Use of modern technology by societies

Modern technology?

Some readers of this column will, like me, be old enough to remember when meetings started with the laborious reading of the minutes of the previous meeting; with the reader often struggling to read his or her own handwriting. Happily, times have changed, with most minutes typed and pre-circulated.

The uptake of even more modern technology such as emails and on-line polls has been slower, but the technologically ill-equipped seem to be in an ever decreasing minority. A modern society constitution should, as a minimum provide for email advice of meetings and their business, and with proposals to reduce postal deliveries from 6 days a week many constitutions will be due for further review (hopefully also considering the implications of my earlier article “What does a “Clear Day” mean?”).

Whether or not and how to use modern means of communications are key issues for societies seeking to remain relevant in serving their members. An Australian adviser with a “consultancy service specialising in sponsorship, membership and turnarounds for associations, charities and other non-profit organisations,” examines a question – “Membership is dead?” at http://www.smsonline.net.au/pages/membership-is-dead.html. She summarises the issue: “A number of powerful generational, cultural and economic forces are colliding to create a perfect storm that will make the next 5-20 years some of the toughest ever faced by associations. Associations who don’t adapt face a slow decline into obscurity as they are replaced by newer, more innovative, less bureaucratically challenged, less change resistant competitors. While the idea of membership will continue, the antiquated models of recruiting, retaining and engaging members cannot survive in an increasingly challenging and ever-changing operating environment.” Her article includes the following:

Associations are too slow to adapt new technologies

There have been more technological advancements in the past 20 years than in the past 200 years. Generations X and Y grew up during this time and are very quick to adapt to the new opportunities that technology creates. But for traditional associations who have relied on pretty much the same communication models for hundreds of years, keeping pace with these changes is difficult.

There are still associations promoting as a major benefit that they “keep members up-to-date with the latest news” – and yet only send members a monthly or weekly newsletter. To a generation who are adept at using Twitter – where a couple of hours is a very long time – the associations’ claims are seen as a bad joke at best.

Technology provides associations with opportunities to streamline service delivery, decrease costs and increase responsiveness. At the most basic level, a membership database integrated with your website to enable people to manage their own members is critical. Once those basics are in place, you can start to look at the possibilities presented by social media, online communities, smart phone applications and more.

An example of the benefits of using modern means of communication

I recently became made aware of a society with a country-wide membership of 450-500 members. It has a quorum for general meetings of just 25, and seldom attracts much more than twice that number to a general meeting. The society reports that it has between 7 and 10 times more participation in online surveys and referenda of members than it achieves through in-person meetings. This society recently used electronic voting to approve a change to its rules, and of those 149 initially voting 95.3% approved the change. A later poll to ratify the first vote resulted in an even greater number voting (265) and an overwhelming 97.7% ratified the original decision. Both polls produced majorities of those voting well-exceeding the two-thirds required.

Serving the membership

I have long held the view that a society that does not serve the needs and wants of its members does not deserve to exist. The view is echoed in the article, “Membership is dead?”

The reality is that society members can be encouraged to participate, can be enfranchised, and can be empowered if societies embrace newer technologies, including not just the use of emails and websites, but also social media and online voting.

The future – is there one?

This article is, deliberately, somewhat provocative. I have no hesitation, therefore in closing it by quoting again from the article “Membership is dead?” (especially as the readers of this column span different generations):

Baby Boomers are resistant to the changes associations need

Despite wanting to change the world, now they have reached a situation where they are comfortable, Baby Boomers are resistant to change. They are especially resistant to change when it requires them to give up some of the control they have spent their entire careers trying to attain.

This is one of the biggest factors restricting associations from making the changes required to successfully attract and retain younger members.

Many Baby Boomers feel uncomfortable with the fast, ad-hoc, largely unregulated communication media that the younger generations see as integral to their daily lives. Many association leaders are reluctant to adopt more innovative initiatives because those initiatives don’t appeal to them personally.

It is this kind of self-centred thinking that will lead some associations to fall dangerously behind in the race to adapt to the new landscape the perfect storm is creating.

It is vital that decisions on new initiatives are based on sound research into the target generation rather than the opinions of board members and staff leaders.

If your association is to thrive, your leadership needs to consider new ideas. Leaders also need to allow themselves to be guided by good research to understand what will appeal to the younger market.

Where to from here?

This article covers just some of the many factors coming together to create the new membership environment. To adapt will require fundamental change that cannot happen overnight. Your association needs to start acting … now. Without immediate, urgent action there is a very real risk that associations, as we know them, will disappear not with a bang, but with the tiniest of whimpers.

Societies must adopt modern means of communication, but in fact the challenges are more fundamental than that. Are the societies to which you belong even conscious of the challenges ahead? If they are, are they responding to those challenges?

This is one of a series of articles on societies and charitable trusts (originally published in the NZ Lawyer magazine) by Mark von Dadelszen, a Hastings lawyer and author of Law of Societies, 3rd Edition, 2013. If any reader has examples of issues that have arisen or questions about societies or charitable trusts that might be a suitable subject for one of these articles please contact Mark at mark.vondadelszen@bvond.co.nz.