Hunting for Engagement – What Conservation Groups Can Teach Associations

This last weekend, I finally found time to catch up on my reading. You know, perusing the stack of mags next to your chair. The stuff we say we’ll read but never seem to find an opportunity.

Sitting contentedly in the sun coming through my living room window, I had an epiphany.

I’d been engrossed in a magazine I was reading. I’d read stories about the history of the organization. I’d read stories about member successes. I’d even read an in-depth article linking the science of their Mission to their advocacy agenda in DC.

The organization? Pheasants Forever (PF).

Pheasants Forever is a conservation organization. Founded in 1982 by a group of pheasant hunters that “saw the connection between upland habitat loss and declining pheasant populations”.

Today, according to their website, they have 130,000 members in forty states. The have approximately 750 local chapters.

Too often we look to our peers in the association sector for advice on engagement. We watch the same professional and trade associations doing the same things they’ve always done. We wonder why doing the same thing over and over in the same way doesn’t work. #duh

Everyone, from churches and social service organizations to associations are attempting to figure out how to engage members.

Conservation organizations like Pheasants Forever have all the same problems as professional and trade associations.

  • How do they engage younger members?
  • How do they get volunteers?
  • How do they get congress or the states to address our concerns?
  • Where do they find the revenue to support all the things they want to work on?

So, I re-read Pheasants Forever, the Journal of Upland Conservation, with a more critical eye. Here is what they did to capture me.

The Mission isn’t a word cloud, it’s an outcome.

PF focuses on healthy habitat for pheasants. Everything they do is measured by whether or not there is more or less habitat for pheasants. They measure (in acres) how habitat is lost or gained.

In addition, almost every article in their magazine linked to the Mission. They link advocacy and volunteer efforts to whether habitat is lost or gained. From the smallest tidbit to the most in-depth article, the focus is on habitat lost or gained.

The Mission isn’t about what hunters want to do, hunt pheasants, it’s about what is needed to make hunting possible – healthy habitat.

Can you say the same about your organization?

A modern association should be able to articulate clearly and concisely how the world will be a better place if they are successful (Vision) and what their role is in making it a better place (Mission).

They don’t dumb it down for members.

A common assumption behind much of association communication is how to write “key takeaways,” “top ten whatnots”, etc. The focus seems to be on how little information we can provide to people we know care deeply about the topic.

In the edition of their magazine I was reading, they introduced part 2 of a 3-part series titled, “Brightest Sunlight to Darkest Soil: How grassland wildlife habitat is part of the climate challenge solution.”

Sounds fun right? Well, it was.

This is a meaty, in-depth examination of science and policy. It takes an objective, evidence-based approach to how healthy habitat (see Point 1) has underlying benefits outside of simply providing for more pheasants to hunt. They didn’t assume I was too busy to devote time to it or  too stupid to understand it.

In addition, the magazine is filled with several, multi-page stories of individual PF chapters pursuing successful state policy changes or local conservation efforts. Who they worked with. How they did it. What worked. What didn’t. What remains to be done.

It wasn’t simply cheerleading; it was a sharing of chapter best practices.

Associations have a known, interested audience. They don’t want less of the topic, they want more. Why not give it to them?

People are celebrated.

Throughout the magazine, the article selection, headlines, and tone are member centric.

They highlight member mentoring. They highlight members engaging young people into the organization. They highlight members partnering with other members across chapters. They highlight legacy gifts of members. They highlight contributions by member leaders.

Etc., etc., etc.

The PF magazine is filled with pictures of people, not graphs. People engaging new audiences. People meeting with policy makers. People celebrating at the fundraising event or chapter meetings.

As Charlton Heston might say, “It’s people, people!!!.”

Too many associations believe they are the reason for existence. If you want to engage people, make your organization about them, not you.

Content is compelling.

The magazine is 4-color, high production value. The articles are well written by subject matter experts. When discussing complex topics, they introduce research or scientific information in plain English not jargon.

They make it easy to consume their information. They assume you are not an idiot.

They aren’t having bots skim the internet for “relevant” content, they have people who give a shit about the Mission and actively participate in the association and in conservation write the articles.

The following is one of the author descriptions.

