One of the most frequent concerns of Independent Business Alliance leaders is feeling unable to entice members to go beyond simply paying their dues and engage as active participants / volunteers. Sure, it’s a product of the amount of time it takes to run a business combined with their already busy lives.  But another culprit could be your organization itself.  Here are a few ideas to give members compelling reasons to add your IBA activity to their limited schedules:

  • Hold periodic social and member learning events that bring your members together and help them feel a stronger bond with your IBA — part of the organization, rather than individuals who merely rely on your IBA for services. That kind of participation can help generate more interest in helping your group when volunteer and participatory opportunities arise.  Some ideas:
    • The Austin IBA conducts a number of standing member meetings and events.  As a way to entice new
      members to integrate and attend these and provide a useful service to new members, they stay-local-youRhere-eventconduct member orientation sessions starting 30 minutes before an AIBA event. These orientations include a review of member benefits and ways members can plug into the organization, as well as a tour of the Member Resources section of AIBA’s website. They also invite existing members who want to stay abreast of new programs and benefits or review.
    • Social events that are not intended as learning or networking events.  You may want to invite “distinguished guests” such as your mayor or council members, your economic development director, or even candidates for public office.  Having these guests attend your events adds esteem to your organization and helps members feel privileged for belonging to it. (Open meeting laws will limit the number of city council members who can attend any one event at the same time, so don’t take offense if only one or two attend.)
    • Learning events such as brown bag seminars or breakfast- or lunch-and-learns help your members hone their business acumen, learn more about City services that can help them, learn keys to effective use of social media, and so many other topical options.  Seek the expertise of your own members to dispense their wisdom – they usually are more than willing to be regarded as an expert and to gain exposure to your members who may not yet be clients or customers.
    • A feedback session between your board and membership to learn in person how the organization is serving members and could do better.  It’s also an opportunity for the board to let members know what they’d like to see the organization be and how you’d like to see your members engage. It’s a way to gain their input while helping them feel like they are contributing.  We think this idea is useful enough to include as an ongoing element of our national conference.
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    Take a tip from the Sustainable Business Network of Massachusetts and pre-plan your events for the year — then include a year-at-a-glance calendar in your newsletter (see image to right).  This is a great way to help your member businesses — and prospective members — see what’s coming that may appeal to them, but also demonstrate your organization is a moving train.  Be sure to post the calendar to your website, too, to keep members informed at their convenience!

  • Broaden any kind of board committees you may have to include members (not necessarily all — just those you deem appropriate. You wouldn’t want them to serve on executive or nominating committees, for example).  Have board members oversee the committees, and populate them with both board and organizational members.  Letting members feel more a part of the decision-making process may appeal to some.  And these committees should be about action, not just discussion.  Of course, any committee action should gain approval of the board before acting.
  • Make sure the organization is EXCITING.  People want to be on a moving train.  If your group is suffering from inertia, people are much less likely to want to be actively involved in it – it’s just another organization among many. People particularly like being part of a popular organization, so work on positioning your group to be in the news frequently (media/outreach committee), have community visibility that changes during the year to be new and exciting (marketing/events committees), create connecting opportunities for your members (events/membership committees), and more.  And don’t underestimate the value of basic components like a regular newsletter.  Even if members don’t necessarily step up to volunteer, they still can see the organization is doing things and they’ll be more likely to renew.
  • If your events are more exciting than merely meetings, all the better.  Seek unique opportunities for your members that will become sought-after attractions.  One great example comes from the Austin IBA, which holds breakfast and lunch events (one is geared toward learning from peers, while the other is themed as an issues discussion).  But they also have some fun, more exotic events — like a social river cruise catered by some member restaurants which a finite number of members can attend, so these tickets are coveted and spaces fill up fast.
  • Become a community darling through visibility and being predictably unpredictable.  Portland Buy Local, for example, utilizes local artists to create posters a couple of times a year that are seen all around town, and are so popular they have become collectibles.  PBL also places pbl-birthday-2011themselves in public places with a tent for some events that are out of the ordinary — such as their Downtown Worker Appreciation Day (provide coffee and pastries and a goodie bag of coupons and other items to downtown workers on their way to work) and PBL’s own birthday party, where they provide birthday cake created by member bakeries and great discussion to passersby. So while PBL could participate in events already organized by others, they’ve also created their own and become expectedly unexpected.
  • A newsletter is a motivator.  It conveys the action and personality of the organization. Take it from Nancy Ontiveros, director of Homegrown El Paso:

    The truth is that all my planning has never done what our newsletter can do. With just 5 issues sent out I have seen more involvement and interest than I have in the last 4 years. Without the vehicle to get the information out to everyone I always felt like I was spinning my wheels. I truly feel that the newsletter connects us all to one another and has already made a big difference.

  • Seek member input with some frequency — easily done through your newsletter, special email or surveys (AMIBA affiliate benefit:  we have many survey examples you can use and adapt to save much time — ask us!).  It’s a great way to help them feel like a valued part of your group.  But it’s also an easy means for your group to gain useful data, for example, on the number of new jobs your members may have created in the previous year or the number of full-time employees they have (the Austin IBA uses this figure to demonstrate their importance to the community as an aggregate employer — they can say they are the 5th largest employer in Austin, which has helped gain them the ear of City government.)  Or how about gaining your members’ sentiments on local issues? This is particularly useful to help your board decide whether or not to take a position on an issue.
  • Seek ways to be something different than just another business organization.  An IBA is a bridge between citizens, businesses, and government.  The more successful groups are attractive to people of all ages and walks of life — members become associated with the characteristics of the organization, if done right, so don’t be afraid to include an edgier, hip, fun, energetic perspective in your organization’s work and culture.

Sonoma Go Local created a Member Tools checklist, detailing ways to work your membership!

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