Back from the Brink: The STC Recovery Plan

STC’s volunteer leadership has been working to develop a recovery and regeneration plan for the Society. As we announced at the Summit in Atlanta in May, STC is experiencing an unprecedented challenge to its financial health in the form of a projected shortfall that could reach as high as $1.2 million. This will continue into 2010 unless we take decisive action right now.  The regeneration plan, which will include many of the great ideas suggested by scores of chapter leaders and members through our various communication channels, will be announced as promised by the end of August.

As I have previously mentioned, the shortfall is primarily due to the negative impact the recession has had on our two main sources of revenue—membership dues and the annual conference. But going forward, we have to solve a problem bigger than the recession. For years STC has been adding and expanding services and activities to benefit members and the profession without taking a hard look at how to sustain those activities. And with only periodic, modest increases in fees, the costs to sustain those services and activities have outpaced our dues and total revenue such that the Society has actually been subsidizing these activities.

STC spends, on average, just under $250 USD to provide services to a member, yet dues rates are well below that amount. We have been relying on the revenue generated by the annual conference and our earnings from invested reserves to cover the difference. Obviously, this is not a good business model to follow and changes are needed.

A few weeks ago, I posted information on the website that fully describes the efforts taken by staff and leadership to cut hundreds of thousands of dollars in expenses during the last half of 2008 and throughout 2009. Almost $1 million in expenses have been cut since June 2008. That’s well beyond “trimming the fat”—those kinds of cuts go into the bone.

As part of our recovery plan, I have asked:

  • The Board and staff to start from scratch to build a zero-based 2010 budget that is realistic, sustainable, and includes only those benefits and programs that we can afford during this economic downturn. That budget will include a dues increase.
  • Chapters to develop a zero-based draft budget for 2010 by 17 August that assumes a 60 percent renewal rate and no funding from STC headquarters for one year. (The SIGs already use a zero-based budgeting method and will continue to do so.)
  • Chapters to review what monies they have in their bank accounts, determine what funds are needed to conduct programs for the remainder of 2009 and 2010 activities, and return (reallocate) their surplus funds to the Society to help cover operating costs through the end of 2009. (Note, the reallocation of surplus funds to the Society is a one-time activity; this is not a new business practice. Zero-based budgeting for chapters, however, is a new business practice that will be sustained going forward.)

I realize these decisions will not be popular; nor will the reductions in programs or staff be. However, these actions are imperative to get through this difficult economic climate and to avoid bankruptcy, which is much closer than many of you may be thinking. It’s a difficult time for everyone and many of us feel our commitment to STC being tested by the challenges before us.

If we pull together and follow the plan, STC will emerge from this economic downturn a very different STC than that of the past; leaner by necessity, more efficiently organized, more focused on up-to-date service delivery, and ready to move into the future as a financially stable organization less prone to economic impact.

The Board and office staff have continued to look for cost-saving opportunities. Now it is essential that we turn our attention to increasing revenue. Dues and activity fees will increase to cover costs as part of a sustainable business model. Some of the membership benefits will take a different form, but the basic value that inspires people to join the Society will remain and grow as we recover, redefine, and regenerate.

Thank you for being part of this great organization during these turbulent times, and for your trust in and support of the leadership team as they work to ensure the future organization is viable, sustainable, and relevant.

0 Replies to “Back from the Brink: The STC Recovery Plan”

  1. I’m wondering what “services and activities to benefit members” are worth raising our membership fees? I am a member of other organizations with more benefits that charge less. I have been a member of the STC for as long as I’ve been a technical writer (10 years). I don’t want to see the organization falter, it’s where I got my start, but if the membership fee goes up, I won’t be able to rejoin next year. Lots of redesign needs to occur long before membership fees are increased.

  2. Stepping back from Stephanie’s comment (although I am interesting in the answer to her question too), I am wondering how the STC spends their $250 on me. I receive the magazines via PDF, I rarely attend a chapter meeting, and only belong to one SIG’s online list. Those are the benefits I am now using through the STC. Not sure how that manages to total $250. I agree with Stephanie, I’d like raising dues (again) to be the very last solution.

    Senior Member since 1993

  3. Sell advertising specialties with the STC logo…shirts, mugs, posters, etc. You would be surprised at how much money that generates. Luckily, there are firms out there who will do the yeoman’s work for you if you sign an agreement. Give STC and the economy a boost.

  4. STC’s VISION & MISSION – a matter of ‘bone and fat’
    ___________________________________________________________________________________

    I agree entirely with Helen, Stephanie. Bruce and Daniel. If raising fees leads to drop in memberships, the measure would be counter-productive. It could amputate the ‘bone’ and STC could well limp ahead to becoming an elite club. (I am sure STC realises that the downturn has affected its members too.)

