Looking for the next big e-Learning market?

ASAE and The Center for Association Leadership is “the association of associations” – an organization of 20,000 or so members committed to bringing “the most comprehensive collection of services and resources to association professionals.” Data from research they conducted in 2006 show associations planned to shift resources from face-to-face events to online learning and to grow the e-Learning sector as much as 27%. A separate survey on e-Learning in non-profits conducted in 2006 by Isoph/LearnSomething resulted in even higher numbers: 61% of respondents projected increases in e-Learning.

What’s more, the largest segment of potential growth is in associations least likely to have a fully dedicated education or professional development staff member. Of the nearly 7,000 associations reporting data in the ASAE report, the two demographic clusters reporting the highest expected increases in online learning were those with three-to-five and six-to-ten full-time employees. Of associations in the first category, only 13% have a fully dedicated education specialist on staff; of the larger-staffed organizations, 36% report having a fully dedicated education specialist. These studies also reveal that associations will staff finance, office management, membership/recruitment, and meeting planning positions before bringing aboard an education professional. In many cases, the meeting planner – whose specialty is handling logistics such as hotel contracts, food and beverage arrangements, and other details – is also responsible for overseeing the association’s educational content. When educational professionals are on staff, they generally have more experience in classroom training and facilitation than online learning, though this is slowly changing.

Here’s a final statistic: within a total of about 360,000 non-profits across the country, 7,500 trade associations are affected by a shift in training priorities to e-Learning. Education and cutting-edge training are usually essential to the mission of trade associations and professional associations.  

The opportunities for companies providing e-Learning products and services are vast, but before you jump blindly into the non-profit market, there are some things about these organizations you should know.

Associations and non-profits are not companies

 Associations and non-profits (terms often used interchangeably, which will happen in this article as well, though some associations are actually for-profit) are structured very differently than corporations, operate in unique ways, and have decision-making chains that are critical for you to understand if you wish to do business in this sector.

Referring to the client’s organization as a “company” is a habit you’ll need to break if you pursue non-profit business. Unless you’re approaching an association management company – in which case “company” is the correct reference – vet every telephone call script, RFP response, e-mail, and other contact with a potential non-profit client to ensure you don’t refer to it as something it’s not. Some organizations will toss out an otherwise excellent RFP response because the vendor referred to the association as a “company.” It sounds boilerplate and – quite honestly – demonstrates a level of ignorance about our sector that makes us wonder what else you might not “get” when doing business with us. The pen is mightier than the sword, words can start wars, and your off-hand reference can speak volumes about your lack of understanding about an organization and the broader world in which it thrives.

Associations and non-profits are not all the same

Associations and non-profit organizations have many striations. Trade and professional associations differ in their membership structure; charitable foundations differ from advocacy and other non-profit groups. While these distinctions might seem minor, they drive essential differences in their approach to education in general, and e-Learning in particular.

For example, because trade association members are institutions, with benefits extended to all individuals within those institutions, and professional association members join as individuals, different tactics are likely to be employed for promoting, registering, and recording learners, who will be accessing e-Learning in potentially very different ways. These differences in membership structure will also affect budgets, decision-making criteria, timelines, and other aspects of online learning.

The goals driving e-Learning will differ between associations and non-profits. While associations generally offer educational events as part of a mission to provide professional development to their members, large non-profits tend to use e-Learning for staff and volunteer training. Because most small non-profits operate on shoestring budgets, justifying investments in outsourced online learning is difficult and rare.

An organization’s Web site usually identifies the type of organization it is: guild, society, trade association, foundation, etc. Sometimes they’ll include their tax status (501(c)3 in the U.S., for example), which indicates whether an association can participate in lobbying, among other things. Companies that have long-term relationships with associations understand these distinctions and what they mean for the business they conduct.

Making a sale comes last

 “It’s all about relationships, not making the sale.” You’ve heard that before, but it’s more than a cliché when doing business with an association. Associations and non-profits understand relationships. It’s at the heart of what a successful association provides: networking and connections. If you doubt the power of personal interactions between associations and their vendor partners, just scan the Washington, DC, business environment: there’s a reason so many vendors locate themselves in the area where the majority of national associations are headquartered. This isn’t to say you need to be physically located in the DC area to do business successfully with associations, but it does point out how vital it will be that you establish and maintain close communication. When possible, in-person contact is still preferable to electronic interactions.

Associations are socially oriented. They are organizations that – if they do little else – usually offer at least one annual conference or convention. They understand the power of in-person engagement, of breaking bread together, of getting to know someone outside the office. When the economy took a dive in late 2008, many association leaders bit their nails to the quick wondering what that would mean for their annual conferences. They watched as members opted out of the smaller events while still attending the larger annual event.

