits
Association boards often have two major areas that keep them from moving the organization forward.
  • S.O.W.s ... which stands for “same old way”
  • Sacred Cows ... A program or service that has outlived its usefulness
Over the last 30 years, I’ve watched association and nonprofit boards (and staffs) struggle with both. As association executives, many of us complain to colleagues about boards that add new programs without eliminating old ones. This program creep often taxes staff and the organization without adding real value to members and prospects.
When I first entered association management, my first task was to evaluate a Sacred Cow (called the Princess Soya cost) and make a recommendation to the board about what to do with it. Being new to associations and new to this association, I was mindful of potential land-mines about chapters, boards and staff. With a lot of research, I presented facts and options to the board ... which led to the decision to cancel the program.
These three steps to help boards transverse a landscape filled with the S.O.W.s and Sacred Cows.

1. Recognize that your association likely has S.O.W.s and Sacred Cows
    Ask some basic questions to identify: 
  • When was the last time you had a major overhaul of your major programs/services? Has your convention program schedule remained the same for more than four years? How frequently is your website updated? Do members complain about getting printed materials but key board members fight to keep printing “because the members I know don’t like to read information online?”
  • Does a board member or a board committee continue to “fight” for one program or service while other board members (or staff) think it has outlived its usefulness? Does the committee keep re-inserting funding for a program even though staff and the financial committee deleted it from the recommended budget?
2. Conduct a “program audit” to determine value & resource allocation 
  • Staff should provide boards a “catalog” of programs and services the association offers. 
  • Use a “grid” such as that included in Race for Relevance. Note the matrix includes % of members using the service, financial results and other key metrics.
  • When building your program audit, be sure to include the real cost of your programs and services. This includes the cost of staff time (with overhead) to implement the program. I can’t tell you how many associations look only at the “out-of-pocket” costs without adding the staff time costs.
  • Ask this key question: “If this program/service didn’t exist today, would we create it?” If you answer no, it’s time to put it up for a “stress test” to determine whether to modify or eliminate kill it.
  • Consider member research (not a quick emailed survey) to analyze member needs and association programs. Ideally, this is a telephone survey of randomly-selected members, former members and potential members. Use a professional firm. While this is not cheap, it is more valuable that listening to board members or an emailed survey which is not random and could result in misinformation.
3. Working with your Board of Directors
  • Be sure you have the support of your board chair and key board members to conduct the research and program audit.
  • Focus on facts and avoid emotions (especially if a Sacred Cow has one or more key champions on the board).
  • Provide the board (in advance) with a written report with background, research results (including the Program & Service Evaluation Matrix) and recommendation.
  • Illustrate how reallocating resources from a S.O.W. or Sacred Cow to a more valued program or service could benefit your members and the association.
The main thing is do this now. Your market (associations and prospects) is changing rapidly. Holding on to Sacred Cows or continuing to do the same old things threatens your ability to provide programs and services that add value and enhance your association.

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