|Developing Transformative Strategic Partnerships|
Developing Transformative Strategic Partnerships – A New Approach to Maximize Member Value
Associations everywhere are under pressure to respond to rapidly changing business conditions. Stakeholders are determined that the associations that they belong to address the social, political, environmental and technological influences that impact them most. In response, leaders are looking to reshape traditional relationships with vendors and service providers into true strategic partnerships that elevate the quality of the membership experience. Which is where the Board of AMC Institute (AMCI), the trade association for the association management company (AMC) community, landed when defining critical needs for a management partner that would help strengthen AMCI’s value proposition to member firms and extend their growing influence internationally.
As experienced association management professionals, the first steps were easy: set up a task force, develop a Request for Proposal (RFP); hire a consulting firm to facilitate the process; establish a timeline, and provide guidance and oversight. “We also recognized this was a rare opportunity to rethink the traditional approach to selecting an AMC,” explained Greg Schultz, Executive Vice President at Kellen and AMCI’s Board Chair, “and if we got it right, we could be both a case study and a best practice example for other association leaders.”
So began the real work. The Board realized it had no problem articulating the service expectations they had for a new partner, but it was much more challenging when the discussion turned to evaluating the specific leadership characteristics and the cultural fit of a prospective partner. The task force considered both sides of the relationship. “We had to look at our organization candidly,” said Fred Stringfellow, CAE, President of Stringfellow Management Group and chair of the task force organizing the search, “and be frank about our strengths and weakness. As part of a new team, the focus has to be on our current strengths and assets as an organization, what we wanted to achieve, and what we could offer a potential partner.”
Learning Lesson: Knowing your own organization is vital to being a good partner. You can’t think of yourself as a client or a customer -- you’re now part of a team that has a responsibility to work together.
A New Relationship Model Requires a New Selection Process
The task force had strong opinions about the selection process. They wanted to streamline activities and eliminate the showmanship that often comes with proposal presentations. They wanted to clearly define ‘make or break’ expectations, while opening the door for potential partners to suggest creative solutions and new opportunities. Above all else, the task force insisted that the process be transparent. “Our industry is a close knit community, said Greg Schultz, “it was likely that the people interested in submitting a proposal would be known to members of the task force. We needed to ensure that the process moved quickly, was fair, and reflected the board’s vision for creating a strategic partnership.”
This is where the objectivity of the management consultants helped the task force define the principles that would guide the selection process. “There was a shift in the primary focus from a comparison of operational factors, to evaluating leadership, culture and alignment” said Ralph Bloch of Bloch & Reed Association Advisors. “The ability to meet the operational expectations of the Institute was obviously still important, but more emphasis was placed on selecting a partner with similar values and goals” Bloch added. As the task force determined what a good partnership would look like, and how the group would identify the right partner, the broader implications of their work became clear. “We weren’t just talking about the selection of a professional services company; we were developing a process that would be helpful for any organization interested in assessing strategic relationship opportunities” explained Stringfellow.
Learning Lesson: The key to alignment between partners is making sure that values, culture, and leadership styles work well together.
The Evolution of Ideas Results in a Non-traditional Outcome
The members of the task force were committed to innovation in their thinking. As leaders of association management companies, the group was determined to adhere to the principles of the AMC business model, while challenging the traditional RFP process. The streamlined process had three major components.
First, The RFP clearly reflected what the organization was looking for in a partnership. “We eliminated all guesswork on our operational expectations, and we were very open about the type of relationship we wanted to have with our new partner,” said Schultz. “We made specific reference to our own limitations, and the type of organization that would best help us reach our objectives.”
Next, proposals were strictly limited to responses to 12 questions that asked bidders share their experience handling similar situations. “The task force carefully developed the interview questions based on the challenges and opportunities specific to the Institute,” explained Fred Stringfellow. “The questions were structured like the behavioral event questions that you might use to interview a senior level executive.” Bidding organizations responded to the proposal questions in an online form that was managed by the consultants. The responses were compiled and then scored by the task force members.
Finally, leaders from the final two finalist organizations participated in a semi-structured interview with the task force. The interviews had two parts. Each company was asked the same questions, and then the task force members had the opportunity to ask questions about each bidder’s proposal.
Association Headquarters, the AMC division of AH, a professional services firm specializing in helping non-profit organizations achieve their mission, create value and advance their causes, industries and professions based in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey, was selected as the new management partner. For Bob Waller, CAE, AH President & CEO, “The entire process was very thoughtful and engaging. We were able to focus on the specific needs outlined by the Institute, and that allowed us to demonstrate how AH could provide the talent, services, opportunities, culture, and commitment that would be a seamless fit for the two organizations, and more importantly result in tangible benefits for AMCI’s members.”
Learning Lesson: The task force was flexible and focused on learning throughout the process. When all of the bidding organizations submitted responses to questions along with versions of their “traditional” marketing proposals, the committee decided to review both documents.
AMC Institute wanted a streamlined process that would assess a management company’s readiness for a strategic partnership with the scalable capacity to manage and support future growth and change, not just its ability to manage a trade association. “It was looking to deliberately shake things up,” explained Ralph Bloch. “There was a general consensus that if AMCI wanted to create a new conversation about what made a successful partnership, things had to be different right from the start.”
“Leaders get frustrated with relationships that don’t meet expectations” added Schultz.” AMCI and AH were able to establish a solid foundation based on clear communication and mutual expectations. The outcome was a far more effective approach and we look forward to sharing our experience and what we learned with the broader association community.”
About AMC Institute
AMC Institute advances professionalism and industry standards for association management companies. It provides resources to drive new business to members and champions an accreditation program to promote industry best practices. The AMC Institute represents over 180 association management companies that manage over 1,800 associations.
AH is a professional services firm that specializes in helping non-profit organizations achieve their mission, create value and advance their causes, industries and professions. AH has two current locations in Mount Laurel, NJ and Washington DC and is composed of four main divisions; a full-service association management company (AMC); a marketing and communications agency; a meetings & events management team; and a division that focuses on other custom solutions such as strategic planning, website builds and database integrations, accounting, recruitment, public affairs and lobbying, certification management, and growing non-dues revenue. AH maintains AMC Institute Charter Accreditation status. The AMC Institute Accreditation program is based on an ANSI Standard. As named by the Customer Service Institute of America (CSIA), AH is a Platinum Certified Customer Service Organization. For more information, visit www.AHredchair.com.
About Bloch & Reed Association Advisors
As trusted association consultants, Ralph Bloch and Michael Reed ask questions and provide insights that help mission driven organizations build capacity and achieve results. They use trust, data and dialogue to help leaders see clearly, plan strategically and act decisively. www.blochreed.com.