If you ask members why they renew, they’ll tell you it’s because of the networking and relationships they’ve forged over time. The educational programs aren’t their primary benefit, nor are the association’s magazine or the possibility of winning an award. And although widely available, free social networking via the Web has put a serious scare into many associations; most members are finding it’s still easier and faster to connect to others through the usual association channels than to try to build a contact list that’s as robust as the one the association already offers.

The culture of associations is relationship-driven, and it’s important for you to accept and fit into that culture. If your company is sales-driven, if your CEO needs to see tangible, dollar-based results from your outreach, associations will be a source of frustration and disappointment. Prepare yourself for the long haul. Know you’ll need to invest countless hours and significant dollars before your efforts result in sales or signed contracts.

Associations are interconnected

Some of the tightest association connections exist among those that share members, and therefore actually compete with each other. An anomaly in the corporate world, it’s further evidence of the relationship-oriented nature of associations. For example, CHEMA (the Council of Higher Education Management Associations) is comprised of several associations whose members are all institutions of higher learning. Many of their members overlap, so they compete for membership and program registration dollars, calendar time, and volunteer resources. Yet they find great value in connecting with each other to share best practices and undertake joint projects that will benefit all of them at lower cost.

Many other associations are in contact through less formal means. ASAE and The Center for Association Leardership, The Center for Non-Profit Advancement, and other organizations provide listservs, conferences, events, and directories of members that keep association leaders in touch with each other and able to reach out for advice, recommendations, and referrals.

While many associations rely on processes similar to those used by corporations for selecting vendors, others operate almost entirely on word of mouth: if their close contacts at other associations find a vendor satisfactory, then that’s enough evidence to call them up. Listserv posts for various ASAE groups often start with the words, “Can anybody recommend …?” Referrals and recommendations are common, but the opposite is true as well – offline suggestions to avoid particular vendors, products, or systems also burn through the Internet and light up phone lines.

Starting with one successful project and leveraging that relationship over time will help you gain credibility, benefit from word-of-mouth referral, secure an association reference, and make the connections you’ll need to attract the interest of other associations.

E-Learning is relatively new

The e-Learning stars have finally aligned for associations and non-profits: affordable, accessible technology means organizations that could not afford online learning in the past can now pursue it. Though many larger associations and non-profits, whose structure is most similar to corporations, have been offering e-Learning for some time, smaller organizations are now making their first tentative steps along the path.

More associations have been adding education or e-Learning specialists to their staffs over the last few years, so it’s important for you to find out who on staff is in charge of learning in general and e-Learning in particular. They might be different people, even in smaller organizations; this will depend on how e-Learning fits into their organization’s strategy and priorities.

You’ll discover a broad range of knowledge and experience related to online learning among education leaders. Some have deep e-Learning experience and knowledge; others think they are on the cutting edge but, in fact, don’t have the full picture of what’s possible. As mentioned earlier, many staff members in charge of e-Learning know only what other associations are doing, and generally speaking, most associations are familiar with the academic model (instructor-led, time-specific, blended delivery) and Webinars. They are less familiar with the asynchronous, instructor-embedded, stand-alone model used within corporations.

You’ll need to find out how much they know about e-Learning, and gracefully help them when you spot gaps in their understanding or information. Acronyms, such as “LMS,” that you think are commonly understood might be unfamiliar. Or you could be talking with an association that has an LMS and offers a range of sophisticated e-Learning programs, complete with pre- and post-testing, and embedded simulations. Resist the urge to make assumptions: you won’t know what’s in place until you ask.

Time is short but things take time

Respect the fact that, when you reach someone at the association office, their time is short. They get many calls from vendors – and fielding them might be the last thing they want to do right then.

As the education director for a national trade association, I oversaw up to a dozen face-to-face events that involved close to 200 member volunteers, many of whom required individual facilitation and leadership coaching. We had programs in roughly 10 different cities around North America in any given year, all at varying stages of development and planning. Each required marketing, registration tracking, and other administrative oversight. Add committee meetings and agendas, reports for the board of directors, special initiatives, and other responsibilities to an already full day. With one full-time meeting planner to assist me, and the occasional help from an administrative assistant, my daily to-do list never got done. Vendors calling in the midst of this got my attention when they knew who I was, what I did, and had the courtesy to find out if that was a good time to talk or if another time would be better. Usually I wanted info via e-mail first so I could look at it on my schedule, rather than on the caller’s timeline. Other education directors are in similar situations. Find out how they’d like to receive your information, and respect what you hear.

