What I Learned at Institute

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce runs a four-year certification program in organizational management for nonprofit leaders. Called Institute for short, the program attracts a mixed audience heavily weighted with people who manage chambers of commerce around the country. It’s essentially executive education taught by volunteers, some of whom are themselves graduates and some of them are people like me. I’ve just returned from two days of teaching, one three-hour class on marketing strategies and one two-hour on rethinking communications.

The jury’s still out on whether I was any good. I’ve taught before but three hours is pretty intense and covering everything about crafting a marketing strategy in that amount of time was a little daunting, especially when you have people in the class who know a lot about it and people who know nothing.

But here’s what I learned:

  • A large nonprofit organization (association, chamber or otherwise) is made up of its individual pieces—its chapters, its regions, its little grassroots offices in the hinterland. Most of the individual members could care less what headquarters does because they belong to their local group, not some monolithic entity far, far away.
  • The staff and the board think they run the place. They’re wrong. That army of staff and volunteers who park cars at the pumpkin festival, meet in coffee shops to talk about standards, schmooze sponsors to donate swag or buy booth space, they run the organization. They are all most members will ever see or care about.
  • If the grassroots people don’t know anything about brand and about branding (and those are two different things), the whole message is vague at best and the margin for success decreases exponentially. If every newsletter, brochure, website, ad, app looks and sounds different, it’s very hard to tell who you are as an organization.
  • Cut yourself off from the grassroots and you’ll have a dead lawn. Without them, you don’t exist. Ignore them, underestimate them, take them for granted at your peril.

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