Has ASAE Lost Its Mojo?

I’m sitting here on the plane home to DC after four busy days in Los Angeles at the ASAE’s annual conference, and I want to write a “what a great time I had at ASAE10!” post like everyone else might be doing right now, but instead I’m feeling more than a little depressed. I’m thinking to myself, has ASAE lost its mojo? “Mojo” here being a reference to the truly horrible closing general session speaker – but more on that in a second.

First a disclaimer. I don’t want this post to be a rant, but just an honest attempt at trying to figure out what I’m feeling. I’m only talking about my own personal experience – I’m not speaking for Team SocialFish. Lindy, Jamie and Leslie might have quite different thoughts about it all – and I’m actually asking you here, if you went to ASAE (or attended virtually, or watched the Twitter stream) what your thoughts are on these points. Did you experience anything similar? Am I totally off base?

Here are a few impressions swirling around in my head. Be warned – all of this is bad. I’ve decided I will celebrate all the GREAT things about the meeting in a separate post so stop reading here if you’re not in the mood for this and you thought it was all super awesome, which I’m sure some people did.

The thoughts below are in no particular order.

1. I felt like ASAE doesn’t really care about what its members care about.

At the volunteer lunch on Saturday, new “GIVE Awards” were announced, which celebrated the top volunteer-led projects as voted on by members.  (I wanted to include a link to what these are – but could find nothing.  Which illustrates my point.) Surely this work is what an association is all about, its lifeblood, its reason for being!  Don’t you think?  The award “ceremony” should have been celebratory and should have showed off some of the nominated projects  (and not just the winners) with some fanfare – instead, it was sloppy and without any production effort (music, etc) – especially disappointing considering the piles of cash spent on general session entertainment (more on that later too). It seemed like there was no opportunity to engage the audience, no opportunity to celebrate volunteers and councils and really celebrate what ALL of us had worked so hard on this year.  I know the previous format needed to be changed because people were very bored by the endless lines of individuals coming up to the mike, and I think the awards were a fantastic idea, but really poorly executed.  A LOT of people voted, so that part I think went great.

When Velma Hart announced Untech10 as the winner, she pronounced in “unitech”, left the whole room scratching their heads, and clearly seemed to have not even heard of it – when it was a truly amazing event that was created through the effort of literally hundreds of ASAE members.  I know I’m close to this and was part of it but it made me feel a little sick that it seemed so throwaway.

John Graham, also, was completely incapable of answering some basic questions from the audience and clearly has no clue about the work of the organization. It was shockingly embarrassing. (He also made a HUGE faux pas later on in one of the general sessions where he made some joke about his CEO salary – when hundreds of associations have laid off staff in the last couple of years because of the economy and he gets paid around $1m annually, that is really out of order).  He’s also made the point publicly in various places that he thinks the blogger community is not worth listening to – he might want to remember that we often say what many, many, many more people than just us are thinking.

2. I felt like there was excessive selling and promotion of the ASAE brand, and asking for our money in all the general sessions.

So ASAE has a new logo – great. I like it, actually. But will it affect me directly? No. Was it a surprise to anyone on the planet that the “Center” would be dropped? No. Stop rubbing it in to those who know the history and are not particularly happy about the loss of GWSAE’s attention to innovation and quality education. Those who don’t know about that, honestly don’t care much what the logo looks like.  The customer creates the brand, remember?

Having a new Foundation is great and all, but nowhere in any of the speeches about it (of which there were many) did anyone actually say what they are going to do with our money. This is from one of the Daily Nows:

One of the primary goals for the ASAE Foundation is to equip the next generation of leaders with the knowledge and skills required to successfully manage the challenges and opportunities the community will face in the future. The Foundation will accomplish its mission through fundraising support from individuals, associations, foundations, and corporations.

Excuse me, but, huh? Read that again. That tells us what, exactly? You’re going to support the industry by taking our money? That quote is totally meaningless. (And – if we take it at face value – what then is ASAE the association supposed to be doing for us in exchange for our hugely expensive dues)?

Don’t get me started on the Power of A. Apparently this (hugely expensive) campaign is being “expanded” – meaning they are probably throwing more money at it. By the way – note to ASAE – you can’t have a successful online campaign without involving your online champions. Ogilvy should know better. The first run might have worked had you reached out to the (now very large) blogger community – although we might have told you it made no sense and had desperate need of some strategy behind it. Looking at the site now – it still makes no sense and all the old content, minimal and random though it was, is gone.  Why are you now throwing good money after bad?

3. I felt that all of the money spent on overproduced, fake stuff could have been better spent on real, human stuff.

The general sessions tend to be bad every year, but this year they were unbelievably bad. There was no educational content to speak of. They continued the tradition of spending a ton of money on overproduced and seriously bizarre “entertainment”. Apologies to Howard, DJ, Toni and the other actors in the ASAE-produced sitcom “Guilt By Association” – but really, WTF? It made zero sense (even after watching it back). It wasn’t funny. And the keynote speakers were just old-school, tired, bad.




