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Promotion is not the answer

IEEE volunteers assume that people don’t understand the benefits of membership. Actually, it’s just that there are none

This is the second in a series of five posts.  View the first View the next
(Whole series: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5])

Every so often in institutions like the IEEE, someone figures out that too many people don’t appreciate why they should be a member. They’ll then set out to “introduce” people to the benefits of membership. That is the explicit purpose of the IEEE’s STEP initiative, which is aimed at getting graduating students to renew as professional members. It’s also an assumption of the much-glorified IEEE Blog, Tweet and Win Contest, which rewards people who fill their social media streams with IEEE propaganda.

The attitude runs deeply in membership development. While the original objectives for the Region 10 (Asia-Pacific) Student Congress included both “to discuss and add value” and “to increase knowledge of [student activities] information”, in practice more recent Congresses have tended heavily towards the latter. The two are equally important, but you wouldn’t think so with the heavy emphasis on IEEE speakers giving spiels on IEEE benefits.*

The institution then becomes an institution for its own sake: activities run by the institution become about the institution, rather than directly about the profession. Other initiatives aim to spread the member base wherever it can go: the core driver of IEEE’s GINI initiative is to form new and “reactivate sick” Student Branches.† Little attention is paid to whether the benefits that are being promoted are of very much use.

Not so beneficial
The official list of IEEE benefits is long, but uninspiring. Many of them are online, like memberNet, IEEE.tv and an IEEE e-mail alias. While admirable, they’re not really selling points for membership. Browsing member profiles (memberNet) isn’t, in practice, how people make contacts (LinkedIn’s “second-degree contacts” model is closer to reality, and it’s a bigger network too). Online videos (IEEE.tv) will never get on the priority list for professional engineers whose time is very precious. And while IEEE e-mail aliases are used, it seems like a trivial thing to join an organisation for. Others, like Microsoft’s software for students, are nice but superficial: the benefit doesn’t encapsulate what it means to be an IEEE member. (At least, it shouldn’t.)

Why are volunteers‡ so convinced themselves? I’ve heard many successful volunteers readily offer their stories, both informally and in presentations at Congresses. What they don’t realise (or do) is that the “benefits” they describe are always benefits reserved for volunteers: most commonly friendships struck abroad, but also organisational and leadership skills, and free trips around the world. In fact, I’ve heard it several times that “the best way to get benefit from IEEE membership is to volunteer”.

That statement has an element of truth—more in almost always means more out—but it’s a dangerous attitude to take. Not everyone can be a volunteer. Or maybe everyone can—but an organisation that exists for its members to run the organisation is a pointless existence. Members shouldn’t need to be organisers to feel like part of the institution.

This is seldom considered. By being caught up in the benefits of volunteering, volunteers forget to analyse the benefits for normal members. While they run activities (even the ones that aren’t IEEE information sessions), they’re often for their own sake. Some have an underlying purpose, but most are because some higher up said we should, because we always have, or because we really needed an idea for something to organise.

There must be a meaning
What volunteers tend to lack is an understanding of what (other than “volunteer benefits”) motivates their membership of the IEEE. Many IEEE volunteers assume their role is simply to advance the IEEE: that’s a circular existence. The astute can recite the IEEE’s mission, “to foster technological innovation and excellence for the benefit of humanity.” But that’s never applied (and hardly useful) at a grass-roots level.

The IET has caught on to this to some extent, with its recent “Professional Home for Life” programme. The notion is that the IET should be an “anchor point” for one’s entire career, through any number of job changes. While that can mean different things to different people, it still clears up the raison d’être of the IET. It also provides a good litmus test for the usefulness of an activity. (Just talking about the IET’s own brilliance obviously fails the test.)

Indeed, supporting engineers’ careers is the most obvious thing that comes to mind for an institution’s purpose. It’s by no means the only possible one. IEEE’s notion of “advancing technology for humanity” is admirable—except when you ask how the IEEE itself will actually achieve that. It’s true that engineering is largely responsible for advances in the quality of life for everyone. Maybe the IEEE’s role is to help its members do the groundwork to make it happen.

This matters because it informs what volunteers do for members. By understanding this, volunteers can give themselves a framework to assess true usefulness for ordinary members (not themselves). If we do that more often, we might begin to understand why people feel like they don’t get anything out of the IEEE, rather than just assuming they’re uninformed.

What motivates me? I like to think that joining a profession goes beyond just your job or your study. I like to tell myself that I’m part of something bigger, a group with a collective societal role. I want there to be an association that supports that role, not just one that exists to give me opportunities within it. But I’m still thinking about what all of that means. And more importantly, how it guides what benefits we should have for our members.

This is the second in a series of five posts.  View the first View the next
(Whole series: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5])

* Disclosure: I’m responsible for the programme for the next Congress. Needless to say, I’m trying to shift emphasis back to the “add value” objective.
† Disclosure: I was GINI Co-ordinator for Australia and New Zealand. I shunned that aim, preferring instead to focus on connecting Student Branches, which is another aim of GINI.
‡ A volunteer is someone who holds an organisational role, i.e. someone who sits on a committee of some IEEE sub-unit.

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