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Image shows head and shoulders photograph of John O'Brien, Chief Operating Officer, of CRM consultancy Hart Square, speaking at TechSmart NFP 2017

Getting to grips with membership and charitable matters: a chat with John O’Brien, Chief Operating Officer, Hart Square

Industry veteran John O’Brien, takes up the role of COO at Hart Square on 1st May 2018. Many Hart Square clients will already know him well as the chair of TechSmart NFP. Find out what makes him tick, and why he chose to jump ship after two decades spent working within the association and charity sector to work in the consulting and advisory world.

Please tell us a little about your background

I’ve been working charities, trade associations and professional bodies for more than 20 years, 13 of those years working at director level. I’ve worked in multiple sectors including accountancy, law, health, retail, project management and education, and I’ve also led a range of functions such as membership, marketing, events, publishing, digital, commercial partnerships, HR, finance, company secretary, governance, facilities and service desks. You name it, I’ve probably done it.

During your many years working in the non-profit sector, what has been the biggest change?

Technological change, no doubt. The ability to tailor communications and make member/donor offers more personalised has made a huge difference to running any organisation. Interacting with people through their mobile phones has revolutionised member engagement. And the innovation just keeps on coming.

What has your focus on membership at the British Retail Consortium (BRC), Axelos and the Law Society taught you? What is your golden rule for recruitment, engagement, retention etc.?

The golden rule is: keep it simple and don’t overcomplicate the membership offer. If you can’t articulate the proposal to the members in two minutes, then it’s not the right offer.

  • It’s not rocket science, but membership organisations need to provide – and be recognised for doing – what their members actually want. NHS Confederation did a great job of explaining its essential role in driving the NHS as a whole, that’s how we grew the membership from 87% to 99% of the sector.
  • Mission statements always focus the mind. So at NHS Providers, we had a really simple rule, “members said; we did”, which worked really well.
  • People must understand what you do and who you do it for or they’re never going to sign up. At AXELOS, the membership offer wasn’t clear, so we simplified the value proposition to offer three core elements: “helps you pass your exams; helps you plan your career; helps you do your job”. Then people got it.

What would you say are the biggest challenges for not-for-profit organisations in 2018 and beyond?

Money is tight. This makes recruitment and retention of members or funders difficult. Justifiably, people expect more from their investments – if they don’t see clear benefits, members will cancel their membership or donors will cancel their direct debit.

The knock-on effect is consolidation and merger. You can see evidence of this in the membership arena, housing associations and so on. This reduces costs, creates economies of scale and for those organisations engaged in lobbying government, it makes their voice that much louder – it is easier to be heard when an entire profession or sector speaks with a single voice.

On a scale of one to 10, how far would you say the non-profit sector has come on its digital transformation journey?

Definitely a six. Most organisations are making good progress. There’s a broad awareness of the importance of digital technologies and the need to embrace them. There’s recognition of what technology will deliver, but the majority of not-for-profits are only part of the way to implementing those changes.

There is just so much more that digital technologies will deliver. For example, artificial intelligence and machine learning are going to have a huge impact on the sector. In particular, this will transform the way that members, donors and so on interact with organisations, including the way they are served with the correct and personalised services, offers and information through intuitive, user-friendly interfaces.

Which organisations do you particularly respect in terms of their use of digital technologies for member recruitment, management, engagement and retention?

Econsultancy is slick, they practice what they preach. It’s somewhere I go for ideas and to see what they are doing.

Why, after all these years working within organisations, are you now moving into the consultancy side of the business?

Projects: wherever I have been, I’ve really liked working on projects, particularly challenging ones. Hart Square will give me the opportunity to work with an array of different charities, associations and membership bodies as a project sponsor.

I welcome the opportunity to share my experience and insights with a wider range of organisations. Over the last few years, I become a bit of a “fixer”, helping to launch new organisations and events; restructuring organisations; redesigning membership schemes and their value propositions. Hart Square will give me the opportunity to do lots of this for clients, while looking after two of the biggest events in the sector.

What will your role be at Hart Square?

I will be joining as Chief Operating Officer, responsible for several business streams including:

  • The management of the Hart Square consultancy practice, so we continue to offer the best service to our clients and keep attracting great talent.
  • Acting as project sponsor to work with our consulting clients, providing them with support and quality assurance.
  • Overseeing Hart Square’s expanding digital presence, thought-leading newsletters and websites, including Association News.
  • The blossoming events programme, including CHASE25, TechSmart NFP, breakfast briefings and webinars, and building strategic partnership across the brands.

How do you see Chase25 and TechSmart NFP conferences growing and evolving under your watch?

I love events and have worked on hundreds over the last few years. But I have a soft spot for TechSmart, having been part of it since the beginning, as the inaugural chair. It has been gratifying to see it grow into the must-attend event for all things digital in the not-for-profit world. I look forward to working with the team on the challenge of making 2018 TechSmart even better.

CHASE25, in July, is going to be amazing. I am really excited to be relaunching this iconic event, with such an excellent coalition of organisers and a real buzz from the not-for-profit sector. It will be a fitting tribute to Michael Webb, who ran Chase for 24 years.

With 20 years working in charities, membership bodies and trade associations, I’m very picky about what events I attend. Under my watch, TechSmart and CHASE25 will remain the top events in my calendar.