Saturday, December 02, 2006

Professional Associations that Don't Suck

Originally uploaded by Blazenhoff.
I had dinner last week with some excellent folks from the board of NAME, the National Association for Museum Exhibition, a standing professional committee under AAM (American Association of Museums). They are trying to find better ways to provide value to their members, so that they can a. have a more active, engaged, useful role in people's work and b. attract and retain members. We discussed a variety of ideas from book clubs to Second Life meet-ups to exhibition critiques... but I left wondering more about the bigger picture of professional associations and their use and value.

There are three basic reasons to be part of a professional association: to learn, to network, and to get a job. There are also the “perks”—the magazine, free admission to museums—which enhance learning.

Feeling pumped and ready to join? I’m not. I’m a perfect example of the challenge these associations are facing. I joined AAM just to get a cheaper ticket to the conference. I can’t even join ASTC as an individual. And since I can access their resources, the list-servs, and the conferences without being a member, why bother?

What’s the value of being a member of a professional association? I think about things I'm a member of. A co-op: we live and cook and clean--but in exchange we get a manufactured family. A political party: I check a box, and get to be "part of something" bigger that acts on my behalf (theoretically). A temple: A community for ethical learning, emotional connections, singing, and eating challah. In all of these cases, I'm giving a lot more than $40, and getting a lot more than a tote bag. If membership in a professional organization is going to become highly relevant and valuable to people, the experiences available have to got to step up.

What kind of professional organization would I want to be a member of?

-One that has a clear vision and stands for values that are important to me. This is the "spiritual center" model of an organization. I want an organization that is totally dedicated to exploring the "best self" possible for museums, so in the time I slice off to focus on that organization, I feel that I am getting a deeper, more substantive learning experience than just swapping war stories.

-One that has diverse membership for me to learn from and engage with. I'm already talking to colleagues at work. It's hard to be motivated to initiate the same kind of conversations with strangers--give me someone with a different take on it.

-One that provides me with great services. Yes, the museum admission perk for AAM is substantive, but what about the kind of mentoring, education, and experiences that take me outside of my comfort zone? How about monthly meetups ala Dorkbot? Mentor partners? Blog/web hosting space?

-One that is so cool, visionary, and exciting that I want to be a member just so I can put the bumper sticker on my car and say to the world, I'm part of this gang. And this is the key, I think, to actually wanting to go the extra mile from being a user/participant to signing the dotted line for membership. I want to be a member of an organization that makes me feel the way I feel about my favorite bands and writers. I want my membership to make me proud, passionate, heck-even sexy-the way I feel when I have paint on my jeans or I'm reading Bitch on the subway. I want an organization with heart, that can help define who I am and want to be.

And then, bring on the tote bags.

1 comments, add yours!:

Nathan said...

Hey Nina,

I can hardly refute what you say. I agree that there are indeed a lot of professional organizations that seem to exist only to produce a bi-annual newsletter. They are frequently impersonal and their benefits are indiscernible. However, I feel that the true value of professional organizations lies not within the services they provide, but in the investment you put into them. I, too, joined a number of professional organizations that I found to be a waste of my money. I never read the newsletter, I couldn't afford to go to the conferences, and I felt no kinship to the other members. It wasn't until I actually became more involved with these organizations (volunteering for committees, etc) that I discovered that I was truly reaping some rewards.

I also think that it is assumed that only the large, more prestigious organizations offer any true benefit. In my opinion, that sentiment is entirely false. Before I came to Chicago I spent a little tour of duty in the small Midwestern city of Terre Haute, Indiana. Athens it was not. But, it did have a number of cultural institutions--most of who languished due to under-use and under-funding. One day, I initiated a small brown bag lunch meeting to get acquainted with other museum professionals in town. During what became monthly meetings we discussed many issues that were important to us and found that, collectively, we faced many of the same challenges. Over time, we developed from a small group of casual acquaintances into a sizeable affiliation. We collected some very paltry dues and used that money to advocate the interests of the community's cultural organizations as a whole. In what was really a short time span, we produced some great results and gained the support of the city, the mayor, and the local economic development bureau. While I didn’t learn much about museum education or anything directly related to my job, I did learn a great deal about leadership and collaboration and felt greatly rewarded by the experience.

Since that time, I have left Terre Haute and I have gotten more involved with EdCom and other different organizations. They have been a huge investment in time and resources, but I have had an opportunity to meet some very interesting individuals, network with all kinds of people, and get some good “face time” with leaders who might be beneficial to me in my career in the future. So, in essence, I think that professional organizations have more offer as a long term investment than a short term benefit.

Let’s talk more soon.