Why do most associations so adamantly hold on to a the same, narrow options for what they call “engagement,” assuming that something must be wrong with members who do not share the same assumptions?
For example, why are opportunities for volunteer leadership in an association’s formal governance structure seen as a surefire way to engage members? What about those who are averse to the politics and governance processes? What about the new, more entrepreneurial types of leaders who are impatient with long processes and hierarchical governance but could be an association's most valuable assets in modernizing and appealing to the new generation, if engaged on their terms: lead an action-oriented project team; identify new opportunities and help leverage them; uncover a solution; collaborate and co-venture? Or what about those members who are pre-occupied with a complex research or management problem? Why force them to be "engaged" by serving in a regimented political process they have no interest in when they could be highly engaged in a learning or innovation collaborative with peers sharing the same problem? For these groups the conventional mechanisms associations use to “engage” are not relevant to their tastes or what is uppermost in their minds. Why don’t members engage more with your organization? Perhaps because you don't take the time to understand what might engage them?
The problem with the current concept of engagement is that it is defined by the association on its terms: numbers, contribution of volunteers to its needs, revenue etc. These may be appropriate measures for sales but they say nothing about engagement.
The fact is that to engage others you must understand what motivates them. This, in turn, means that you have to delve beyond assumptions for how a committed member behaves and what this member should consider valuable, to uncover the real triggers of motivation for different individuals, groups, companies, contexts, time periods etc.
There is no doubt that what motivates today’s consumers and knowledge workers has changed from even a few decades ago. For example, today consumers need to be actively involved in choosing and creating products and solutions rather than receive them passively. Consumers’ needs and tastes today change so fast that they are unpredictable and require that you constantly monitor and adapt to them.
Leadership expert Michael Maccoby considers a leader’s ability to motivate employees and stakeholders as the paramount leadership competency in the knowledge age. His theory of motivation in his books is based on 4 key triggers of motivation: responsibilities, relationships, rewards and reasons. The key to a leader’s ability to motivate is to understand the kind of responsibilities and rewards that most motivate an individual; the type of relationships he/she considers valuable to engage in and the larger purpose or rationale behind a task that will make it worth the investment
The same concepts of motivation apply to customers as well. To engage you must understand how to motivate; and to motivate you need to involve the whole person and resonate with the levers for creating meaning, beyond a transaction or function.
AOPA (Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association) has successfully deployed 2,400 volunteers at 5,200 public use airports who are deeply engaged in and committed to its mission. Why has AOPA succeeded in engaging this group in a volunteer leadership role when so many other such efforts fail? At the root of this engagement is the pursuit of an outcome both AOPA and its members are passionately invested in: increased access to airports for general aviation. Of these 5,200 airports in the United States, only 400 are used by commercial airlines. Access to them for reasonable or no fees are priorities to pilots in general aviation. For this reason, AOPA developed a highly effective and enthusiastic Airport Support Network that monitors these 4800 under-utilized airports; briefs association leaders on issues, developments and emerging threats on the local level that can have impact on AOPA’s efforts at securing access to them and its mission of safeguarding members freedom to fly.
Why has this Network succeeded in engaging where so many other efforts fail? Maccoby’s theory of motivation provides some insight here. Volunteers are treated as extensions of the association’s staff, partners in a joint purpose and trusted liaisons with these airports. Their roles and responsibilities, as a result, are meaningful and rewarding. They are linked to each other and the association by a shared purpose that catalyzes meaningful relationships around it: preserving their freedom to fly. They can clearly see the personal rewards of a successful outcome-- being able to fly from more airports. This is why these volunteers are highly motivated to contribute and take leadership initiatives well beyond assigned tasks, for example, they act as local champions, often speaking in public and on behalf of the association before local, regional and national legislative leaders.
Value—as it is lived and perceived by the member, not by the association—are the only sources of personal motivation and, hence, engagement.