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Thoughts & Observations of the IBMA Board

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Board of DirectorsFirst of all, this is an opinion piece -- not a news story. I've been reading comments through social media, the web, emails sent to me and comments on Cybergrass. There are certainly a lot of upset people and a lot of frustrated people. There are also many members that don't know what their own association is doing. Only a small percentage of members are really active in the IBMA. As one member said, "What is going on? I am a voting member, but do not know anything about the board." Another said, "Apathy is strong within the IBMA." Others have voiced similar thoughts. This indicates many card carrying members just carry the card. IBMA has never been an association to do something for you. It is an organization that members contribute to. For the decade that I was a member, I contributed constantly for various programs, regional rep program, created their first web site, worked on several Bluegrass in the Schools activities, spoke on sessions, mentored others and more. My hands were always involved in something the association was working towards. That is the true nature of IBMA. It really hasn't changed over the years.

If members are joining IBMA to get something out of it, I would first need to ask, "What are your expectations?" "What is it you want or need from the association?" I'm sure I'd get as many answers as people I ask but, I'm sure that very few would say, "I want to contribute to the growth of the association." IBMA has never been an association to provide for the members in concrete or physical terms.

What IBMA does is to provide an image of Bluegrass Music professionalism. That is it. They do this through World of Bluegrass, their awards show and some educational programs. People get decals that they can proudly display on instrument cases and logos that they can display on websites, association newsletters and the like but, they don't get funding, advertising or promotion, publications or anything physical that they can use to enhance their individual success in the music. Unlike the CMA that contributes millions to education and strives to really enhance what they consider country music, the IBMA doesn't really do that -- even on a much smaller scale.

Just a quick note on awards. The IBMA Awards Show is definitely a highlight of the IBMA's activities. The Grand Finale of the World of Bluegrass. Awards are meaningful in that artists, with a mantle covered with awards, can generally charge more for their performances because, the awards conveys a level of recognized and established quality with the artist. An Entertainer of the Year recognition can certainly be used for financial gain. Within a small voting membership, it is not unusual to see the same names getting awards year by year because it is the same people voting year after year. Is the image behind the award real? Probably not. Not everybody who votes has heard every radio station up for a Broadcaster of the Year award. Not everybody voting for the music has hear all the available nominations. The same for other awards. Members are global in scope but many award categories are quite small and in regional size. This pretty much renders the award hollow at best. Some awards are very meaningful and others, not so much.

According to their own charter, the IBMA does not exist to promote Bluegrass Music. It does not define what Bluegrass Music is. According to the association, "IBMA is the trade association that connects and educates bluegrass professionals, empowers the bluegrass community, and encourages worldwide appreciation of Bluegrass Music of yesterday, today and tomorrow." It is an "association" which, by definition, is nothing more than a group of people. In this case, they all have a common interest -- Bluegrass Music. There is nothing about promotion, nothing about providing a service of any kind, nothing about providing resources either. Cutting through the babble-speak, there is nothing that the association does per their own admission. Unfortunately, this is a common misconception throughout much of the membership.

So, then, why are so many upset that they don't get anything out of IBMA? Didn't they read about the association before purchasing a membership? Probably not any more so than they read the End User Licensing Agreement (EULA) for some software they bought? They don't. People join because its "the thing to do." It's cool to flaunt that IBMA logo. Its almost expected to say "ya, I'm one of you IBMA people." For many people, that status alone is worth the membership fee. They are part of an association of professional Bluegrass Music people.

Don't get me wrong, the IBMA does offer some services and some members do benefit from those offerings. These include mail lists, session recordings and such but, overall, these benefits only serve a very small percentage of the overall membership. Does the Lonesome River Band really care about the number and location of bluegrass associations in South Dakota? Probably not.

So, lets get back to the topic at hand. The association has a pretty busy membership out on tour or buying talent for next year's event or whatever. These are busy members. They don't really have the time to contribute to an association built on a foundation of their contribution. For the most part, members probably don't even think about IBMA outside of World of Bluegrass or when their membership dues come due. Lets be honest here. Do you think about how you can contribute to the IBMA at least once every month of the year?

It may not be that the membership is apathetic but, rather, they are too busy and they don't have the time resources to do more. It is a matter of priorities. That's fair and probably an honest assessment. But, that same membership wants more. At least, they want the appearance and perception that they are getting more for their membership dues. Unfortunately, that is not in the IBMA's charter and, that is not what the association does. If they bought a membership expecting more, then, they made a mistake.

