Friday, June 26, 2009

The Economy's Impact on Decision Making

It's easy to throw up your hands and just blame everything on the economy. But, can you? Debra BenAvram tells us that it's a little more complicated than that. Why donations are down or conference attendance is off may require a bit more research, investigation and introspection. Bunnie

The Economy’s Impact on Decision Making

by Debra BenAvram, CEO, American Society for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition

One of the more subtle effects of the economic downturn is its impact on analyzing and using data to make strategic decisions. You can’t necessarily compare facts and figures from today with years past – 2009 is an anomaly. Without having meaningful statistics to rely upon, determining the direction of an organization can be extremely challenging. This is true of any organization, but the lack of comparable statistics has significant repercussions for non-profits.

Many non-profit organizations may find themselves blaming the economy for dwindling membership or light attendance at events. And in some cases, that may very well be true. It’s worth digging a little deeper, though, to see if there is another root cause.

More Art than Science

If you can’t rely solely on data and you can’t just write off issues to the downturn, what do you do? The truth is, due diligence around decision making is far more art than science. Organizations must carefully examine data not only from 2009, but going back several years to identify possible trends and norms. This information will then need to be filtered through the lens of:

· The Board and its vision for the organization;
· Environmental issues and factors that may affect any given program; and
· What members seek to get out of their relationship with your organization.

Here’s a real-world example: at the American Society for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition (A.S.P.E.N.) - an interdisciplinary organization whose members are involved in all aspects of clinical nutrition therapies - we experienced a drop off in attendance at our annual conference, Clinical Nutrition Week. It would be very easy to blame the situation on the economy. There are probably very few, if any, organizations that have not faced the same issue this year. But it’s important to validate or disabuse that rationale.

Through data analysis, we determined that driving attendance at CNW has been an historic issue and is not just specific to 2009. By digging a little deeper, we learned that we lose a large percentage of attendees each year. Could it be the content? Or because a competing organization’s conference was held at the same time? Or that we didn’t offer enough networking opportunities? These are questions that a combination of quantitative and qualitative data can help to answer.

Simple Steps to Making Good Decisions

In 2009, how do you know if a program is less successful because of the economy? How do you know it’s not the topic or even the day of the week? Here are a few ideas to help you make decisions in the current economic environment:

Use what’s available to you. Make an effort to reach out to industry peers. Each conversation adds up to your own qualitative data gathering mission. It seems so simple, but the feedback you gather from these conversations can be invaluable.

Refer to existing studies. There is a lot of available research that can help paint a picture of what is happening in the non-profit space and how to effectively use data. For instance, the American Society for Association Executives (ASAE) provides a number of resources on its web site including The Winter 2009 Impact Study - Beliefs, Behaviors, and Attitudes in Response to the Economy (

Engage members. If a program isn’t working this year (or any, for that matter) start by going back to the group or committee within your organization that planned it. Casting a wider net to help solve problems and make decisions will provide you not only with more arms and legs, but fresh ideas and insights.

Understand your members. This is a year where people are evaluating every dollar they spend. Members can be fickle, especially if forced to whittle down the number of industry affiliations they have. Gaining insights into what your members really want is key to keeping them on board.

Ask questions. Maintain an ongoing dialog with members. Quantitative data is one thing, but going straight to the source is absolutely imperative. This can be accomplished by hosting open conference calls or Web-based discussions or by conducting focus groups and Town Hall meetings. And, of course, there is always that old stand-by, the membership survey. Whatever option – or mix of channels – you choose; the most important thing is to be sure to ask questions.
Everyone has been hit by the economy – I don’t want to undervalue its impact. But don’t assume that it is the cause of all organizational woes. By drilling down and using both a qualitative and quantitative approach, you may just find your organization has come out ahead by 2010.

Debra BenAvram, CAE serves as the chief executive officer of the American Society for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition. She is a certified association executive with areas of expertise including strategy, organizational culture, and volunteer management. She enjoys the balance of working with internal staff, the Board and others to shape the organization. Working with these partners, she works to facilitate the articulation of and movement toward the organization’s vision of its future.

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