Everyone wants a piece of the pie when it comes to your association’s budget. If your department’s piece has traditionally been a sliver, it’s tough to get a bigger piece unless you have an extremely compelling argument. Review these tips for getting board approval for online learning programs before you prepare your case for a bigger budget.
Getting board approval for online learning
Think like a board member.
• What are their most pressing concerns?
• What opportunities would they like the association to pursue?
• What do they hope to accomplish?
• What type of legacy would they like to leave behind?
Align your goals with your association’s mission
Education is usually a part of every association’s mission. Your association’s strategic goals may include a commitment to education, for example, workforce development, professional standards and practices, advancing the profession, or membership growth and retention.
The Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report from Marketing General Incorporated confirms the conventional wisdom that members join associations for networking and education. But, what percentage of your members is participating in your association’s existing educational programs? What percentage of your possible membership market is participating?
Online learning programs make education more accessible and affordable for professionals (members and non-members) who don’t have the budget, time, or supervisory approval to attend in-person educational events such as conferences.
When preparing a business case for new online learning programs, always align your argument with your association’s strategic plan and goals.
Show market demand by members and employers
Do you have proof that your members will pay for e-learning programs? You’re not likely to win board approval for online learning programs unless you can provide evidence of market interest and need. You must take the time to do market research to learn what type of education members and other professionals in your industry need and what type of education they (and their employers) will pay for.
This need for proof presents a chicken-and-egg situation: to get the time and budget for online learning programs, you first need to have the time and budget to do the market research—that’s your first proposition. This market research won’t only benefit your online learning project. You’ll learn about member and employer needs and interests. This business intelligence will also be valuable to association staff who must make decisions about content and other educational programs.
Don’t focus only on members and overlook the needs of industry employers. Find out what skills are needed in your industry or profession now and will be needed in the near future. Identify the skills gaps that your online learning programs can help fill.
Your association benefits by keeping industry employers happy. Trade associations with company members need tighter relationships with businesses who can help advocate for better legislation and regulations. Companies that benefit from your educational programs are more likely to continue supporting your association through membership dues and volunteer service. Professional societies with individual members benefit from increased membership growth, engagement, and retention. Let’s not forget about revenue growth too.
Your market research should include non-members as well as members. Use a mix of research tools: focus groups, individual calls, and online surveys or polls. Collect compelling testimonials from employers, members, and non-members about their need for an online learning program. You can drop these into your presentation where appropriate.
If any of your association’s strategic goals focus on a particular demographic, for example, young professionals, make sure your research and reporting can isolate results from that segment.
Create a sense of urgency
It’s too easy for the board to push off a budget decision for later consideration so you need to answer the unasked question, “Why now?” The program you’re proposing must solve a pressing problem, even better if it solves an urgent need.
A recent article on innovation suggests a strategy for conveying a sense of urgency. Identify an employer “with a hair-on-fire use case — someone who needs a problem fixed so badly that they are willing to overlook the inevitable glitches. They will help you identify shortcomings early and correct them. Once you get things ironed out, you can begin to scale for more ordinary use cases.”
Once you find an employer willing to work with you in exchange for solving their skills gap program, propose a pilot. Boards are more likely to take a risk when it’s for something small and manageable. Develop a few modules that will lead to a micro-credential demonstrating mastery in that in-demand skill. A micro-credential represented by a digital badge will also help spread the word about your program.
Remind the board that the competition for member attention, interest, and loyalty is growing. All types of organizations are jumping into the lifelong learning market. Universities and colleges are turning to for-profit continuing education and micro-credentialing programs to deepen and extend their relationships with alumni. MOOCs have added micro-credentials to their curriculum and are seeing increased enrollment and revenue as a result.
But, associations still have the advantage over these latecomers to the professional development market. You already have a relationship with your membership. They already count on you for information, education, and industry leadership.
Seek and show support from partners
Talk to colleagues in allied departments, such as conferences and meetings, publications, digital content, and credentialing, about an integrated learning strategy. Discuss online learning program ideas that will complement their offerings, for example, programs that extend conference learning.
Discuss your ideas with industry partners who could help subsidize program expenses through sponsorships. In an earlier post, we described several ways you could provide opportunities for sponsors to contribute to your online learning programs. Sponsors could provide seed money with the requirement that the association “matches their grant.”
To get board approval for online learning, you must show the market demand from employers and professionals, as well as the support of industry partners and colleagues, and explain how e-learning programs would enhance your association’s brand and help it fulfill its mission.