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Association Bisnow
February 14, 2008
Are Associations
Really Tribes?


As former President of the Association Management Group, 1998-99 Chair of the ASAE, and current EVP at the American Nursery and Landscape Association, Bob Dolibois has done a lot of thinking about associations.  When we stopped by yesterday, he let us in on a secret:  He sees association leadership as an exercise in "tribal management."



Bob's insights come courtesy of this thinking cap (a souvenir from Euro Disney) which lightens the mood during ANLA strategy sessions.  He entered the association field with the National Association of Life Underwriters in the 70s, when he says associations were as much about excluding people—through membership requirements and credentialing—as including them.  An entrepreneurial spirit infected associations in the 80s and 90s, and they focused on revenue and thought more of members as customers.  But Bob says the thing that sets them apart in the impersonal electronic age is their sense of community—or tribe.



Bob nurtures this sense in various ways with ANLA's 1,850 members. On the ANLA Connect listserve, he says, 800 members get amazingly passionate as they talk about growing, distributing, and retailing those houseplants you buy. Bob even calls the two dozen most frequent posters—who attain a certain celebrity status at association gatherings—ANLA's "shamans." On ANLA's four annual "road trips"—bus tours of member operations in different regions—they pick bus captains to prod discussion. "They take it as a point of pride; they're like  village leaders," he says. Bob hit on the tribe metaphor six months ago, and it stuck with him because it reflects what he sees as the strong "identity, ritual, and tribal lore" of an industry.



Bob and his wife Susie turned a recent trek to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro into a fundraiser for ANLA's Horticultural Research Institute and added more than $100,000 to its $11 million endowment.  ("Our faces were frozen and we could barely breathe," Bob says, "but other than that it was a great moment.")  All tribalism aside, Bob has another killer insight.  On the ANLA website, he wants to draw people to white papers and other reports, but doesn't think the label "Archives" will do the trick.  So he calls the section "Free Beer!"  That thinking cap really does work.

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