Read Austin Board of Realtors CEO Emily Chenevert’s call to association boards and executives.

We said what everyone was thinking: “We’re done with this sh*t.” And we said it in public, on Facebook, as part of our new member engagement campaign in a two-minute video.

Surprising, outrageous or welcome, the response was overwhelming. Our membership loved it because we spoke to them like people who are members of our community.

Yet we also provoked a huge response in the industry. Frankly, the response was kind of shocking and disappointing. So many of our association colleagues said, “I’ve been thinking that for a long time.”

It seems that things are broken in the world of associations, but a lot of us are unwilling to call out where we fall short and change our ways. Why are we so defensive, stuffy and apathetic? Is it fear? Habit? Governance?

It’s probably all of that, plus the fact that a lot of associations seem to serve the few members who speak up — and not the entire community.

If we agree that a real estate association ought to be a community tied to a deeper purpose and that a community is a unified body of individuals, then we have to try to engage every single one of our members. Period. But that’s not happening, and everyone knows it.

No more sacred cows

We simply can’t go on with committees and programs that were born out of some long-ago board directive or presidential advisory group (the dreaded PAG) that’s been long-since gone.

These initiatives are like zombies: They go on, and on, and on. No one can kill them, and nobody knows how they started.

Except our board of directors, who came together after a life-changing governance battle in 2017, decided to reinvent our association so it could live another day. They made change happen not just so we could survive but so our community can thrive.

We’re starting by killing rubber chicken dinners and other sacred cows that are usually considered “member outreach.” Because they’re not really reaching anyone, except the same people, again and again, who represent a sliver of our 13,000 members — because we kept doing the same thing we’ve always done.

Let’s be clear: None of this is intended to demean the volunteers who have shown up all these years. They have generously given their time, energy, and in some cases, cold hard cash to advance many important initiatives throughout our history.

We value the 1 percent that’s shown up time and time again, but we also think they should have a little more company next time. When one or two people out of a 100 participate in the association at any one time, clearly, we’re not engaging members or serving them as members of our community.

Real engagement

We’re not Pollyannas, and we know that not every member will sign up for everything we offer. But we understand that we must to align the services and programs we offer with what members need today. They don’t need more committees or long-term commitments only a few can make.

If we’re to fully leverage the power of our community, we had better identify new opportunities for members to be deeply engaged in our shared mission and that means we have to reinvent what member engagement means.

Engagement has to meet our members where they are and where they want to be.

Our members need opportunities to enrich and actually use their membership, whether that’s passively (downloading a useful report or infographic) or coming with us to fight for an important issue at city hall. We need to make our association accessible to every member, from newbies to deadly serious top producers with a sum total of 20 minutes to invest.

Ears first

We believe the only way to create a member-centric association is to actually listen to our members. We got a wakeup call in 2017, and frankly, it was good (and painful) for us.

We realized something then that I’m not sure many associations have: When you don’t listen to and serve all of your members, your association is weak.

As association executives, we have to listen to the good, bad and ugly — and respond. Responding to feedback is not declaring a three-alarm fire among the staff when an angry member emails a nasty comment to your board.

A good response is only possible when you listen to your members and actually address the issues they have in common. Not just once, but all the time, with care and thought.

Our mission is to build a vibrant and useful community that helps our members achieve their goals. We’re building our community with our ears first because we must engage our members to provide value for their dues.

Otherwise, our members are members in name only.

Offense over defense

In my experience, associations are really great at defense when members complain. Wouldn’t it be much better if we all played a better offense? What if we really listen, respond, change and improve all the time?

For us, the “rubber chicken” campaign is just the beginning, and we’re putting our money where our mouth is.

We’ve built a microsite, build.abor.com, that contains dozens of engagement opportunities, from downloads to meetups to calls for action. We’re tracking everything to see what works. We’ve eliminated some committees and beefed up others, and we expect more changes to come.

In fact, it was one of our past presidents who said that “We’re done with this sh*t” in our video — proof positive that our staff is working as a team with our leadership.

Though it’s early days, we’ve had a hugely positive response so far from our membership.

For every association executive and board of directors out there, I challenge you to listen, respond and evolve. Because that’s the way we’ll grow, survive and create a real relationship with our members.

Emily Chenevert is the chief executive officer of the Austin Board of Realtors, a 13,000-member organization. She is the youngest and first female CEO hired by ABoR and brings over a decade of industry knowledge and experience to the organization. 

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