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What’s holding you back?

One of the most common topics at any gathering of fraternal leaders is “member engagement.” Getting more members to actively participate in the society’s community service programs or social activities seems to be a “top of mind” issue for every Alliance member. Most executives will acknowledge that on the best day, only about five percent of members take advantage of the society’s fraternal outreach projects.

While we’d all love to say that in a given year 75 percent of our members participated in a food bank drive, a Habitat for Humanity build, or a park clean-up project, (and the other 25 percent were fully aware and supportive of these activities), the plain fact of the matter is that no community service group is ever going to have that kind of success rate. I’m not suggesting that we lower our standards or expectation – shooting for the stars may yield over-the-moon results – but I am recommending that we reconsider what “member engagement” means.

And I’m encouraging all of you to think small and start at the grassroots level. Like, for instance, having your members send an email to the U.S. Representatives asking them to sign-on as co-sponsors of House Congressional Resolution 19 – the “Fraternal Resolution.”


I know, I know…

•  Your members are not politically active (although I bet the vast majority of them vote, which makes them more politically active than most Americans…)
•  Your members are not up to speed on the fraternal tax exemption and wouldn’t understand what you were asking them to do (they would be if you talked to them about it…)
•  Your members would resent being asked to contact legislators on behalf of the society (You sure about that?…)
•  Your members are not technologically proficient and would not be able to participate in an on-line grassroots campaign (Oh, please. I bet they bought all the Christmas gifts on-line…)
•  You wouldn’t dare ask your members to participate in a political advocacy campaign; it’s beneath them (think of what this country would be like if everyone thought that way…)

I would contend that with just a little education on the topic your members would not only understand but absolutely embrace the rationale behind your society’s tax-exempt status. Moreover, I bet they would LOVE to be asked to pitch in (i.e. “engage”) in an effort to make sure our elected leaders know why fraternals occupy such a special place in the U.S. Tax Code and in the U.S. social fabric. And finally, I bet they would respond in droves to such a request from the leader of their society.

Why am I so sure about this? I asked the folks from the Sons of Norway – the single most powerful fraternal grassroots force in the Alliance. That’s right, after one week after kicking off the “Race to 100” grassroots campaign to secure 100 co-sponsors for HCR 19, Sons of Norway had over 350 folks – almost all of them rank-and-file members – send emails to their U.S. Representatives. That’s more than half the total number of grassroots campaign participants to date. And by the time the campaign ends in June, I’m guessing that the Sons of Norway will have “engaged” several thousand members in the initiative.

This is not to denigrate the terrific efforts of Gleaner, KSKJ, Catholic Ladies of Columbia, or Woman’s Life – all of whom have generated dozens of emails to members of Congress from their employees, board members, and local chapter leaders. But it is to say that if grassroots is going to be an effective tool in the Alliance’s advocacy arsenal, we’ve got to extend our reach well beyond the home offices of our member societies to “engage” (there’s that word again) field representatives, local chapter leaders, and – most important – MEMBERS!

Sons of Norway web(O)

I wanted to know if just collecting members’ emails – and the willingness to actually use them! – was the only secret behind Sons of Norway’s success. So, I asked the society’s movers and shakers – Eivind Heiberg, Linda Pederson, and Erik Evans – to share their formula with me so that I could share it with you. Here are the highlights of our conversation.

Q.  So, do you attribute your success to doing a great job of compiling member email addresses, or is it something in the Norwegian heritage that makes your members such active participants in the Alliance’s grassroots campaigns?

A.  You’re correct that we have worked very hard to collect member emails, but I think the secret to our success in getting members to participate comes down to two elements: planning and reputation.

Q.  Tell me more about the planning process…

A.  As with any campaign like this, we put together a strategic plan early on in the process. Its purpose was to bring our various communication channels together, to work in concert and make sure we came as close as possible to 100% message saturation among members, insurance sales and partners. From there, our communications team created a campaign road map that utilized a number of different channels, including member blasts, e-pubs, and social media outlets, as well as face-to-face staff meetings, insurance sales meetings, Board of Directors meetings and our upcoming district/international conventions.

Q.  Totally integrated, I love it. But what about creating the correct message for your members?

A.  We built our core message and call-to-action, both of which had to be consistent across the various channels and audiences, by customizing the language we used based on the things we know that resonate with our members. With that complete, our communications team developed an editorial calendar for the first 90 days of the campaign and the plan to review efficacy before creating the calendar for the final push during the last 60 days. Then, once the editorial calendar was complete, we moved into implementation.

Q.  Something tells me you’ve been working on this type of outreach for more than the last two weeks…

A.  The other component, which we feel is the most crucial, was Sons of Norway’s reputation. Over the years, as we have developed our e-pubs and social media, we have made a conscious effort to curate the content we share and not spam our members needlessly. This translates into an earned reputation for strong content that our members can rely on being interesting, important and timely. The result is that our members know we don’t send out frivolous emails, so when we reach out with a call-to-action, like the Race to 100, it’s serious and we need their help.

Q.  But what about the obstacles to member participation cited by so many other fraternals?

A.  They’ve never been issues for us. If we are concerned about members not understanding, then we educate them. If it’s a concern about politics, we make sure our members know that we are working for a nonpartisan resolution. When it comes to deciding if it’s right or not to ask our members to participate, we ask ourselves a single question: does it serve the members? In the case of the Race to 100 it absolutely does. The resolution helps us maintain our tax exemption which provides the financial fuel for all the good work we do in communities throughout North America and Norway.

Q.  What do your members get out of programs like this – other than the satisfaction of helping the Alliance on its most important advocacy issue?

A.  In the end, the benefit of involving our members in programs like this is that it gives them a deeper sense of ownership of, and responsibility for, the organization. You can’t buy that level of engagement with all the advertising and PR budgets under the sun. But by involving them in campaigns like this you can build it organically.

So what’s holding YOU back?

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