    I have always felt that even the earlier fee structure was a bit high for several technical communicators, especially in developing economies. The STC should explore other innovative revenue generating initiatives like increased advertising, and allied chargeable services like online job postings. educational loans, etc. All this should lead to significantly lowering (not raising) even earlier fee structures.

    I would like to share a relevant innovation from the large IT company, where I head Technical Communication. For years, we used to print-produce and circulate our in-house magazine to more than 100,000 employees, at company cost. With the publication going all-colour and size increasing to more than 40 pages, the cost was significant. We then did the ‘unthinkable’. We sold advertising space to select leaders in banking, housing, fashion, electronic gadgets, etc. These firms delightedly grabbed the opportunity, as they were assured of reaching a sizeable target audience! The only ‘trimming of fat without getting to the bone’ that we did was to cut down print circulation by offering a downloadable pdf version of the magazine… but that was just to save trees.

    Maybe, until good times return for all, some of STC’s expense-heavy events can be done away with or further scaled down. (I hope that no cent from my subscription goes towards even a banner at conferences that I cannot afford to attend!) I am still trying to digest STC’s past offer of recordings of conference proceeding at almost the same rate as registration!

    The STC is a great institution. We need it. But it’s vision and mission must be to first ‘affordably reach’ almost every technical communicator on this planet. This should be STC’s ‘bone’ of existence. Anything that comes in the way is ‘fat’.

  5. I think we have to be careful, to paraphrase a conflict some of us are old enough to remember, not to kill STC in order to save it. I think raising dues at this point to the level that the society spends per member would result in a dramatic drop in membership.

    With so many of our colleagues unemployed, or not getting membership reimbursed by an employer any longer, a bump from $185 to perhaps $250 would be the last straw for some of us. I don’t doubt that it costs the society that much, but if a member or prospective member doesn’t believe that they get their money’s worth in value it’s a hard sell.

    I say this as a member of over 20 years. I have been active in my chapter and feel that I personally have gotten a lot out of my membership. A trend I see in my chapter that is very concerning is the aging of the members. A lot of 40-60-somethings and a sprinkling of 20-30-somethings. In the not too distant future many of the older members will be retired. We need to be working hard to recruit the next generation of technical communicators as members, or STC may not survive even with dues twice as high.

    So there’s a potential dilemma: higher dues for fewer members, or lower dues for more members? How can we get the society cost per member down?

    I also would like budget transparency; publish this year’s and next year’s detailed budget on the STC web site, and invite commentary, like this blog (great idea by the way). The membership may come up with some great money-saving or revenue generating ideas, like the ones already proposed in the comments on this blog.

    Lastly, let me say I am heartened by the hard work by the current STC leadership to remake the society. This is the biggest attempt at change that I think I’ve seen in all my years as a member, and it’s probably long overdue.

  6. Chapters need franchise-like support from the national organization. We need support for advertising and building memberships (at the national and chapter level), a national job board that pull in all the local job boards, assistance locating reasonably priced speakers, branded website templates, and guidelines that support a professional non-profit organization.

    I would like to see a roll-out of a national advertising campaign that includes personilization for local chapters. This should include web, print (press feleases, newspaper, and magazine ads), radio, and broadcast advertising.

    The national organization should provide guidance and a theme for membership drives that can be brought to the local level on a yearly basis. A yearly membership drive spearheaded at the national level that includes communication with technical communication/documentation departments in business and universities at the local levels can utilize a coupon incentive with an invitation for membership events.

    The national organization can promote an outreach program into local schools to support and enlighten teachers and students on technical communication careers that is carried out at the local level. For example, a lot of schools are involved in robotics type competitions starting in middle school. These competitions could include a technical writing component that is judged by local STC chapters and mentored by local chapter members. Great exposure for the age group and the organization. The national organization could work with the national competition sponsors to include the documentation component in the compatition deliverables.

    As an organization we need to get out of a whining and blaming attitude and do what is necessary to drive growth. Increasing fees at the expense of losing membership seems like it will do more harm than good. Increasing value and involvement at the local level seems to be the key.

  7. As a mid-20s technical communicator (with a master’s in tech comm), I have only been working in the industry for about 2 years, and I love it. I have been a member of STC since grad school, but the lack of communication between our national leaders and the membership is appalling. Brett is on to something with his commentary. My generation will not tolerate, much less financially support, the lack of transparency this organization offers.

    The fact that our great organization could be on the brink of bankruptcy and the membership only find out at the very last minute (and even then, only as a means to get ideas on how to recoup lost money) speaks volumes to what is going on with our organization.

    I will be honest. Whether or not dues go up next year or not, I will not renew my membership until the leadership is replaced with more competent individuals. It’s unfortunate really because my local STC chapter has been extremely helpful to me in my young professional life. They helped me land a near-management tech comm position at 24, making more money than I ever envisioned coming straight out of grad school. I’d love to give back monetarily to the organization that helped me, but I can no longer justifying paying money to an organization whose national leadership is so disconnected from the local chapters that they cannot offer common-sense budgets that are in line with their own revenues.

