Dave Meslin’s Engagement Framework – Applications for Associations

Smart associations today know that they aren’t entitled to engagement from members – or from anyone else. But there aren’t that many robust frameworks on how to build engagement. Right now, it’s easier to find discussion of the problems of engagement than truly comprehensive solutions to encourage engagement.

Dave Meslin’s keynote at the 2016 CSAE Trillium Summer Summit, however, offered a galvanizing framework for engagement. His model has four elements, which he stressed all need to be present for engagement to really work. These four elements are:

  1. Confidence
  2. Ownership
  3. Tools
  4. Faith

(He was so adamant that you need to feed volunteers, that it might even be a fifth element of his framework.)

Let’s look at each of those in more detail, through a specifically association lens.

  1. Confidence

Meslin talked about the need to build people’s confidence, both with respect to what they know and their willingness to share it. This is particularly true where there is a power imbalance. We’re trained not to express our opinions to powerful people (school principals being one example), and we have to unlearn the habits of a lifetime to speak up and engage.

Applications for associations:

  • Can you ask members more often for their opinion on things that matter to them? Not all members will have expertise on the association’s inner workings, but they are all experts on their own life and work. Asking people about things they don’t know about won’t build their confidence.
  • Cultivate the habit of finding out what members think, regularly and seamlessly. This doesn’t always have to be formal or technology-based, either (it’s not all about surveys).
    • Do your board and committee members go into the annual conference with a mandate to gather perspectives from members they talk to?
    • Do you use your AGM as a two-way communication opportunity, or is it so formal that it would be highly intimidating for almost anyone to participate? If it’s formal, how else do you hear from members at large?
    • When you’re talking to members on the phone or emailing, do you ask them how business is or what’s new in their practice?
    • Do you refer to conversations with members in your communications to show you’re listening? (And do you do this in specific ways to show you’re really listening, rather than stock phrases such as, “We listen to members”?)
    • Do you ask members questions on social media or just push out material?
  • Could you increase accessibility? This could be an annual open house at the office (both physical and/or virtual), or advertised office hours at events where people are entitled to come and ask questions.
  1. Ownership 

Engagement is all about moving the line of where our sense of ownership extends, as Meslin puts it. We all feel our sense of ownership over ourselves, our homes, our cars, and our possessions. The idea is to expand that sense farther, into our workplaces, associations, and communities. That way, we have a stronger notion that we are allowed to and able to change those places and spaces.

Applications for associations:

  • Does your website explicitly welcome members and potential members, using words they understand and relate to?
  • What is the volunteer experience in your association? Do people feel like their talents and time are put to good use to further the goals of the association?
  • What is the breadth of action that members can take based on their own judgement, without layers of approval? Do you bring groups of members together to accomplish specific or tangible things that they can then display with a pride of ownership over the outcomes?
  1. Tools

Most political and organizational processes are pretty opaque. Even if someone wanted to get involved, how would they?

Most of us know the feeling of becoming involved with a new organization; it usually requires a fair bit of motivation, and a willingness to muddle along for a while as we learn how things are done and how we might engage.

As Meslin pointed out, isn’t this like expecting people to put IKEA furniture together without the instructions? And isn’t that a bit unreasonable? (OK, maybe IKEA assembly is unreasonable even with the instructions!)

Applications for associations:

  • Look at your governance structures. Do they work well? How can members get their perspectives heard? Do they understand how that works? (Really, do they?)
  • Look at your communications and marketing materials. Could someone new really understand how to become involved just by reading them or do they need to talk to a real live person to decode things? (It’s amazing how many association websites don’t say clearly who could be a member, and what membership would get them.)
  • Can you help members be ambassadors or advocates for the association, or for the profession or industry or sector itself, by equipping them with truly useful tools? This is a multiplicative strategy that many associations talk about – what does it take to do it well?
  1. Faith

Meslin noted that people really want to believe that their efforts will result in some kind of change, that the time they invest in an organization or activity will leave them and their community better off somehow.

Applications for associations:

  • Are your vision and mission strong and punchy? Do you have strong strategies? If so, put them everywhere. Use them to both constrain and galvanize action, to remind you what direction you are moving in. Do volunteers know how their work connects to the association’s overall success?
  • What’s your service level agreement with your members? How fast do you answer the phone, respond to questions, and deal with issues? Do you let members feel stuck in the system at any stage?
  • How capable would you be of harvesting a good idea that came via an unusual channel? That is, what if a great member marketing idea came through someone calling the main office number, rather than being put forward by someone on the marketing committee at one of the quarterly conference calls?
  • How do you showcase what the association achieves through the engagement of members? (Not just committee membership and meetings, but actual achievement.)


What did you think of Dave Meslin’s talk? Do you have a different engagement framework that adds to this discussion? Are there any ideas he put forward that you’re going to try in your own association?

Meredith Low is the founder of Meredith Low Consulting, a strategy firm that provides guidance for the strategic choices and actions that help forward-thinking associations create value and propel them forward. She can be found at meredithlow.com and on Twitter: @lowmeredith.