Vendors need to understand that sometimes projects get dumped before they can get traction; sometimes things emerge full-blown, requiring immediate action. After months of contract negotiation and budget approvals, we signed a license agreement with a Web conferencing provider roughly two weeks before our first live Webinar. I was grateful the provider could brand the landing page as quickly as they did so our members would see our logo when they logged in.

Learn what you can about the association’s priorities, their budget cycle, and other key events that will affect your staff contact’s time and timeline – help them to help you.

Shifting priorities and chain of command

While corporations are not accustomed to changing leadership every year or two, this is the norm for associations. Though there are exceptions, most elected leaders serve short terms and want to make their mark in that period of time. A key challenge association staff members face is in providing program continuity and momentum, despite the shifts in priorities that a constant change in leadership can mean.

Heading the staff is an executive director or CEO, but that person’s power and authority is shaped by the association’s culture as well as his or her personality. The board of directors hires and fires the executive staff leader, which means that person might not be willing to stand up to the board despite serious disagreements with the board’s direction or decision. Staff members report to the executive staff leader, but – especially in small associations – they also interact frequently with the board members, key committee chairs, volunteers, and other members. This mix of personalities, the combination of modus operandi, and other factors will affect how nimble you’ll need to be in working with any given association or non-profit.

Because of the chain of command, when the board of directors drops a project or initiative it’s unlikely your staff contact – even if it’s the chief executive staff member – will be able to do anything about it.

Find out what you can about the decision-making level your staff contact has and respect it. Sometimes offering to attend a board of directors meeting can help, but garnering a guest invitation to these meetings can be very difficult if not impossible in some associations.

Non-profit doesn’t mean non-revenue

Though budgets and financial sources for associations and non-profits vary considerably, a few generalizations are safe. First, every organization must generate enough revenue (most non-profits prefer “revenue” to the words “income” or “profit”) to cover overhead. They do this in a variety of ways: membership dues, program fees, sponsorships, products (such as books), and services (such as consulting). Some earn income from advertising in magazines, directories, on the Web site, and the conference program book (“income” works here, as this money is taxed).

Some organizations expect to generate revenue from the e-Learning they offer. Others will have decided that the programs only need to break even, or have accepted the possibility the programs could lose money. Some will cover costs through registration fees and sponsorships. Funding for a project you’re on can come from an array of sources, and those could have an impact on the project. For example, if funding for an asynchronous course will be coming from sponsors, you should find out if those sponsors will be recognized within the course or be part of the content development or review team.

Work with your association staff contact to avoid last-minute corrections or adjustments. Remember, clients who have not been down the e-Learning road before will be looking to you for guidance. They’ll be relying on you to think of the questions they won’t know to ask.

Unique SMEs

Though many corporate subject matter experts (SMEs) provide their expertise outside of their regular work schedule, most are contributing to the project with the support of their supervisors and the company in general. In some associations, SMEs have not only paid for the privilege of joining the organization, but are often providing their expertise to it free of charge. In many cases, they’re contributing to the project on their own time, using their own personal computers, phones, and other equipment to participate. They’re fitting this project into a full-time job, full-time family, and other volunteer activities, because these are usually people who are involved in more than one association or more than one major project within the association. These are valuable volunteers to the association, so don’t be surprised if, when push comes to shove, the association contact sides with the SME instead of you, despite better judgment. Understand the delicate tightrope your contact is walking between you and the volunteers; doing all you can to help widen the tightrope will benefit your relationship and the project.

Scheduling your project’s milestones will be tricky, so build flexibility into your plan. In addition to the usual delays caused by vacations and travel, and the possibilities of sudden illness, you’ll also need to schedule around the association’s programs, especially their annual conference or convention. Building your timeline in conjunction with the association’s SMEs and your contact there is essential. If the client has a particular “go live” date that cannot be moved, but you know the timeline can’t be met, be clear about why, offer alternatives for scaling back or phasing in the project, and work toward a common solution.

Patience and service are virtues

Your courtesy and patience as you do business with associations will go a long way in establishing a favorable reputation. Associations exist to serve their members, so member service is second nature to association staff members. They will recognize poor service from others – from you – in an instant. Unrequested, constant follow-up on initiatives or projects that have been suspended won’t help, but periodic calls or notes to say, “How are you doing?” will be appreciated. 

Companies willing to invest the time and effort to learn about the association world will find a wealth of opportunities awaiting them. Carpe diem!