If I only knew then what I know now...

And no, I'm not talking about how to impress the young ladies if I could relive my school days.

In a few short months, I will be stepping down as president of the Vermont Retail & Grocers Association after 29+ years. It's been an incredible journey of sorts with some disappointments for sure, but many more high points.

While I came from a supermarket management and grocery wholesaler background, I'm not sure anyone really understands what they are getting into with a trade association until it happens. It's a little like getting thrown into a pond and having to learn how to swim on the spot. It sure would have been nice to have a few swimming lessons beforehand.

So did I learn anything? Some days I am not really sure as the world and industry around us is changing so rapidly. If you are doing things the same way as last year, never mind 29 years ago, you are probably falling behind. It's no different than a store trying to sell canned beans on the shelf like they were 20 years ago instead of focusing on the fresh departments.

Watch the numbers

When I joined VRGA in 1987, I was a bit naïve to say the least. During my interview I asked the board search committee how the finances of the association were. Good was the answer, which I took at face value. Upon starting I quickly learned the association had lost money three straight years and was going through its limited equity fast.

We quickly went on a diet and examined every expense and at the same time, looked at all revenue line items. Needless to say, I didn't get to Hawaii for what would have been my first FIAE convention that fall. And with our own events, hard to make a profit on a convention dinner when you don't factor in the tax and gratuity the hotel adds on when you set your price to attend.

Over the years, I have seen a number of association colleagues in a variety of fields lose their job. It is often because they were losing money. It's like baseball team owners changing managers because they finished in the cellar. They could have been the best manager - didn't matter, changing coaches is easier than changing the whole team.

Even today, I check our bookkeeping entries on a regular basis, so I have a handle on how we are doing compared to budget and to correct any postings to the proper category. It helps me track membership renewals as well. Waiting for the quarterly reports is too late.

Membership, Membership and Membership

I remember a seasoned retail executive sharing three attributes of successful stores; location, location and location. While that may be over simplified in today's marketplace, there is a message here for organizations. Without members there is no need for an association (and by obvious extension, an executive director). Membership doesn't just happen. Recruitment needs to be ongoing 24/7.

This is especially true today as generational changes may cause younger business managers and owners to look at associations differently than my generation. It used to be a no-brainer - you joined the association in your field. That is far from reality today. Anyone can look at your state's legislative website for pending bills and schedules; state websites have FAQ posted for helping businesses understand various laws, like GMO labeling, wage & hour, etc. You can google any question you may have.

We need to do more to show our value to prospective members. And couple that with all the changes taking place at retail. Some of the new format retailers are not necessarily joiners, adding yet another challenge to the mix.

Membership and how to maintain and grow it, needs to be constant. Period.

Build relationships

Call me old-fashioned, but in spite of living in a digital world today, it is still important to build relationships with members and other stakeholders. Connecting with members at association events or better yet, visiting them at their store, can pay dividends.

We all get bogged down in paperwork, reading emails or other administrative tasks. It is real easy to run out of time to do what may be most important - meeting with members. Pick a day periodically and get out and visit. I find it helps get a perspective on what is going on and what issues are on peoples' mind. And members appreciate it when you visit.

Keep it fresh

Mix it up. If last year's golf tournament was a success, make adjustments for this year. Having yet another 4-person scramble year after year is boring. Keep it fresh! And speaking of fresh, Erin has added a marshmallow long drive competition to our fall event. Will be fun to watch the big hitters trying to smack a marshmallow 20 yards.

The same can be true for almost everything we do. The look of our newsletters; the way we communicate; the format of our legislative day program; convention programing, etc.

Change in today's world is accelerating. One of our jobs is to stay ahead, and often that means ahead of where your board is comfortable as well.


Keep abreast of technology trends and tools to help you in association management. I can remember all too well spending $1,400 we didn't have to buy our first fax machine. It was painful, but soon became a necessity. Today, I suspect some of our younger colleagues don't even know what a fax machine is as it's all changed once again.

Years ago I attended an ASAE conference and heard about dropbox. Today that is our computer in the sky as everything in our office is now filed there so everyone has access to the same information and file sharing.

Keep eyes open

None of us have all the answers, but we can learn lots from colleagues. I always enjoy watching new execs and what they change at their associations. They aren't inhibited with institutional memory of what worked and what didn't.

Look at other newsletters when you can. What are similar organizations doing that you can learn from? How are they communicating? How do they get members to meetings?

Keep members informed

Essentially we are in the communication business. I worry sometimes with the change to email, do our members even see what we share with them? We are all inundated with overflowing inboxes every hour of the day. I realize that all of our communication may not get the attention we feel it deserves if their inboxes are similar to mine.

We may be a little bit of a dinosaur in that we still offer a monthly newsletter via snail mail as a way to insure something gets past the email filters.

And make communication interesting. Our weekly legislative email updates during our session start off with a commentary on some of the politics at the State House. A tad more interesting than H.302 was passed out of the Ways & Means Committee.

When legislation passes that we may not have agreed with, such as our infamous GMO labeling law, you need to become the information source for your members. Website content, webinars, workshops and responding to individual questions is a big part of what we do.

Get involved

I am a firm believer in that you get out of something what you put into it. Whether its school or organizations you belong. If it's FIAE, roll up your sleeves and volunteer to be part of the planning committee for the annual conference. You will reap the rewards.

Our individual members will appreciate and support our associations the more they are involved. Perhaps easier with a small state, nonetheless we have been blessed over the years with many members volunteering to help with our convention committee, legislative efforts and golf events. And they sign up again, as if we didn't get enough out of them at the last function.

Don't forget the fun

A key to member involvement is often making it "fun." While I think we may have gotten away from it some with increasing time and financial pressures, as I look back our biggest successes were events that you had to take a step back and wonder if we were crazy. For example, instead of a simple vanilla 50-50 raffle to raise money for the scholarship program, we used to hold a "cow plop bingo" where we sold squares and if you held the number of the square where the cow did her business, you won. You can imagine the cheering that went on to urge Bessie to do her business in a particular area of the field.

For the past several years, we have worked to include lawmakers as part of our annual legislative luncheon event with our members. If you don't think there is some friendly rivalry between the House and Senate, think again. We have had the Speaker, Senate President Pro Tem and Governor's Chief of Staff compete in a "bag off" and had House vs Senate trivia contests. Makes for some great (and might add, FREE) entertainment.

Keep on investing

Even when time and budgets don't allow you to get to the industry conferences you would like to attend, don't cut out the ones that help you become a better association manager. ASAE, Chamber school and especially FIAE have sessions to help you do a better job for your organization. Make it a point to attend something every year, even when you can't afford it.

If you don't water the garden, things don't grow, they wither and die. The same is true of associations and their managers.

Get media training

I learned some hard lessons early on when responding to reporters. Subsequently I had the opportunity to get some media training with some real pros. It is well worth your time and investment. We live in a soundbite world and we can all use tips on how to best present our organization's viewpoint, whether it's an issue under debate at the State House or talking with the TV outlets about the upcoming holiday shopping season.

Final thoughts

Show some passion when you advocate for your members. And don't get too comfortable in what you do, because tomorrow will bring new challenges and opportunities.

Managing an association has given me an opportunity to meet so many hard working and dedicated people, from our members to state and national colleagues. I have enjoyed my tenure at VRGA and getting to know so many of you around the country.

It's been a journey!


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