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Why Associations Should Embrace Lifelong Learning With Dede Gish-Panjada

  • 9 Min Read

It may just be the key to success.


We’re not going to be successful tomorrow if we cling to what we’re doing today. That’s true for your members in the work they do, but it’s also true for the staff and volunteers who power your association forward. 

We need to encourage and enable continuous growth so we’re ready to confront challenges, embrace opportunities and adapt to whatever the future brings. In short: We must always be learning. 

Recently, we chatted with Dede Gish-Panjada, chief operating officer with Bostrom, about a range of topics, including: 

  • understanding the needs of adult learners 
  • supporting association staff in their professional development goals 
  • encouraging broader engagement with the association 
  • measuring the impact of education 
  • implementing and sustaining learning programs over the long term  

Overall, our conversation centered around lifelong learning—why it’s important for associations and how to make it part of the journey for members and staff alike. 

Association management companies (AMCs) are exciting because they give you a chance to dive into different types of associations—large and small. When we look at today, where are associations in their learning journey? 

Coming out of the pandemic, associations have a great opportunity to reexamine how they’re delivering education and supporting the learning journey of their members. Because we had to offer learning in so many different formats during the pandemic, it really pushed associations to stretch and try new things. Taking information that was learned and implementing it for the future is really important. 

But I think what’s more important is looking at and having a constant conversation with the members. Associations really need to challenge themselves to do that so they understand what their members’ needs are and what the future might look like so they can help prepare them for it. 

It’s also important to have a really great set of staff and volunteer leaders working together to think about what that future is going to look like and what members within their association are going to need. What tools are they going to need in their toolkit to be able to take on and embrace the challenges of the future? 

It’s a constant looping conversation that needs to happen between associations and their stakeholders. 

What do we need to do to meet learners where they are? How are expectations about learning changing? 

Adult learning theory says that people do not learn well when they’re being spoken at or spoken to. They learn much faster and better and retain knowledge if they do so in an interactive session. 

I think what we’re finding is that individuals wish to learn—and they learn best—from each other. If there is some information that is conveyed initially, and then individuals are given a problem to solve or they bring an association problem into the conversation, they can have a meaningful conversation and brainstorm using the concepts that were just shared in the session. 

Also, movement can help. We’ve seen world cafes work really well. Each table is given a particular topic to talk about for a number of minutes, and then half the table moves to the next table, and they continue to rotate. The process of getting up, interacting with a new group of individuals and also discussing a new topic allows for the physical, mental and human connection pieces. 

The more we can incorporate these practices into learning, the more we find comments and feedback to be very impactful and positive. 

Thinking for a moment about association staff, what do we need to be doing to support their learning journeys? What are our leaders thinking about right now? 

What we’re hearing is that it’s really important that they provide consistent, ongoing opportunities for development to their staff. 

One of our values at Bostrom is embracing that lifelong learning journey. That’s something we must constantly do because as we are selected to be the AMC for different associations, we must learn that industry. The association executive and our client staff team have to learn that industry. So being a lifelong learner—that’s one of the qualities we’re always seeking. 

And then we’re also challenging our staff and leaders to develop themselves and our teams. What are their goals? What are their career objectives? How can we help them make sure they are in that zone of always developing themselves professionally? How can they put this approach into practice in the workplace and with the associations that they work with? We know that we’re all different kinds of learners, but if they can immediately apply what they learn, they have a much better ability to maintain that knowledge, and it creates stickiness. 

What are some of the biggest hurdles that CEOs and other association leaders today are facing? 

Recruitment and retention of the right talent is big. Our staff are really the face of the client association. It’s important for them to be excited about the work they do every day and be driven by the association’s mission.  

One of the factors that we believe is very important in the recruitment and retention of talent for AMCs and associations is promoting that lifelong journey with all your staff. Complacency—doing the same thing today that you did five years ago—is not going to move the association forward, and it’s not going to allow the association to serve its stakeholders the way that it needs to. 

