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Be Kind Rewind: Are You Sitting at the Little Kids’ Table?

Posted on April 12, 2014


This tweet is why we flashback to ELGL co-founder Kent Wyatt’s seven tips for determining whether your organization has put you at the lil’ kid’s table. The article was originally posted in 2014.

 

Reader Question: I am a local government professional in my mid-40’s and when I attend my association’s annual conference I am one of the youngest people in the room. While I enjoy the feeling of being young again for a brief moment in time, this has me worried about the future of my association. Do you have any suggestions for increasing “age diversity” among our membership?

Follow the lead of the Oscar’s and hire a few young looking stand-ins from the local high school? Host a session on “Integrating X-Box into Local Government?” Schedule a conference at your local skateboard park? Serve Four Loko during the breaks in between sessions at your conference?

Looking for a more long-term solution? Here’s a checklist for evaluating your organizations’ commitment to age diversity.

1. Does your organization provide internship opportunities for MPA students? What about meaningful entry-level positions?

This is what we call “low hanging fruit.” Cities and counties are called on by “pracademics” (what an incredibly odd term) to develop more internship opportunities or entry level positions. The call would resonate more if professional associations set the example by offering those same opportunities.

ELGL’s success has stemmed from answering this call for action. Our project assistants, who are MPA students, have launched ELGL into a nationwide organization of 450 members from 20 states. Not bad for a few students.

You may think our project assistants – Ben Kittelson, Dan Englund, Megan Messmer, John McCarter, Alex Buckles, and Kirsten Silveira – are in it for the money (or babysitting opportunities) but that would be tough to prove by looking at their paycheck, which is approximately zero dollars. Each is choosing to gain experience and networking opportunities over a pay check (who said there is no free lunch) which in and of itself illustrates their dedication to the future of local government.

The working conditions at ELGL headquarters (a P.O Box) must be better than most because our project assistants remain heavily involved in shaping the future of ELGL after their work experience.

Challenge your professional association to offer similar practical experience. The “younger” generation has skills in web development, social media, and Prezi to name a few that would be valuable to a professional association. The status quo is no longer acceptable, and professional associations must be leaders in developing these opportunities that will attract and retain talented professionals to local government.

2. Does your professional association host events in conflict with the school calendar?

This may seem like a “whatever” question but this is the pet peeve of a number of ELGL members. Your professional association is eliminating a large swath of members by ignoring the school calendar. For most parents, the school calendar is the ultimate driver. Moms and dads are not going to miss lil’ John’s or lil’ Wayne’s first away T-ball game to attend a lunch forum or a conference unless they are Al Bundy or Susan Smith.

Ignoring the school calendar may have worked in 1970 when inequalities existed between the division of household responsibilities between mom and dad. Thankfully, in 2014, the playing field has begun to even with both parents being active in their children’s activities.

I lie? You lie?

Read the book “All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood” and then we can talk.

Well smarty pants, what’s your solution?

Every solution involves a survey. That’s what ELGL did a few years ago (and are in the process of doing now. Thanks, Kirsten S.) We asked our members for their preference on meeting days and times. Survey said…….please try to schedule events at lunch time on Wednesday and Thursday due to a majority of council meetings being on Monday and Tuesday nights.

Increasingly, our members are desiring more web-based events through webinars or Twittersations. Whether you like it or not, this venue allows the most people to participate. It also breaks down geographic barriers and time zones.

3. Does your professional association have a Twitter and Facebook account? What about Snapchat?

Oh no, you’re back on your social media soapbox again? Yes, I am.

I could cite any number of studies indicating that Twitter and Facebook are crucial tools for your professional association. A few who do it well are League of Wisconsin Municipalities, Georgia Municipal Association, and Association of Washington Cities. The key strategy for developing an effective social media presence is to learn from the experts. Set up a Twitter account and Facebook page and start following others and learn from the ones that you think are effective.

You can consult with social media experts but as ELGL’s official-unofficial social media expert Patrick Rollens will tell you there is no such thing as a social media expert.

