Associations and Affiliations: Re-energising the Academy
This post is motivated by my experiences over the last few days with two academic membership associations I’m affiliated with. Both experiences were generally positive, but I was left thinking that they could have been so much better had we been able to introduce some new thinking into the way they engage their members (or affiliates). The first experience I want to share with you was my (long) trip to London last week to attend a Leisure Studies Association Executive Committee meeting. I was elected to the Executive Committee last year and had, until last Wednesday, made a less meaningful contribution to the activities of the LSA than I would have wished. The LSA has been in existence since 1975 and is an established learned association for the study of all things non-work (sport, entertainment, tourism, media etc). I presented my first conference paper at the LSA annual conference and have always felt that the Association provided a welcome community of critical scholars addressing an area of study previously deemed frivolous by many. The LSA has played a significant role in legitimating the serious study of leisure and, for that reason it is held in high regard by many. However, as with a number of other academic associations, threats to the ongoing sustainability are increasing. These threats, some internal, some external, can be summarised as:
- A growing specialisation within the study of leisure which has led to new associations and a movement away from the more ‘general’ interests represented by the LSA
- An internal uncertainly over the purpose and role of the LSA in light of the emergence of new associations and the decline in named academic awards in ‘Leisure Studies’ (there are very few of these now in existence in the UK)
- New networks formed around common interests and operating through the use of contemporary communication techniques (e.g. digital marketing)
At Thursday’s meeting I was to speak on the potential use of social media as a means of re-energising the ‘message’ that the LSA had to communicate to existing members and new recruits. I argued that the LSA (like other associations of its type) need to be clear on the ‘offer’ it makes to members – what members gain from signing up annually (in tangible and symbolic terms). Moreover, it needs to be proactive in getting that message out to the wider audience of leisure-related scholars and other governmental and non-governmental stakeholders. I was duly volunteered to work on the LSA’s digital media strategy – taking the excellent content produced by its members (in terms of publications, public roles and excellent conferences) and turning this into positive messages to attract the attention of the wider world. The LSA already has a presence on some social media channels (Facebook and Twitter), but we need to develop a more coherent strategy whereby being a member of the LSA also carries with it a responsibility to participate in the promotion of its activities, on the basis that the LSA will also work to promote the work of its members and shape the debate around the importance of leisure provision for the economy, policy, consumption and inclusion. Crucially, we need to encourage members to be more than ‘affiliated’ to the LSA – we need active members, proselytising about the Association and its activities.
My other experience, which links to the theme of Associations and Affiliations is the Association for Event Management Education (AEME) which is a member-based association for HEIs and FE colleges delivering event management education. This is a younger organisation than the LSA but it faces some of the same challenges. Since its establishment, AEME has successfully signed up most of the UK HEIs delivering event management or related programmes of study (over 40 institutions), but I wonder whether this early success indicates an active group of innovators wanting to shape the future of the sector or a group of institutions wanting to ensure they are part of the club so as not to be left behind. There is a difference here. With finances tightening across the UK HE sector, resource managers will increasingly question the added value accrued from institutional membership and it is up to our academic associations to communicate this to members. And communication is the key word. Whilst others race ahead in their use of the web, social media and other digital marketing strategies to strengthen affiliations with their customers, I would argue strongly that the academic community needs to wake up and embrace the world of new new media (Levinson 2009) if they are to be sustainable within an increasingly crowded market. As Digital Media Strategist for the LSA, I need to walk the talk too!