Answer: An association cannot operate in a vacuum. While it may exist for any number of reasons, it cannot maintain itself or grow without a marketing plan.
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, VA, the first volunteer fire departments surely were among the first and best examples of this American phenomenon.
The development of fire service associations has accompanied the growth of the US volunteer and paid fire service. 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, IAFF, CFSI, NVFC, FDSOA, IAAI, IFSTA, SEFO, NAEVT, etc.). This points to the inherent marketing problem. Add to this number over 500 more regional, state and local associations, as well as the growing number of organizational meetings, seminars and conventions. A fire/EMS professional could make a career of just attending national and regional conventions. In fact, within the last two years, most requests for marketing advice has come from associations and organizations attempting to increase their effectiveness through the differentiation of their image: their brand.
Recently, I had the privilege of writing 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."
One 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? What is our function?
Obviously, some organizations do this better than others. We all know the ones that do. 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.
Key Success Factors
So what are the key success factors contributing to effective and influential fire service associations and organizations?
1. Mission. 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.
2. Image. 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 that 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.
3. 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?
4. Constituencies. Which groups is the organization attempting to address with its agenda? Is it firefighters, officers, political leaders or legislators? What marketing mechanisms can best reach these audiences? How does the association carry on a dialogue with these groups?
- Credentials - What is the makeup of the membership? What are the requirements and credentials for membership? The Society of Fire Service Executives (SEFO) is an elite group of graduates from the Executive Fire Officer Program of the National Fire Academy. 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.
- Membership expansion - Does the organization want to include more members? Most do. This goes back to the original discussion about influence. One way to gain influence is to expand the membership. It also strengthens the pool of expertise that can make the influence very effective. One of the most professionally directed and influential statewide organizations is the Florida State Fire Chiefs Association. Larry Scovotto, the executive director, has 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 its 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 Association. In such a way a state association can leverage its effectiveness well beyond its geography.
There is no question that a big challenge for most associations is to expand 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. Is it a Herculean task to join your association? I was recently 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 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 and at least simplify the process if the goal was to expand the membership faster.
- Benefits - What do the members receive? Educational opportunities, influence within the fire service through the reputation of the organization, periodicals, opportunities to attend national conventions, a platform for a member's own agenda?
6. Funding. Always one of the critical aspects of organizational development, this too is dependent on a well-thought-out strategy, well beyond the scope of this column. An organization without funding does not exist for long. What are the funding mechanisms? Membership dues, grants, sponsorships? Effective financial support is really a full-time job.
7. Alliances. This is another subject that deserves a future column. Alliances are a fairly new phenomenon in organizational development and one that can contribute considerable leverage to the association provided there is mutual benefit. In fact, if a sponsorship is approached as an alliance, the results can be significant for both parties. Then one can define a relationship management strategy for the alliance. It is common knowledge that sprinklers could drastically reduce the fire problem in the U.S. and Canada. There are two national associations to further this agenda. What kind of alliances could be formed to add leverage in achieving this goal?
The strength of the associations and organizations that represent the fire and emergency services will determine the effectiveness and the influence of our agendas nationally. The reasons are that an association can leverage the goals of many through one voice. The effectiveness and strength of that voice in an environment cluttered with thousands of messages daily will be determined by intelligent, thoughtful and well-executed marketing plans.
Ben May has over 15 years of experience creating and applying the discipline of marketing management to fire departments and emergency service organizations. He has been a firefighter and fire commissioner, and is a graduate of the Montgomery County, MD, Public Service Training Academy. May has over 25 years of experience in business-to-business marketing and sales in the U.S. and internationally. Currently, his responsibilities include developing new business at Walt Disney World's Epcot. May was fire commissioner in Woodinville, WA, from 1994 to 1998. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Oklahoma with a bachelor of arts degree in public affairs and received his master of arts degree in international communication from the American University. May is a member of the Society of Executive Fire Officers, a trustee of the Education Foundation of the Florida Fire Chiefs Association and a board member of the Tampa Firefighter's Museum. He welcomes your feedback on the column and he may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.