I am not suggesting your organization should stop using other means such as newsletters. My barometer for communicating is my dad. (You may remember him as the one who orders “one pancake.”) My dad has trouble turning on a computer, and threatens to cancel membership to any organization that doesn’t have a paper newsletter. (Side note: how anyone can go a day without the internet is beyond me. I need my daily Bleacher Report, Politico, and Inside Carolina basketball fix)

Having a social media presence is a daily reminder to your members about the work you are doing. It also a way of letting others know what you are doing which may lead to partnership opportunities. ELGL’s Twitter presence has contributed to developing partnerships with Oregon ITE, Mac’s List, and Strategic Government Resources. A social media presence is another step in adding value to your professional association.

Once you have conquered the Twitter-verse, consider developing a presence on LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Instagram. This morning, the Statesman Journal in Salem, OR was handing out praise to the Salem police department for developing a fun, informative Instagram account.

Can’t get enough of this social media conversation? Read columns by Bridget Doyle, Patrick Rollens, and insight from the Great Oregon Twitter Race.

4. Does your professional association have a little kids table?

images (2)Ok, I was with you until now, but why’d you have to bring up the fact that my parents make me sit at that table every Thanksgiving.

If the shoe fits wear it, but that was not the point. What we mean to ask is does your professional association have a separate Next Gen, Young Leaders, Developing Pros, (insert stereotypical name for younger professionals group)? If so, you have created a little kids table.

This answer may come as a surprise to those of you less familiar with ELGL but often times these initiatives increase separation among members. One of the founding principles of ELGL is to invite everyone to sit at the same little, tiny Spiderman decorated kids table whether you’re a management analyst, city manager, local government attorney, or public affairs manager.

(Editor’s Note: I can’t hear the word “table” without thinking about this movie clip.)

These initiatives can have benefit, but for a lot of professionals, these initiatives if not managed correctly, can feel condensing and judgmental. We’re not in the elementary school lunch room anymore where all the second grade girls sit at one table at the boys at another table. We’re all professionals, whether we’re a budget analyst or public works manager and creating forced separation based solely on age is a dated concept.

5. Does your professional association hold a conference session, every year, on any of the following: Next Gen, Succession Planning, or Understanding Millennial’s?

If so, that’s a good indicator that you’re not solving problem. All the talk devoted to “Next Gen” issues has to, at some point, produce actionable items. Actionable items would include developing meaningful work experiences for MPA students, encouraging age diversity on your Executive Board, and profiling the work of younger members.

6. Do the same 5 to 10 names constantly appear in your professional association’s communications?

Take an outsider’s perspective to answer this question. Think about your association’s website, newsletter, conference, and awards. Who would an outsider, such as the famous John Doe or Suzy Q, identify as the faces of your organization? The answer you hope to hear would include a wide range of member names from varying background. Unfortunately, the answer may be a small group of names are popping up in everything your association does. Of course, we all need doers in our association’s but John Doe and Suzy Q should not be able to identify this from a cursory look.

To increase the small group of faces, you must proactively communicate opportunities to get involved. ELGL accomplishes this through web profiles such as the New Sensation, The Assistant, The Takeaway, and 50 Nifty. You have probably noticed most local government professionals are not actively seeking the spotlight but are more than willing to give back to the profession by sharing their experiences.

7. Is your professional association affordable?

Let’s assume that local governments are barred from paying for membership dues and conference registration for their staff. How would that impact your membership? How many of your members would renew?

The combination of ongoing budget constraints facing local government and a recent Daily Herald article brought this question to forefront. The Daily Herald article compared the amount spent on the recent ICMA conference by a number of Illinois cities.

Which city would you want to be in the comparison?

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Professional associations, especially those in the public sector, must be proactive in developing a defensible dues structure and conference fees. ICMA’s virtual conference is an excellent step at opening the doors to their conference to a larger segment of their membership.

funny-store-stuff-expensiveAn unreasonable dues structure will limit your membership. What is unreasonable? That’s an individual decision. Obviously, the higher dues structure comes along with higher value expectations from members. The same goes for conference fees.  You won’t attract a diverse conference audience if the conference cost is so expensive it’s prohibitive for people to attend.  And for goodness sakes; if graduate students want to attend your events, let them, and heavily subsidize their costs!  This is the ultimate low-hanging fruit – the chance for students who have articulated an interest in your field, to rub elbows, talk the talk, and learn from more experienced professionals.

Underlying each item on the checklist is that cultivating diversity among your association is not a one-year project. True action needs to replace all the talk. Replace the time spent organizing panel sessions to address the checklist items above.

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