The times, the manners, where among associations stand we?
I need to figure out where I am with all the STC stuff going on, and blogging will help my introspection. Also, it will let me share with you some of the background and complexity that surround the current state of affairs with STC. My e-mail tag line reads "Anyone who is sure of the answer doesn't understand the question," and this blog is an invitation to join me in understanding how we got here, where we are, and where I think we need to go. And this is social media, so feel free to comment in and share your perspectives back with me.
How we got hereCindy Currie, our STC President, has already provided the answer in her article in News and Notes:
As I have previously mentioned, the shortfall is primarily due to the negative impact the recession has had on our two main sources of revenue—membership dues and the annual conference. But going forward, we have to solve a problem bigger than the recession. For years STC has been adding and expanding services and activities to benefit members and the profession without taking a hard look at how to sustain those activities. And with only periodic, modest increases in fees, the costs to sustain those services and activities have outpaced our dues and total revenue such that the Society has actually been subsidizing these activities.
A little more backstory.
We have been seeing a decline in membership going back roughly to the technology meltdown of the dot.bomb. Many costs to service members are relatively fixed, that is, rent doesn't go down, we don't pay less for legal services, it costs the same to design and edit a magazine issue for 10,000 as it does for 20,000, etc. So what happens is that as membership declines, the costs to serve individual members go up. But the board has historically been reluctant to raise dues. Part of the reason is that members complain when dues go up-duh!
But part of the problem on our part was that dues and budget discussions were not as tightly linked as they should have been. We were not asking the appropriate question when we discussed dues, namely, "How much money do we need in order to do what we want to do?" We focused too heavily on member reaction.
Another problem is that we often debated programs at the line item level based on their merits. Questions like "Should we get rid of this?" were answered with "No, it's a good thing to do." We missed the "But we can't afford to do them all; something good has to go."
In short, we weren't putting all the pieces on the table at the same time.
Another interesting thing about membership is that even though we get a healthy number of new members every year, we lose more than we gain. Hmmmmmm. Is that saying something about perceived value? Of course it is, and that has not been lost on the leadership team. We tend to keep a core of loyal members (I love all of you), but that has created a demographic problem: A lot of us are older and will be retiring in the coming decade. We are losing our "next generation" of STC members. The upshot is that decisions about how to grow the society are being made by those who often lack the perspective of what the target population wants. Ouch!! OK, that one hits this sixty-year old boy too, so hold off on the flames. (See How Not to Update Your Look and Feel)
Where we are todayOK, so we are in some interesting times:
- We have a significant shortfall in income caused by the same economic crisis that deflated our reserves that were supposed to get us through just such a predicament.
- We have a dues structure that can't cover costs of basic membership.
- Our alternative revenue engine (the conference) has become a big question mark as we try to guess how well it can perform in this economic climate.
- We're out of step as a society with where the profession is going and who the emerging professionals are.
Three things have to happen in the following order:
- We must deal with the shortfall.
- We must restructure how we manage the finances so our model is based on sustainability.
- We must reinvent STC so that it is not only relevant to where we are going as a profession, we must be THE place where the voices who are shaping that direction are heard.
- Bail so we don't sink.
- Fix the damage and restore physical integrity to the ship's structure.
- Set a new course.
Because those are the only pockets deep enough and liquid enough to solve the problem in time.
By the way, the shortfall is $1.2M, and we are handling all but $470K through cost reductions, debt rescheduling, and negotiations. What we need from the chapters is the $470K we won't be able to cover without their help.
We can do quick things that kind of translate into "Let's have a cake sale." Great, but we need $470K. That's a lot of cakes.
We can offer big programs; our certification task force thinks the potential revenue there could get into millions. Great, great, great, but it will take longer than we have.
So we've gone to the chapters. Not fair, some of that money has come from their own independent efforts (Atlanta still has some great cookbooks, by the way). Not fair! But a necessary sacrifice if we are to survive. I just don't have anything else I can say on that.
Point two, we have created a zero-based budget that looks at the whole picture: revenue, dues, and expenses as an integrated whole. We have a model that will be sound and sustainable. It is built on the principle that members should pay based on the level of services they receive. I can't get into the details, but if you watch those great Progressive Insurance ads (with Flo) and pay attention to the "Build the policy you can afford" one, then you'll get an idea of where we're going.
But dues will go up! The reaction we've already gotten is "How can you raise dues when part of your problem is you don't have enough members? Lower dues and get more members!"
The truth is that we could make it up in volume, but we cannot get to the volume it would take. Not in this economy, not with our current "curb appeal." Step two, then, is get a revenue/expense model that makes financial sense.
Politically, this is a hard sell. We want our national politicians to get rid of our deficit-bound economy, "Balance the budget, you idiots!" Then if one runs for office saying "I'll raise taxes and reduce services," we run him out of town on a rail. You see, he didn't understand that we wanted him to balance the budget by lowering taxes and increasing services.
Where are we going?Phase 3: We must reinvent STC so that it is not only relevant to where we are going as a profession, we must be THE place where the voices who are shaping that direction are heard.
We need to be about content that helps professionals keep pace in a profession that measures how current you are in the dot releases of the tools you use.
- We are on the verge of releasing the Body of Knowledge Portal--a critical step in being THE resource to start with with any question related to technical communication
- We are moving into social media to help connect professionals into communities and resources.
- We are defining how a certification program will make us the defining group in our profession and draw new members and employers to us.
I hope this didn't come across as whiney--but I want folks to understand the true complexity of the problem space. I'm not standing here saying "Trust us," I'm saying "Help us." But for you to be helpful, you need to understand the full backstory and complications we are dealing with.
Finally, many heartfelt thanks to all who have Ninged and Tweeted with your support and with your criticisms. Stay with STC, be part of the exciting future we are building together, and support our programs as they roll out. Think Dallas 2010 and tell your bosses NOW to budget for it. Hint: Lloyd is working up some sweet early bird deals.