There was a time when members joined for access to benefits such as health insurance, long-term disability or workers' compensation. For numerous reasons, such programs have faded or are no longer the domain of associations and chambers.

Others joined for the camaraderie at the annual conference and trade show. Bringing families, they made it a multi-day vacation. Now people are busy, the options for education are extensive and conventions have been trimmed to a day or two.

These programs were "golden handcuffs" — benefits so valuable that prospects eagerly joined and renewed for the access. The new golden handcuff among associations has become access to information.

Member engagement

Associations are ideal platforms for facilitating information exchanges. Information becomes more relevant when it is shared among peers. The platforms take the form of roundtables, circles of trust, peer-to-peer discussions and audits.

"Conducting job site safety audits provides an opportunity to demonstrate our expertise and professionalism on the ground. This equates to credibility," explains Richard Vincent, executive vice president at Associated General Contractors of Kentucky.

Sharing information unique to the organization answers the most frequent questions of boards, "How do we increase member engagement?"

Independent Electrical Contractors (IEC) CEO Spenser Villwock, CAE, describes their forums as one of the highest-ranking member benefits. The groups are comprised of voluntary business leaders in noncompetitive markets from across the country meeting periodically to share management success strategies with one another, similar to having a "personal board of directors."

"The benefit of peer-to-peer information exchange has been known to help members gain insights on solving management and strategy questions that have empowered company leaders with best practices to grow their businesses four times and beyond," Villwock said. "Knowledge sharing is still the critical potency of our associations in a world saturated with information accessible on the internet."

Association solution

Information exchanges support many aspects in a membership organization:

Loyalty: Exchange groups require membership and the commitment to be involved.

Access: Members want to have exclusive access to knowledge.

Value: The information is intended to advance one’s career or work setting, offering return on investment for dues paid.

Engagement: Information exchanges require member commitment for involvement in the process.

Content: Through dynamic discussions of information and operations the association learns of member needs.

Depth: Exchanges can involve multiple people and job positions in one company, allowing the association to build relations and awareness deeper into the member organization, i.e. involving marketing, legal or HR professionals.

The process

Associations are positioned to facilitate information sharing. They manage a body of knowledge associated with the community. They have staff and technology to develop information sharing programs. The association is an independent third party that can guard against anti-competitive concerns.

Traditionally, information is delivered through seminars, reports, books and papers. These formats are single-dimensional without much help in understanding and application.

To enhance information, the board or a committee starts by considering the unique knowledge associated with the organization. Discuss how to transform information to have more value.

For example, a committee might create a regulatory compliance service following a legislative session. Or based on new research, they might create a guide to benchmarking applicable to a member's specialty or work setting.

It is the two-way exchange that adds value. By delving into knowledge, asking questions among peers and adding perspectives, the information becomes dynamic.

Examples of information exchanges

Information platforms can take varied forms. The key is face-to-face interaction so information can be ingested, discussed and applied for the user’s benefit.

Elements necessary for a vibrant information exchange include:

Participants: Willingness of participants being open to receive and exchange information in confidence.

Facilitator: An impartial person with knowledge to coordinate and facilitate meetings.

Protocols: Rules for the group to ensure fairness and a respectful learning environment.

Create what works best for the membership and its culture. Beta test the process, evaluate, make adjustments and then protect the process as an exclusive benefit.

20 groups: Many industries offer them. The National Association of Independent Automobile Dealers describes the groups as a flagship benefit. What makes them unique is the willingness of the same persons on a regular basis to spend a day plus travel to share private information (for example hiring, budgeting, operations). The results can be improvements in profitability and application of best practices.

Benchmarking groups: Wikipedia describes this as a group willing to compare their own business processes and performance against industry metrics. Typically, the association is the originator of the benchmarking research and data with a facilitator to guide conversations.

Peer groups: Described as a group of similar job positions from different companies coming together to share challenges and solutions. For example, the marketing managers of various companies forming a bond to improve operations. Meeting usually starts with a speaker to generate thoughts, followed by facilitation, deep-dives and sharing.

Circle of trust: The circle of trust is a program at the Kentucky Society of CPAs. It focuses on small firm and sole practitioners who receive an invitation to participate. They come from geographic distances to reduce the possibility of competitive conflicts. The purpose is to share information, help each other solve problems and be a source of additional expertise, that they may not be able to offer their own clients. For example, one may have a designation in business valuations, and another may have expertise in technology. There is a charge to participate. Penny Gold, CEO at the Kentucky Society of CPAs said, "We want to offer a forum where members can speak freely, in a safe and confidential environment."

Audit process: Applying the knowledge by visiting a business or practice with a qualified expert to perform on audit in areas such as compliance, safety or profitability. For instance, audits could include regulatory compliance, safety or best practices.

Peer review: The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants requires its member firms to undergo a peer review every three years. A peer review is a periodic external review of a firm's quality control system in accounting and auditing and is also known as the AICPA's practice monitoring program. At the invitation of a participant, two or more qualified persons visit the setting to review and discuss methods for compliance and improvement. ASAE used to have a similar service where a team of seasoned executives would be invited to visit and evaluate an association.

Solutions group: The purpose is to identify a specific challenge and engage a group to develop creative solutions. Naturally, those in the group benefit first, though the content becomes new benefits developed and delivered by the association. The group's topic most often is associated with the question, "What keeps you up at night?" or "What is the number one challenge in your work setting?"

Roundtables: Held on a regular basis, the roundtables invite persons from the same or similar job responsibilities to hear a speaker. The relationships can be lasting and the sharing continues between official meetings of the roundtable.

To summarize, an association is positioned to facilitate knowledge sharing and practical application. If the process is exclusive to members, it can become a golden handcuff.

As a result of the information exchanges, the association better understands the concerns and needs of members. In turn, new programs, articles and education can be developed.