Soon after the United States became a nation, a European economist traveling in America observed, "Americans are a nation of joiners." Beginning with Ben Franklin's Friendship Fire Company in Alexandria, the first volunteer fire departments surely were among the first and best examples of this American phenomenon.
The development of fire service organizations and associations has accompanied the growth of the volunteer and paid fire services across the United States. Over the last 15 years the growth of these associations has accelerated. There are well over 100 fire and EMS associations at the national level. Many times these various groups are called the "alphabet soup" associations because of the abbreviated shorthand used to name them (i.e. USFA, IAFC, SEFO, IAFF, AMVET, etc.). This fact points to the inherent marketing problem. Add to this over 500 more regional, state and local associations, coupled with the growing number of organizational meetings, seminars and conventions.
A fire/EMS professional could make a career of just attending the various national and regional conventions. In fact, within the last two years, the majority of requests for my advice have come from associations and organizations attempting to increase their effectiveness through the differentiation of their image: their brand.
Some years ago, I was asked to write a marketing plan for a small fire service organization attempting to position itself and its agenda as a platform to effectively address the future of the fire service, as well as expand the membership. This was a stimulating assignment because the organization has some of the most progressive fire service professionals in the country and is well respected internationally. The challenge was how to get the word out in the right way to the right people so the association could gain acceptance of its platform. The exciting thing about the marketing mechanism is that is almost always at the very root of organizational effectiveness.
A "back step" firefighter might question this idea. After all, if a fire breaks out nobody questions the need for the fire department, right? What if there is no community support to maintain the fire department in the first place? Marketing is based on mutual gain. However, each part needs to know the details and benefits of its "gain." Marketing answers the questions: who are we, how are we known and what is our function?
Obviously, some organizations do this better than others. Is bigger better or is an elite, small and influential association desired? In my experience I have observed that the success of any organization is based on its ability to influence people and issues based on the organization's platform.
With the recent formation of the Department of Homeland Security, the ability to define and influence the emergency services agenda has become paramount.
So what are the key success factors contributing to effective and influential fire service associations and organizations?
What are the reasons for us to exist? This should always be a verb. What do we do and what are the reasons why we do it? Are the reasons compelling enough so that people inside and outside the organization might be willing to spend the extra effort to put its agenda forward? This should not be some platitude that sounds good. It needs to be narrow enough so any one can understand its function. It should be broad enough to achieve its goals. Finally, each member should be able to recite it when awakened in the middle of the night with the question, "what is our organizational mission?" This is so important because it defines how you make decisions and choices. It provides focus and, thereby, saves much time.
This is probably the most important aspect of the effectiveness of an association. Why?
Image and reputation define the organization's positioning. Positioning is a theory, which originally appeared in Advertising Age magazine about 40 years ago. The theory, created by Al Reis and Jack Trout, states that the position an organization, product or service owns is in the mind of the customer. How is your organization positioned in the minds of its members, potential members and alliance partners? How is it positioned among the various groups it is trying to influence? The answers to a series of questions about this issue will give you the basis for the organizational strategy.
- Platform and Agenda
What are the specific objectives the association or organization wants to achieve within a given period? Is it a sprinkler law, a new code, national legislation or are the objectives educational?
- Membership (Audiences, constituents, customers)
What is the makeup of the membership? Are they firefighters or chiefs, engineers or educators? What are the requirements and credentials for membership? The Society of Fire Service Executives (SEFO) is an elite group of graduates from the executive program of the NFA. These are the credentials for membership. SEFO is known among fire service circles as possessing a very high caliber cadre of this country's most progressive fire service officers. These credentials put the organization in a great position to market its agenda and grow.
One of the most professionally directed and influential state chiefs' association is the Florida State Fire Chiefs Association. Larry Scovotto, the recent past Executive Director developed satellite organizations within the larger one. Examples of these professional interest sections include: public information officers (FAPIO), search and rescue (FASAR), fire service instructors (FSFSI), emergency vehicle technicians (FAEVT), Hazmat (FLAHR) and even an honor guard association (FFSHGA). Each of these units has their own area of influence inside the FFCA. There could be a natural progression of influence outside the organization as well because each area of expertise lends itself to expansion, all under the umbrella of Florida State Chiefs. In such a way a state association can leverage its effectiveness well beyond its geography.
There is no question that one of the biggest challenges for most associations is to expand the organization's membership. This becomes a major part of the marketing strategy and, again depends on the mission and reputation of the association. It also goes back to the requirements for membership. Are you making it a Herculean task to join?
A few years ago I was accepted into an international fire service association with very strict requirements for membership. After submitting my resume and accomplishments, my application was reviewed by a committee. After a few months the membership approved my application.
I must admit that in the beginning of this process I was frustrated that I had to work so hard for membership. However, after I was accepted and received my "shingle," pin and monthly periodical, I was very proud of having "made the grade." Regardless, my advice to the association was to review the application process if the goal was to expand the membership faster.