I know ASAE knows what good speakers look like. Here’s one, and here’s another. Speakers that are intelligent and inspirational. That push you to do more or better or deeper. That get you fired up to go to sessions and learn stuff. That keep you talking about their ideas with your peers throughout the conference.  Whose words stay with you for days after.

Beyond the keynote speakers, why not showcase the great stuff that volunteers are doing at the general sessions? Why not have the GIVE awards then – spend money on some fanfare for what really matters – valuable work that advances the industry? Why not film some videos of real members doing interesting things – like the diversity video in San Diego with Greg Fine and Badia Albanna and others telling us their experiences on screen? That was wonderful and real.  (If anyone has a clip I can link to here, let me know – I couldn’t find it on YouTube.).

And here’s another thing. No offense to Karen Hackett (and every other board president to stand on stage and read the teleprompter), but please, please ask these people to talk to us directly about what they are going to do for us and for the industry. We don’t care that you’re thanking your mom, your kids and your spouse – we have no idea who you are. We have no idea who the Board is, and often we don’t really care, but here’s the thing.  We might end up caring, if you stood up there like real people and told us what you’re working on. What your vision is. (And no, creating a Foundation where you’ll keep hassling us for money cannot be all there is.)

Flashy entertainment is great and it’s important to get us all fired up for the conference – but we’d appreciate it more if it was interspersed with openness, transparency, celebration of things that matter, and real content.

4. I felt that ASAE is continuing to pay lipservice to diversity.

What’s wrong with this picture?  Look closely.

It’s page 33 of the program book, if you still have it.  The yellow ad has ASAE’s commitment to diversity statement – next to pics of three white guys.

Here are some more white guys.  I’m sure the work they won their awards for was good work, but really??

ASAE Annual Meeting

The DELP lunch may have provided some interesting information about what they are doing, but nobody except DELP people are invited or know anything about it – so who knows? It’s like preaching to the choir. If there is good stuff going on, why don’t the rest of us see any of it? Why not talk about it more in the general sessions?  Put your money where your mouth is. That link goes to Patti Digh at ASAE in 2009 asking us to decide what our core intention is in relation to diversity.  Watch it.

How about more of this:

…and less of this.


While I’m at it, here’s another way:

Everyone who’s undertaken the CAE exam knows that you are supposed to “think like the 60 year old white CSE of the ideal association”. Well, news flash – that’s no longer the ideal association. It’s not right, it’s not accurate (though we might have a ways to go) and maybe the exam that certifies you as a bona fide association management expert shouldn’t just perpetuate the myth. Why not rethink the way that exam prep is worded?  Off topic, I know, but why isn’t anyone saying anything about that?

5. I felt that all the places meant for members to congregate and gather and network and discuss their conference experiences were completely secondary to the ASAE-promotional stuff.

Case in point: the convention center lobby had all kinds of weird “advocacy hubs” and brochure stations. In this huge open space, there was nowhere for groups of people to hang out. I never in all four days saw people congregating there. Small anecdote: one person I desperately wanted to meet IRL after building a friendship with her online was Lauren Fernandez. We never managed to be in the same place at the same time. How is that even possible at a conference like this?

Meanwhile, the CAE Lounge was in a dark basement room –  near the parking lot, I think, because I never made it down there.

Online Engagement Lounge at ASAE2010

The Online Engagement Lounge was literally 800 miles away at the furthest possible point away from anything, beyond the very last session room. Poor Amy Hissrich was stuck there the whole entire time (and specifically during a Tuesday morning time slot), ostensibly to show off the new ASAE website – how many people actually found her? Who was aware of this? It wasn’t in the program anywhere that I could see. I spotted it mentioned in a tiny corner of one of the dailies. Those of us who arranged in advance to meet others in the OWL (as I call it) in between sessions or during expo hours had to make alternative arrangements because it was too far away to get back to the sessions in time.

And yet, what is the one thing that I bet 100% of ASAE members are affected by and will use or see at some point during their service with ASAE, even if it’s just to check their CAE credits or their contact info? Yes, the damn website. Helllooooo…..!!! Why couldn’t we have seen something about that in one of the general sessions? So everyone could be impressed by how much better the new site is going to make their individual member experience? Talk about a huge missed opportunity.

Couldn’t these spaces have been properly incorporated into the layout and used to their full potential?  We could have had discussions – even actual sessions, maybe in a fishbowl format – in these spaces.  Are ASAE’s brochures really more important than ASAE’s members?

6. I felt that the educational content was completely squeezed out – but in favor of what?

I remember every previous annual meeting we’d come out with heads spinning about sessions we’d been to and too many notes and takeaways and lots of hallway discussions. The educational content has never been super high end, meaning there was always as much complaining about time wasted in crappy sessions as there was talking over ideas that came out of good ones, but at least we were talking about them.