“Greg Breining wanders pheasant country with his English field-bred cocker Rosco each fall, looking for roosters on the pheasant-friendly fringes of farmland.”

Greg sounds like he actually cares about what the association is doing doesn’t he?

In addition, they fill in the pieces of the content puzzle.

Every profession and industry have some secondary or tertiary issues. They are not main events but side gigs.

In PF, they have articles on hunting dogs, cooking, and wildlife art. While not critical to the Mission of habitat, they make the content more diverse – providing a range of things to read about and learn. They understand they serve an incredibly diverse audience and create custom content to address what they know are a range of interests.

Creating compelling content requires an investment in research, subject matter expertise and quality writing and production. Compelling content also requires a commitment over time. You can’t go back.

Advertisers, sponsors, and industry suppliers are celebrated as partners.

Like any organization, PF needs money. They have an extensive list of companies that contribute in a variety of fairly recognizable ways. They have sponsors. They have advertisers. They have in-kind contributions.

You know what they do differently? Treat all of them and communicate about them as partners in the Mission. They aren’t a “necessary evil”. They aren’t simply a funding source.

Leadership and members embrace advertisers, sponsors, and other contributors as equal participants who also want to  achieve the Mission.

Very few associations command their profession or industry. There are other people and organizations that also contribute, often substantially.

The participants in this broader ecosystem think they are your equal, not subordinate. In addition, the more substantial these people or companies the less they need you. They have their own resources. Their own audience.

Most associations would benefit from a dose of humility when engaging the commercial participants in their industry or profession.

Partners matter.

Too many associations look at partnerships as “how much can I get and how little can I give”. Association Laboratory has worked with partners that weren’t interested in our success, just how big a check we could write.

PF doesn’t just have partners, it celebrates them.

Policy leaders are recognized as critical to the Mission. Commercial organizations are discussed in terms of Mission-impact, as shared participants.

Relevant associations, for example Quail Forever, with a similar and complimentary Mission are sought out. Upon realizing that PF and Quail Forever were working for similar things (habitat) and that good quail habitat and good pheasant habitat were the same or complimentary they joined forces.

Too often, associations look at partnerships as a means to their own end. You need to consider how the whole of your partnership puzzle is greater than the sum of its parts.

Call to action.

Throughout the magazine are sidebars. They tell readers how to volunteer or work with the association or one of the chapters. They tell readers how to contribute. They tell readers how to work with policy makers. They tell readers how to make contributions to improving habitat on their own with, for example, a food plot on your farm.

No opportunity is lost to advise folks how they can make a difference.

How frequently and authentically does your association connect people to channels allowing them to contribute to the Mission as opposed to do work for the association?

Legacy matters.

In every issue of PF, and in other conservation magazines I’ve read, the history of the sport and the legacy of people who have come before is remembered. This connects new members to more senior members. It links the evolution of past efforts and successes to current priorities.

Respecting legacy isn’t about governance or giving awards, it’s about connecting the dots from where you were to where you are and where you are going. It’s easier to volunteer as a younger member when you know you won’t be forgotten.

Dealing with controversial issues.

There are a variety of controversial issues relevant to PF. They include, but are not limited to, the following.

  • Hunting and the ethics of Fair Chase
  • Access to and use of firearms
  • Firearm safety
  • Urban – rural issues
  • Private vs. public land access
  • DEI issues
  • Hunter behavior

They don’t shy away from these issues. Instead, they act as a platform for education and discussion. They don’t sermonize or lecture their members.

Where there is a case for change, they make it while acknowledging the issues are complicated. Their tone is calm, not strident and accusatory.

They don’t crap on their history because the world was a different place 30 years ago.

People are not alienated.

Too many associations think they are the “know-it-all big brother,” the voice on high that will now sociation-splain what’s right and wrong to everyone.

Please don’t be that association.

In summary.

Conservation groups like Pheasants Forever can teach associations outstanding lessons. I encourage all of you to skim some of these groups, maybe give some money or volunteer to actually help improve the environment instead of making some DC lawyer rich.

Here are a couple of groups to check out.

Pheasants Forever

Quail Forever

Ruffed Grouse Society/American Woodcock Society

National Wild Turkey Foundation

There are of course many more.

Just some thoughts from my seat at the bar.