June 4, 2012

Why Continuing Education and Multidisciplinary Networking Make for Bad Chapter Meetings: Part 2

In the first part of this blog, I discussed the one fundamental but crucial and fatal flaw to the “multidisciplinary” membership approach many financial services associations have adopted: the professional educational meeting is the anchor of the local chapter experience for most associations, and the professional education meeting is an absolutely terrible way to facilitate networking for multidisciplinary members. I also discussed the three primary reasons, which were content, sponsorship and networking time.

The cumulative result of these problems is that while the associations may get a short burst of membership when they hang out the shingle of being “a multidisciplinary networking association,” the end result is that the majority of affiliated professionals don’t renew, as they find the content and sponsors irrelevant, and that the meetings allow virtually no time to actually network.

Furthermore, as the content (and sometimes sponsorship) becomes torn between core members and affiliated professionals, the core members may begin to let their membership lapse if they feel resources are becoming divided (leaving less of the pie for core members than when they were the sole membership focus) and membership meetings are becoming less relevant than ever (if the content shifts to a non-core focus).

And in the meantime, sponsors begin to lapse as well, as the chapter meeting attendance shrinks significantly due to both core and affiliated professional membership attrition. 

So what’s the solution? If the organization wishes to truly embrace a multidisciplinary networking approach, the networking should be the reason for gathering in the first place; having continuing education content just consumes networking time!

Chapter meetings in a true networking organization should occur specifically for the purpose of introducing members to each other, in a facilitated manner, that ensures everyone really understands what everyone else does, what their expertise is, and who their target clients are.

Notably, such multidisciplinary meetings actually require people from multiple disciplines who do not have overlapping practices; looking to other networking organizations as a model, quotas for both a minimum and maximum number of professionals in a particular discipline or specialty are not uncommon. Minimum participation requirements are often enforced as well. Simply put, if you’re not genuinely interested in showing up to network, to learn how you can help other affiliated professionals, and to clearly explain to them how they can help you, don’t bother showing up at all.

Yet in this environment, “professional education” is not just unnecessary to facilitate networking, it’s actually a waste of precious networking time. Not to mention the nigh impossibility of finding an educational topic (or a sponsor!) that would be genuinely relevant enough to all members across all disciplines to make it worthwhile, anyway. 

Notably, some affiliated professionals do manage to make connections in the multi-disciplinary financial services associations, by getting even more involved than just attending chapter meetings. For instance, volunteer committees actually do afford meaningful social interaction that can promote networking. However, this is not a replicable growth model for most chapters, especially given that in the end even volunteer committees meetings are not really structured networking time, many committees and boards still have minimum requirements for a certain number of “core” members, and only so many affiliated professionals can really get involved before it gets too competitive (given the lack of structure around balancing the number of affiliated professionals in overlapping disciplines).

Of course, this isn’t to say that continuing education content is always bad at an association meeting. When the focus of the association is on a core membership with a common focus and common needs—who all find relevance in the same content —then CE content can be an excellent common purpose around which the organization’s community is built.

But the key distinction is that building community is different than networking; community involves similar people who share a similar bond and can relate to each other on common issues, while networking involves different people who have a distinct, non-overlapping business focus that can create cross-referral or partnered business opportunities.

As long as associations continue to run community-oriented CE meetings while trying to draw a multidisciplinary networking membership base and meeting attendance, I fear there will be continued high attrition rates from affiliated professionals like my attorney friend, who are often faced with chapter meetings that include irrelevant content, irrelevant sponsors, little structure to actually facilitate true networking, and often little time to actually network at all.

Either focus on core members, or truly focus on networking. If there’s a fear that making meetings more truly networking focused—without the CE—might cause meeting attendance to drop, then perhaps the reality is that core members aren’t really that interested in networking after all.

So what do you think? Do you join professional associations for networking (for cross referral opportunities) or for community (meeting professional colleagues and peers)? Do you actually find chapter meetings anchored by financial planning CE credit to really be effective networking time as a financial planner? Are you an affiliated professional that finds CE meetings to be a good use of time when you’re not the target of the CE? Have you ever been involved in other networking organizations? Do you see a difference between networking organizations and professional membership associations?

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