Here in LA, over four days, there were only 6 opportunities to go to a session.  I went to some fantastic sessions – but was left feeling like I’d hardly been to anything. On Sunday there were 42 sessions in 2 time slots. Monday – 51 sessions in 2 time slots. Tuesday – 42 sessions in 2 time slots.  I counted. Anyone else see a problem with this picture?

Maybe I should have attended the virtual conference – I might have got more content out of it.

7. Speaking of virtual, I felt that the virtual audience was left out in the cold, despite being ASAE members worth as much consideration as onsite members.

I’m not necessarily talking about from a content perspective – I didn’t pay much attention to what was offered for the virtual conference, since I was going to LA.    Given the lack of session time slots at the convention center, they probably got way more content than we did. But why the ridiculous price point when it’s obvious that those association execs that can’t come in person, probably can’t come because of financial reasons?

Read this post by Mike McCurry: Is ASAE’s 2010 Virtual Conference Pass a Value or a Virtual Rip-off? – there are great points raised in the comments especially.

Why not provide some virtual-only special content, like a live chat with various speakers? Why not embrace the remote audience as being part of the conference and have some instances where those of us who were in LA could talk to them? Wave at them from a general session, or talk via a Skype station in the lounges or something? This is 2010, you know. You can Facetime now. You can Ustream. You can Qik. (Look those up.) Kiki and I tried to do our part by having our live Sweetspot show – but I felt bad that this was the only “interaction” – which really was pretty much one way only, despite the chat box, because of a ten minute delay in the stream compared to what the audience was watching – that we onsite attendees could have with virtual attendees. We’re ALL part of the ASAE ecosystem.  There were lots of people watching the Twitter stream from afar too.  Why not be much more inclusive, provide content for everyone?  Entice people to come in person next time by virtue of all the great stuff they are hearing about and getting snippets of?

8. Enough with the Decision to… studies, already. I feel like members are being taken for a ride.

Apologies to those who work hard on these. It’s not your fault. But the latest one, Decision to Learn, seems even more ridiculous than ever. The big takeaway is that… wait for it…  members of an association are most likely to participate in that association’s educational offerings? Really? Wow. STOP THE PRESS.

As far as I can tell, the associations who take part in these studies are totally NOT representative of the industry as a whole – they tend to be the huge ones who would actually benefit from having research data from various studies. So please.  Do us a favor.  We all know this is just a profit center for ASAE – just be honest and market it as such. As in, “you want a study about something? We’ll do it for you for a fee and find other similar associations who are interested in the same topic.” There’s value in that!   Lots of associations would be happy to pay for that value.  Just don’t turn around and sell these books to individual ASAE members at $70 a pop under the pretense that these studies can teach us something.

9. I felt that member-generated activity is tolerated, not embraced.

Several hundred people participated in the awesome Flashmob – we attracted tons of people into the expo hall and the entire area came to a standstill – twice. [More about that in a later post, don’t worry you’ll get lots of details! Hoping to collect more videos of the crowd dancing, so far they are all of the main stage. If you have any video or pics please send me links!]

But… we had to beg for a column inch in the next day’s Daily Now.  Isn’t attracting members to the exhibit hall what ASAE wants?

Similarly, the YAP party was supposed to be listed in the program and on the YP page of the website – but despite permission having been granted it wasn’t listed anywhere.

News Flash for ASAE: several ASAE members told us the party (which was insanely awesome, just FYI) was the tipping point that pushed their decision to attend the meeting in LA. So for ASAE, that means the YAP party cost them exactly zero, but may have had a return of x times registration. Do the math.

Here’s a lesson: there is no such thing anymore as “unofficial” versus “official”member activity. We’re all part of the same community. We’re all building community and engagement on behalf of ASAE – for you, not for us. The point of YAP is to get young association professionals (including “young to the profession” and “young at heart”) more involved in ASAE. Get it?  We’re doing it for the love.  All we’d like in return is a little love back once in a while.  We’re feeling our love is unrequited, and if you’re not careful, one day we’ll take mom’s advice and go find other fish in the sea.

10. I thought the food was really shockingly bad.

OK, so this one is a throwaway – conference food is always bad.  I just needed a number 10!  Though I will say that I am not particularly picky, I like all kinds of food, and at the volunteer brunch and closing party especially, the food was literally inedible.  I hope they made up for it at the Food and Wine classic, but I never go to those because I resent having to pay more when I’ve already shelled out over a thousand dollars to be here, once you count flights, hotel, registration fee, taxis etc..

I’m not really sure how to end this post, but I just saw this tweet from Peggy and it kind of sums up what I’d like to happen overall with the annual meeting.  I wish it was more about us – about the association execs who are your members – and less about you, ASAE the faceless organization that wants our money and our time.

More about how we can ALL advance the industry – through great education, through investing in vendors and technologies that help us do our jobs better, through service opportunities, through volunteering (on councils and open volunteering), through showing the true face of a diverse industry.

More about how we can ALL share the love – through more collaboration, through more conversation, through more virtual content, through more parties, through more dancing…

What do others think about any of these points?  Has ASAE lost its mojo?

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