Those Are My People

A Case Study: How one community of practice was able to build a sense of belonging for its 11,000 members by transforming its strategy, structure, and brand.

Written by Lily Oeur, College of Family Physicians of Canada


The College of Family Physicians of Canada’s (CFPC) is the professional organization that represents more than 40,000 family physician members across the country. You can learn more about the CFPC at

The CFPC’s Member Interest Groups Section (MIGS) currently has 19 Member Interest Groups that connect family physicians from across Canada based on their professional interests. The Section was reviewed and revamped starting in 2018 to better meet the needs of current and future members.

What necessitated this initiative

Many member-based organizations are striving to provide meaningful value for membership. The CSAE’s “Looking to the future: How online community can boost association membership in a digital age” article describes how providing a sense of belonging can boost engagement and ultimately drive up the return of investment.

The MIGS’ narrative has always been about a sense of belonging. The section was created in 2008 primarily as a vehicle for membership engagement, in response to a group of family physicians who had asked the CFPC to give them a voice and a professional home where they could support one another. These family physicians – who represent a third of CFPC membership – all indicated that they have a focused practice (based on a 2008 National Physician Survey).

The MIGS was at risk of outgrowing its original mandate. Dismantling a 10-year-old section that supported thousands of members required CFPC to look backward in order to mark the way forward. Through a transformation journey the MIGS reinvented itself while preserving the experience of members who identified with the section in its original form.

As of May, 2020 the section has over 11,000 members. With technology, the MIGS has been able to tell its story to more members. Aside from creating a demand, the MIGS is also trying to change its members’ perceptions about the CFPC. This has led its members to ask questions about how an interest group was created and how new ones can be created, as well as how the CFPC is looking after the family physician community.

What we did

The MIGS’s transformation journey began with a 16-month review process that was overseen by a nimble redesign working group comprised of former and current member leaders as well as one member that was not aware or involved in the College’s affairs prior to this initiative. Having the right people, and the right mix of people, for the working group enhanced the decision-making capacity and widened the scope of expertise that each working group member brought to the table. The review process also incorporated focus-group discussions and key informant interviews with members, staff and other stakeholders, and an environmental scan of similar medical organizations in Canada and internationally. The results of this broadly consultative approach helped us build the strong implementation plan that followed, which included a new strategy, a new name and brand, and several operational adjustments.

Over its ten-year history, the section assisted in the development of practice tools and education resources for family physicians and their patients. The section also created and/or led the review of advocacy and guidance documents of importance to the CFPC. By examining past successful initiatives like these where there were high uptake and member engagement, it was evident that the section was most successful when it had:

  1. Strong leadership and/or oversight from the member leaders;
  2. Engagement (not just with the member interest groups’ chair but with other members);
  3. Funding support from the CFPC and/or from other sources like government grants, and
  4. Dedicated staff support including project management.

Further, the May 2018 survey of section members showed that key benefits of participation included:

  1. Contribution to an area of special interest or focused practice;
  2. Connection amongst colleagues across Canada;
  3. Connection with the CFPC as a professional home, and
  4. Having a platform to advocate for in the members’ area of interest.

These key insights helped us build the foundation for a new strategy.

The new strategy

One of the primary redesign goals was to maintain the section’s relevancy and to support growth. We wanted to stay true to the section’s original raison d’être by ensuring the section remained as the professional home for focused practice and special interest family physicians within the CFPC. Building on this foundation, the redesign embraced a broader identity for the section as the CFPC’s voice for “practice”. That is, the redesigned section recognizes that the scopes of practice change throughout a physician’s career by supporting all professional interests. The section is planning to create additional member interest groups focusing on both clinical and non-clinical topic areas.

Every good strategy must be supported by a plan. The section will be launching its first-ever strategic plan in the fall of 2020. The strategic plan has four focus areas to provide guidance to the 19 member interest groups while maintaining flexibility in allowing each group to define activities within one or more focus areas that reflect their unique needs and interests.

What’s in a name

Originally called the Section of Special Interests and Focused Practice, it was renamed in 2014 to the Section of Communities of Practice in Family Medicine. The full name was long and cumbersome and did not easily convey meaning to members. The new name, Member Interest Groups Section, was coined with input from the redesign working group, CFPC Board and other key informants. The new name is shorter and reflects the full scope of practice within the overall discipline of family medicine. This name change also allows for a clearer brand, supporting higher visibility and growth.

Operational adjustments

Telling people they belong is not enough. But if you ask someone to co-create or help solve a problem, you can change their perception. The new section is creating new and measurable opportunities like never before. Small and large operational adjustments were made to better realize these opportunities.

Even the best possible plan could still fail if our member leaders did not have the capacity and skills to lead transformational changes. We added a vice-chair role to each of the 19 member interest group to increase leadership capacity and for succession planning. We also created a new council, smaller in size and more diverse in skills set – utilizing the same formula we had for the redesign working group. The council has oversight on the section’s strategic growth and direction. We also enhanced support for our leaders including giving them access to more staff support as well as to networking and training opportunities.

The strategy depended substantially on the ease of use and reliability of virtual technology and on the role of staff in initiating some of the online content. An online collaboration platform was rolled out as a result. We used a staggered roll out strategy to ensure there is dedicated staff time to support the launch.

Each member interest group now has a defined community space on the platform. The chair and vice-chair continue to play a key role in ensuring a vigorous online community with the support of our engagement coordinator. During the COVID-19 pandemic, our online membership grew by 80%. Our members were able to use the platform to talk about practice changes resulting from the pandemic’s challenges, and to support each other through advice, encouragement and sharing of resources.  

The people part of the transformation is just as important. Creating a culture of trust was the cornerstone of our upskilling plan. I am so lucky to work with senior leaders that share this value. There was not a single negative staffing change made as a result of the section redesign initiative. However, to support the redesign changes, we needed to reimagine our tasks. It is important for the team members to see themselves within the changes and be empowered to make the changes where they can and should. Just like what we did with our members, we asked our staff to co-create the upskilling plan with us. The upskilling plan demonstrated an investment in the future of our staff’s skillset and toolset but most importantly their mindset.

Advice for anyone starting out and building a transformation initiative (pitfalls to avoid and what to get right)

  1. The transformation process can be overwhelming, but start somewhere. Blue sky thinking just didn’t work for us. We started by asking our members.
  2. Make your messaging believable through the invitation to co-create.
  3. In an information saturated world, distill your story to a compelling single message. People must be able to visualize it and easily understand it to be able to tell the story to their friends and colleagues.
  4. Digital transformation is about people as much as it is about technology.
  5. Investing in an affordable platform and utilizing an incremental approach will allow you to keep a laser focus on the rest of the redesign goals.
  6. Invest in your people.

Each idea on its own is not profound nor new, but together they form a powerful combination.

We have only been working on this for two years, and I simply wanted to share some lessons learned. I recognize the scale and circumstances of your situation may differ, however I hope to inspire you to explore it, or maybe to confirm something you’re doing so you can go further in your organization’s transformational journey.

Lily Oeur has extensive experience in program, project, process and people management. In her current role at the College of Family Physicians of Canada (CFPC), Lily manages national programs and initiatives to advance the availability of education and practice resources for family physicians and their patients. Most recently, Lily helped lead the transformation of the Member Interest Groups Section, the CFPC’s largest section representing a third of the College’s 38,000 members. Lily has presented at the prestige Canadian Society of Association Executives Summit, Family Medicine Forum and National Accreditation Conference.