The Story of SPIN: The Rise of the Unassociation

October 5, 2011

You’ve heard about unconferences - those buck the system, user-powered, experiment until the cows come home face-to-face gatherings cropping up across the country. They can be a bit unpredictable (what with the content decided by the attendees and all) and even a little chaotic at times. However, it is a trend that is NOT going away.

In fact, the self-organized, crowd-controlled, bottom-up model for events and event organizations is only growing. The Senior Planner Industry Network (SPIN) is a prime example. What started out as a group on LinkedIn less than three years ago has 1,900+ members today - all senior meeting planners (no suppliers) with morw than 10 years of experience.

The story of SPIN has all the elements of a great start-up. Girl has a great career with great clients and a great salary. Girl is miserable. Girls starts group on LinkedIn for senior-level meeting planners like herself and wonders when she might get to 30 members. Group jumps to 500 members in five months. Girl walks away from career and paycheck to see where the thing might go.

Shawna Suckow was that girl. “I saw the economy and knew I was going to lose my top clients, so I realized I could stay where I was and battle it out or get out in front of this (potential)and see where it could go.” Suckow is the first to admit that she is not a visionary. She does, however, have a crystal clear idea of what senior planners want and the fact that the top-down hierarchy of yesterday is doomed.

SPIN is different then other fledgling professional groups. The members decide on nearly everything - where to meet, what to discuss, how to manage the association and how to raise funds. “It is so tempting as a senior-level planner to be a control freak. I have to fight the temptation every day, but there is no top echelon (of management)making the decisions,” Suckow says.

Instead, SPIN engages in lively exchanges on their closed LinkedIn members-only group. They survey their members on what they want out of the association and then work hard (with members) to deliver it. There is no fee to be a member and few rules. The organization is loosely glued together with a Website.

SPIN holds for-fee Webinars, a Road Show, Think Tanks (currently in 17 cities), and an annual meeting (SPINCON) to fund itself. They have developed an upgraded membership for a fee that includes some benefits not available at the basic level. Some of its programming is directed toward suppliers who sell to senior planners and all of the content is delivered by the planners themselves.

Like many start-ups, SPIN runs lean. They have laid it on the line to members that, “if you want this organization to exist, you must support it financially, and you must participate. It’s up to you.” It hasn’t scared anyone away.

Besides the bottom-up decision-making, the a-la-carte offerings, and the low barrier to membership, SPIN differs from traditional associations in other crucial ways. They are building the “community” first. The association accoutrements are secondary.

The group has a “program” they call SPIN Sibling. They collect name badges at one meeting and pass them out at another meeting (in another city). The new recipients are then charged with locating the original badge holder and connecting via social media. SPIN then asks members to report on what happened. Granted, it’s easy to do with small gatherings and a relatively small membership, but it requires thinking “outside the association.”

SPIN also focuses on what Suckow calls GSR (Geographic Social Responsibility). As they add more cities - including international destinations - to their Road Show roster, it is important for them to give back to the local community. The backpacks stuffed with school supplies help charitable groups, but projects like those also bring SPIN members closer to each other.

Clearly, SPIN is a departure from a traditional association. Even the term, “unassociation,” seems neglectful of the true spirit of the group. When I asked Shawna Suckow, where she sees SPIN in five years, she shot back, “If you knew what we were about you wouldn’t be asking that. It’s not up to me.”  SPIN could just be the (insert new category of professional community here) of the future. It’s time.

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