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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.