by Jeb Banner of Boardable
Whether your association is committed to workforce development, upholding professionalism in your industry, or providing opportunities for young professionals entering the workforce, education should be a part of your mission. Plus, offering members learning opportunities can help boost your association’s revenue.
Of course, before you can grow your learning business, you’ll need to get buy-in from your board to obtain the necessary resources. As with most initiatives, this requires presenting the potential benefits of your learning business, discussing potential resource allocation and use, and being prepared to implement feedback.
To help you prepare to present your learning business expansion project to your board, this guide will explore three keys to having productive and persuasive conversations with your board about your learning business. Here’s what we’ll cover:
- Express market demand for education opportunities.
- Establish urgency in building your learning business.
- Be prepared for pushback against costs.
Your board has many proposals and activities to focus on, which means that your learning business might not always be at the top of their agenda, but getting buy-in should never be adversarial in nature. After all, your education development team and board fundamentally want the same thing: to invest in projects and initiatives that will benefit your association.
With this in mind, let’s start exploring how you can work with your board to launch your learning business.
Express market demand for education opportunities.
Your learning business will only be a success if there is a market for it. This means you’ll need to demonstrate that there is a demand among your members for education courses at your association. Conduct research among your members and within your industry as a whole to discover if there is an interest in learning opportunities. Then, present your findings to your board as evidence of industry need.
Take into account the demographics that make up your membership when choosing who to include in your research. For example, if your association caters primarily to young professionals, it won’t make sense to survey experienced industry leaders.
Your research should be extended to include both non-members and members to get a fuller picture of the state of your industry. As recommended in Regpack’s guide to selling online courses, reach out to other industry professionals who engage with your target audience to seek their advice early on. If they also agree to promote your educational opportunities, seeking their advice and support will help you later down the line when you are marketing your course to your members and your industry at large (potentially helping you attract new members to your association).
Once you’ve determined your primary research group, you can investigate which skills are needed currently and will likely be in demand in the future. Then, devise learning offerings that help meet those needs and express to your board how your learning business will fill the demonstrated gaps in your research.
Here are just a few ways you can go about collecting information to determine demand:
- Survey members/businesses.
Your members will likely make up your core market, but other businesses in your industry can also provide key insight into what is currently in demand or starting to garner increased interest.
- Research similar associations.
Other associations in your industry are likely trying to make the same decisions you are about expanding their educational offerings. If associations similar to yours are offering courses and finding success, chances are that courses are in high demand—although that also means you’ll have competition when you launch your learning business and will need to differentiate your offerings.
- Conduct focus groups.
Focus groups can be used to collect direct feedback about your potential learning business. Create a list of specific questions to get targeted responses about your industry and your association, and see what reactions people have to your association potentially offering a new learning business.
Keep in mind there are many ways to go beyond these approaches to help you truly validate the market for your online courses. Using a range of methods will help ensure that you arrive at as objective an understanding of the market as possible.
You can collect research and present it to your board in a variety of ways, including via testimonials and statistics. Remember that the learning opportunities that your members currently express interest in might fluctuate based on what is perceived as a valuable skill at that moment in time, and your research should help you spot these trends as they emerge.
Establish urgency in building your learning business.
When making your case for your learning business, draw attention to not just why your association needs to offer learning opportunities but why you need to do so right now. Your board may hesitate to devote resources or make budgeting decisions unless you establish a sense of urgency and get their buy-in quickly.
How you’re able to instill a sense of urgency in your board members will vary based on your situation. Here a few common factors that often lead to faster decision-making and quick buy-in:
- A competitive association is offering similar opportunities.
Staying competitive with other associations is key for retaining members and asserting your influence in your industry. If you catch wind that another association is about to launch new courses, your board will likely be inclined to make a decision quickly about whether or not you should do the same to get ahead of the competition.
- Member engagement is down.
Engaging your members long-term can be difficult, especially in recent years with limitations on in-person events and gatherings. If you have low member engagement, you can present your e-learning courses as a powerful way to engage members while other events are on hold.
- Member retention is down.
Retention is directly related to engagement, but it can be an even stronger metric to motivate your board members to act if you can connect it to your learning business. For example, if you notice you’re losing members to other associations with learning programs, you can make a strong case for launching your offerings as soon as possible.
Before presenting these factors, consider how you will discuss your overall membership and place in the industry. You may need to remind your board that competition for member interest and loyalty is fierce, and your association needs to stay ahead of others and offer more value to retain members’ attention.
Be prepared for pushback against costs.
Learning businesses are an investment of time and resources, and your association will see costs rack up long before you’re ready to present your educational offerings to members. Your board is responsible for making important decisions about your association’s finances, so they may hesitate to approve your learning business without questioning the costs.
When you present your learning business to your board, show them the exact costs where necessary for fixed expenses, such as your learning management system and hiring expenses for guest speakers. Then, justify these costs by building the case for investment and highlighting how they will pay for themselves in the long run.
To help board members envision how your association will make a profit through your learning business, provide potential price models, and discuss how the program’s projected revenue will outweigh costs. You can determine your prices in a variety of ways:
- Basing it off costs
The most straightforward way to determine prices is to tally up your expenses and set a price that will cover costs and earn a profit. While many—maybe most—organizations take this approach, its primary downside is that it may not account for the true value of your offering in the eyes of your prospective buyers and may result in leaving money on the table.
- Positioning against competitors
As mentioned, part of the reason why you’re launching your learning business is to stay competitive with similar associations and other learning providers in your market. While it may be tempting to simply match the pricing of your major competitors, it is usually more effective to leverage pricing as part of your differentiation in the marketplace. Definitely be aware of how competitors are pricing, but then analyze your own offerings for ways in which you may be able to clearly add—or, possibly, subtract—value in a way that justifies pricing that is somewhat different from the competitors.
- Using member feedback
During your market research, you can ask your members how much they would be willing to pay for educational courses. Keep in mind that asking directly about price—i.e., “How much would you be willing to pay for X?”—rarely results in reliable answers, but there are less direct methods, like the Van Westendorp Price Sensitivity Meter, that can yield more reliable data. Used effectively, this approach can help you in identifying areas of value that enable you to charge more and differentiate from your competition.
- Basing it off value
Pricing your courses in a way that reflects their perceived value is the ideal approach. Feedback from members and solid knowledge of competitive offerings are essential for identifying value signals that can be used as levers for bolstering your pricing. These signals should be used in combination with an understanding of the ultimate outcomes your education offers. It’s a subtle but powerful shift that can give you much more control and flexibility over pricing your education products.
When you make a case for why the costs are worth it, keep in mind what your board members’ goals are. Boardable’s guide to board member responsibilities specifically highlights a board treasurer’s responsibilities of managing their organization’s finances and allocating expenses. As the board officer who is explicitly concerned with program costs, your treasurer will be a key person to get buy-in from to persuade the rest of your board.
Your learning business needs board buy-in to obtain the resources and support it needs to find success. Half-hearted or delayed investment will subsequently lead to less than promising results, making full board buy-in a necessity.
When everything is said and done, you should present your board members with everything they need to know about your research, the timing of your project, and the answers to any specific questions that came up during your presentation. Then, when your board votes, they’ll more than likely decide in favor of building out your association’s learning business.
About the Author
Jeb Banner is the founder and CEO of Boardable, a board management software provider for mission-driven boards. He is also the founder of two nonprofits, The Speak Easy and Musical Family Tree, as well as a board member of United Way of Central Indiana and ProAct. Jeb is based in Indianapolis, Indiana.