One of the other factors we found is that individuals who volunteer within their own professional associations or are involved in other activities related to the profession are much more likely to be satisfied in their jobs. That connectedness to the industry and the connections they build with their peers and colleagues allow them to have a problem-solving network. We are even seeing that with CEOs. Maybe it’s an advisory board or a group of other CEOs that gets together once a month to share, “What are the challenges you’re dealing with?” Exchanging information, gaining new perspectives and getting out of the world of like-mindedness really helps you. 

The other impact that a lot of CEOs are dealing with is the unknown. What is going to happen in the next 5 to 10 years? Helping each other with building out that foresight then helps the association and the CEO not feel alone and also ensures there are multiple perspectives that could help them prepare the association, their staff, and ultimately the stakeholders for the future. 

You mentioned that volunteers are more likely to be engaged. Maybe that’s a marketing message that associations can put out there to talk about the value of learning? 

You reminded me of a story back in the late 2000s. The associations that we were working with were really seeing a downturn in renewal and meeting attendance, being impacted by the economic downturn. Members of the associations we managed were saying, “My employer once supported my membership dues or me attending the meetings. They’re not doing that anymore. What can I do?”  

We then examined the research that was available and worked with our client boards to prepare a letter to member employers. We emailed and mailed them, and we actually mentioned this data point—that individuals who were engaged in their professional association were much more likely to stay and be productive. They were much more likely to be happy in the positions they were in, and they contributed more fully to the organization. Basically, it’s taking a trade-off in that economic discussion. You make this investment in your talent, and it will come back many-fold. 

We know engagement is good, but what should we be doing to encourage it? How can we get people engaged? 

Oftentimes if there’s an opportunity for engagement, it can help to tap individuals and say, “Hey, I recognize that you’re really great at doing X, Y and Z. I think you could really add value in this particular area.” 

In this world, we have a lot of different individuals. Some of us are extroverts, and some of us are introverts. What I hear from my introvert colleagues is that they need to be asked to participate. They need to be invited in. That helps them leap over the barrier of, “Would I be welcome?” I think that invitation really does enhance that sense of belonging, particularly for newer stakeholders, members and association staff. 

The really great way that you can get to know your colleagues—particularly in this hybrid work environment—is to get involved at different levels, get a new perspective and get to know other people. That same thing happens within volunteer experiences.  

How are we doing when it comes to measuring the impact that the learning journey has on the individual in moving them forward? Are we doing a great job of it? Do we need to be measuring a little bit differently too? 

If there were one thing that we could do that would really impact our stakeholders, it would be measuring their outcomes. Connect the learning management system or whatever platform the member engages with, to a learning journey. If we could group learning opportunities in this way—by bundling by topic area or as a series that grows on itself and shows mastery at the end—that would be great. 

There are a lot of associations that have certificate boards and programs, but I think it’s also important for non-certificate education to be organized in a way that it can contribute to an individual’s career growth and help them along the path with maybe a multi-tiered, multi-year progression that would really keep them engaged. You can’t get that anywhere else. I think that’s a need that associations can definitely fill, and then provide us with data about how effective that is. 

How do we put these plans in place to make sure that we’re not only executing on them right now but sustaining them over time? 

The one piece that keeps coming to mind is data. I think the best way to get data is to have a member education needs assessment survey and do it on a regular, ongoing basis. It’s important to gather from our stakeholders what they believe they need to learn and what it is they feel like they lack or would like to know to further their career, and then looking to the future of the industry—ideating what that might look like and marrying the two. 

Sometimes our stakeholders aren’t going to have that same perspective to be able to see 10 years into the future. None of us has a crystal ball, but our stakeholders know what they’re experiencing for themselves today and what is happening in their world, and we need to listen to that. 

It’s a constant communication loop of we’ve heard you, we’ve listened, we’ve implemented this, and now we’re asking you if what we’re offering has met that need. Has it helped you grow? If it hasn’t, what do we need to do to tweak it?

It’s just an iterative improvement and learning process. 

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