    Asking people to pay more because you are unable to rein in spending is a bit frivolous because this whole fiasco is bound to happen again if the current business model is not changed. We can’t just raise dues every time there’s a downturn in the economy.

  8. > STC spends, on average, just under $250 USD to provide services to a member…

    That’s only half the number, and it is being used to scare us. STC spends a certain amount of money on member services. You can divide that by the number of members to see the cost to service each member.
    But if you add many more members, then the cost to serve each one goes down. $250US is the break even rate this year with our current number of members. What is the break-even number of members at the current dues rates? That is, how many more members would need to join in order to keep the dues rate steady? How many members would we need to get the dues rate down to $150, or $99?
    More than one person has proposed a strong membership drive to increase our numbers. A membership drive that starts tomorrow would be pretty inexpensive at current rates, prorated for 3/12 of the year. And if membership were pushed as a means to find work, we might see a lot of people join for what would be essentially a three-month trial period.

  9. Lee, why are you not renewing, why even care about national STC leadership, when your local chapter has been great: local STC chapter has been extremely helpful to me in my young professional life”? Renew because you are getting great value, more than $180 or $250 I’d say: “[my local chapter] helped me land a near-management tech comm position at 24, making more money than I ever envisioned coming straight out of grad school.”

    John, I strongly suspect national doesn’t have the funds to run such a campaign even if the longer-term payoffs are worthwhile. I am a little disappointed that national is raiding the local chapters for funds, funds that those chapters have built up over the years through fiscal prudence. I don’t see a different way, however, other than to devolve into a loosly-knit network of independent organizations (which is sounding better and better).

    Cheers,

    Sean

  10. Sean,

    I’m not renewing because it’s cheaper for me to just go to local meetings and pay the per meeting fee than to give my money to a national organization who is incapable of creating a balanced budget.

  11. I agree that raising membership dues may decrease actual membership. It would be part of the Laws of the Fifth Discipline – “The cure can be worse than the disease.”
    I think Virginia was right on when she spoke of promoting programs in schools. I think the Membership committee could discuss the benefits and opportunities of STC at the college level as well. I am currently a grad student and did not hear of STC until a few years ago. Knowing there are technical communicator groups available for membership or even attendance to a meeting or two could pull in many college students seeking direction or networking. Various colleges could benefit. I am seeking my Masters of Business Leadership; however, Technical and Business Colleges of all sorts could benefit from membership – we simply need to drive home the benefits and make them easily accessible and worthwhile.

  12. Lee,

    So, theoretically, because you are receiving good value from your local chapter, if you had to join national to attend the local meetings, you would pay the $180-$250?

    Insofar as the local chapter gets support from the national organization, and that you are receiving worthwhile benes, I would have thought you the poster-boy for someone who would renew.

    Curiously yours,

    Sean

  13. I can’t speak for Lee, but if I had to spend $250 to go to the local meetings, I’d not go to them either. His point was that the benefit he gets from the local meetings is worth their cost, but the same cannot be said of membership in the national organization.
    As for myself, as long as my employer is willing to pay for my membership, then I am willing to have them give money to keep STC going. But I do not plan to take on the fight of explaining why it is worth a 40% increase when everyone else is trimming their budgets.
    As of now, I do not plan to renew my membership for next year. I have asked legitimate questions that have not been answered. If you ask for my input, then you have to hold up your part of the dialog.

  14. I wouldn’t speak for Lee in this instance. Remember:

    Lee said: “[his] local STC chapter has been extremely helpful to me in my young professional life” and “[his STC local chapter] helped me land a near-management tech comm position at 24, making more money than I ever envisioned coming straight out of grad school.”

    From my perspective, he’s getting his $250 worth. Am curious to know what Lee’s thoughts are though.

    Cheers,

    Sean

  15. This blog is a great idea.

    I agree that any increase in dues should be preceded by a full detailed accounting of expenses vs. income. I need to see how the figure of $250 per member was derived. I’m interested in how the Society fell so far into debt, apparently unnoticed by the national leadership. Was this debt burden instantaneous?

    I also belong to the American Chemical Society (ACS). The dues are substantially lower. If an ACS member becomes unemployed, ACS will waive dues for up to two years.

    STC, in contrast, prepares to increase its dues, for unemployed and employed members. I’m unemployed. I would have difficulty paying next year’s STC dues at this year’s levels. My response to a dues increase is left as an exercise for the reader.

  16. John is right. I’m saying I’d rather pay the meeting fees to the local chapter on a meeting-by-meeting basis instead of paying a national organization who takes back monies from their local chapters. If the national STC bans per-meeting attendees, I suppose I’d have to cut ties with the organization altogether until there are major changes in leadership.

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