In a time of accelerating change, everyone who cares about advancing their career (or holding onto their job) knows they have to keep increasing their knowledge and learning new skills. The future has never looked brighter for your association’s education programs—opportunities abound as long as you have a high-performing professional development committee (or advisory group) leading the way.
The essential groundwork for establishing a high-performing professional development committee
Much of the success of your education or professional development (PD) committee depends on your association’s approach to learning, governance, and leadership development. Looking at PD committees and groups in the association community, we identified four strategies at work in high-performing education programs.
Holistic approach to learning
Associations offer a wide range of educational content:
• Conferences, workshops, and summits (in-person and virtual)
• Webinars, webcasts, videos, and podcasts
• Courses (in-person and virtual)
• Career center resources
• Blogs and publications
• Discussions, roundtables, solution rooms, and other educational/networking meetups (in-person and virtual)
Who plans these programs? In many associations, this work is siloed in different staff departments and member committees. One committee/department handles conference session content, another oversees online courses, and others manage the other programs listed above. Educational efforts are not synced.
We’re seeing a move toward a holistic approach to education in which one team oversees and coordinates all education programs. The time and knowledge of staff and members are too valuable to squander in siloed efforts. One overarching team can take a more strategic approach to educational content and repurpose it for different channels. This team can manage relationships with technology partners, revenue partners (sponsors), subject matter experts, speakers, instructors, facilitators, and other people involved in educational programs.
In a recent ASAE Collaborate discussion, a few association professionals described how they send out one call for educational content for their conferences, webinars, blog, and publications—a definite move in the direction we’re suggesting.
The International Legal Technology Association‘s holistic view is evident in two member groups. First, their intellectual scouts, Knowledge Advisors, who are a group of “big thinkers who bring an entrepreneurial, visionary mindset to the development of ‘hot themes’—those overarching, critical concepts—that can be explored and developed into programming by ILTA’s Program Planning Council.”
“The Program Planning Council is comprised of subject matter experts in various practice areas, representatives from our conference planning teams, and representatives who focus on ILTA members’ needs at local, regional and international levels. Their mission is to develop a programming framework that supports ILTA’s strategic goals and serves all segments of ILTA’s membership.” An ILTA organizational chart shows the reporting structure for these two groups and related groups.
Committees vs. advisory groups
In a holistic approach to education, a program planning council (like ILTA’s) or education advisory group assigns tasks to work groups, task forces, or project teams, for example, an annual conference work group. Members on the planning council or advisory group might serve one- or two-year terms. However, members can sign up for a six-month stint on the work groups.
Many associations are taking an ad hoc approach to volunteering, eliminating committees (except essential ones like finance, audit, leadership development, etc.), and replacing them with shorter-term volunteer groups. Busy members are more likely to commit to serving for six months rather than taking on a two-year committee term.
By offering short-term volunteer opportunities, you give more members a chance to contribute their time and talent. You also groom more members for the leadership pipeline.
Many associations, particularly those with tiny education departments, rely on volunteers or SMEs to do the heavy lifting—work done in larger associations by staff learning experts. Who makes the final decisions on educational direction and content? Staff or members? Who has the requisite knowledge? What does the governance culture say?
In high-performing organizations, staff make decisions with input from a member group. For example, ASAE Advisory Councils represent different segments of the membership: AMC, communication, component relations, executive management, and so on. The member councils advise staff on needs, issues, and trends, but staff make the decisions.
A committee charge describes what the committee (or group) members will do in the short- and long-term to achieve goals that are aligned with the association’s strategic plan and educational roadmap. A charge prevents committee chairs or other members from hijacking the work plan in favor of their own legacy or personal projects. It ensures volunteers are dedicating time to meaningful work that makes a difference and moves the association forward.
The charge demands accountability to the board. The committee must develop a work plan that’s aligned with their charge and set measurable short- and long-term outcomes. The committee chair keeps the board updated on their progress.
The charge can instruct the committee to bring in diverse perspectives so they can accurately assess the needs of the membership and market. In some associations, the PD committee oversees advisory groups representing members segments whose needs can be elicited.
Committees and advisory groups too often get caught in the weeds of program details and logistics. They need to look out into the future—a more meaningful volunteer contribution. In Associations Now, Peggy Hoffman, president and executive director at Mariner Management, suggests committee members consider what professional development will look like in ten years and then ask themselves “what’s the thing that’s not getting done or what’s the thing just on the horizon.”
Selection and training of committee members
Select committee or advisory group members based on their competencies—what they bring to the table, not whom they know. Never offer a volunteer position to someone because “it’s their turn” or “the board chair says we need to find a place for them.”
Share all volunteer positions and opportunities on your website, along with the competencies and commitment required and a description of the experience.
Volunteer training for short-term, ad hoc positions might only involve a review of responsibilities and required knowledge about association policies and procedures. They can go to your LMS to watch a short video series on what they need to know.
Training gets more intensive for committee and advisory group members and chairs. You could train committee members on methods for gathering feedback or assessing needs. Chairs should get leadership training appropriate for their role.
A recent Billhighway post alerted us to another type of training: committee liaison training for association staff. “The role of committee liaison comes with many association jobs, often as ‘other duties as assigned.’ But rarely does an association recognize and help staff develop the unique competencies required for this role.” This training “professionalizes the committee and volunteer management aspect of many association positions.”
If you feel your association isn’t moving as quickly as you could with professional development, perhaps one or more of these strategies could help you better coordinate staff and member efforts, clarify roles, and attract more volunteers.