This is, unfortunately, a common thought thread within the member comments I have read over the past several years. How can the IBMA address this? They need to give the impression that the membership's concerns are being heard and addressed! That doesn't happen today. Sure, a topic may find its way between the covers of International Bluegrass but, does it ever go any further? Is there ever a measurable return on membership investment? Not really. Many turn to KickStarter when they need additional resources for a project -- not the IBMA. Members get frustrated because their respective special interest doesn't get addressed. With a board of representation that includes their interest, it is no wonder that they expect something more.

This is why a board built upon special interest representation is wrong. It cannot meet its expectations -- especially in an organization that defines nothing of benefit to its membership in the first place. The false sense that representation creates, by its very existence, contributes to generating a level of frustration among its members. A board is nothing more than a group of human beings trying to work together to create the best results for the organization they are charged with directing and protecting.

While simple enough in concept, its composition is different for every organization, company or corporation. The key is working together. A study by the authors of Decide and Deliver: 5 Steps to Breakthrough Performance in Your Organization determined that the optimum size for a decision-making group was seven people and that for each person added above this, the group’s decision making effectiveness was reduced by 10%. Some do well with five and as high as nine but the number seven keeps showing up.

So, what then should a board look like? 5, 7 and worst-case 9 members? While there are organizations with larger number (AMA, Folk Alliance, etc.), that doesn't imply that larger is better. In fact, according to many experts and studies, Fewer is better if you want to get anything done. The IBMA has 19 board members (13 today per the IBMA website). That's too many board members. You can't get anything done that way. Eight of those are for the professional categories of membership -- those special interest categories. Each and every board member needs to be concerned with the entire association and an advocate for every member of the association. No more special interests. And finally, because the association is a business, it is time to start operating it and treating it like one. Board members must all be PR agents and fundraisers for the association. They need to seek sponsorships, grant funding, business and community support, create budgets, design the path to the future with real and achievable milestones, etc. The board is a business board consisting of people who know how to navigate a business through all kinds of economic and market weather.

Non-profits are special. They get tax exempt status because they serve a public interest. Their ethics and standards must be the highest to earn that public trust. Trust is everything and in some organizations, the board members are referred to as "Trustees." For a board to earn the trust of its members, it must maintain high levels of ethics, professionalism and rise above the rest. This board has lost the trust. The members don't trust it. The outsiders don't trust it. After the recent events, many businesses no longer trust it and, due to all the recent resignations, some on the board don't trust it. That is a very serious problem. You can't be a trustee of the association if the trust part is missing.

The executive staff and other staff are the ones who handle the day-to-day activities. They would support sales/marketing, operations, media relations and newsletters, membership drives, World of Bluegrass planning and such. You could easily have staff positions that report to the board and ED for the eight categories but, these positions certainly do not require board level status. The staff would perform the functions that the board directs. The category representatives would give the board input. The board members would be experts hired to direct and drive the business. This would also be a huge step to regaining trust because special interests are not eliminated from the board but would still exist. Board representation would be to the association as a whole -- not a small subgroup of members. All board and executive staff positions would be filled with new faces with their new goal to progress the association as a whole. No more pitting one group against another. No more false perceptions of favoritism. This is the right way to go.

You will note that there is nothing regarding the membership in this board model. The CEO and board of a big corporation are concerned with the health and financial status of the corporation. The same is true with a small business and, yes, non-profit organizations like IBMA. IF the business succeeds, then the stockholders (members) succeed. What would be an awesome concept would be to treat membership certificates as stock certificates. You buy your $100 membership in IBMA and hope to receive a financial dividend at the end of the year.

When the association becomes a real business being run as a business, the association can get down to figuring out what their product is. World of Bluegrass is certainly a big piece but, now, maybe the association can find a way to give a return on investment back to it's membership. If the association can achieve significant sponsorship of their World of Bluegrass and Awards Show, that would leave some revenue to address real membership concerns and maybe take the association into the realm of promoting the music in new ways.

But, nothing will go anywhere with apathy. Nothing will go forward without a forward thinking business leadership. Nothing will change if the problem is just silently swept under the rug waiting for the next reason to rear its ugliness. The membership needs to get involved, vocal and active in the design and formation of their leadership. Trust gets restored, the appearance of favoritism gets eliminated, purpose gets defined, and a return on membership dues gets established. Otherwise, everything will remain the same. The same frustrations. The same concerns. The same false expectations. The same as it has always been.

Its your association. Its your choice.

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