by Leo Jakobson | March 11, 2015
A native of Chicago, Donna Chrobak, the newly installed executive director of the Incentive Marketing Association (IMA), is polite yet direct, and tough when needed. And as a life-long Cubs fan, she's certainly optimistic. 

She'll need all of those traits in her new role, which she admits comes at "a pivotal year for the IMA." 

The association has floundered since its founding executive director, Karen Renk, passed away shortly after retiring in November 2013. Since then, the IMA has gone through two executive directors appointed by its new association management firm, Ewald Consulting. Membership has been slowly declining. Newer and smaller strategic industry groups haven't been getting the support they need to grow. Members have expressed they felt the educational content of the association's main show, the IMA Executive Summit, was "getting stale," Chrobak says.

"I am well aware of the inconsistencies with leadership at the executive director level," Chrobak adds. "My biggest goal for myself is to peel back the onion and see what is the cause of these issues and concerns we have had, and to rebuild the confidence of the board and membership in the IMA staff and the IMA as a whole." 

An Incentive Lifer
Like a majority of people in the incentive industry, Chrobak "kind of fell into" it, she says. "I was working in customer service at Speigel Catalog and an old boss took over that company's incentive division and hired me. Like most people, I kind of fell in love with the industry because it's a fun job." 

That was more than 25 years ago. Her incentive career has since taken her from Spiegel Catalog, an early gift card supplier, to incentive houses that include Loyaltyworks and USMotivation, and eventually to DCI Incentives, an incentive gift card firm that Chrobak founded in 2004. In 2012, she sold the company to Charlotte, N.C.-based QuintLoyalty, where she headed up its incentive and recognition division until last fall. Chrobak holds a bachelor of science degree in marketing and a master's degree in performance improvement, and has been a member of the IMA board for the past five years as a member of its executive committee. 

In her personal life, Chrobak is married with two grown daughters and three grandchildren, and lives on a lake in the small town of Denver, N.C., about 25 miles west of Charlotte. "I love the outdoors," she says. "We are big boaters. We also like to fish, camp, and garden. And I love NASCAR."

The Road Ahead
A key objective for the IMA board in recent years is a re-focus on end-user outreach, Chrobak says. "We've redesigned our logo and the logos of all of our strategic industry groups to be more cohesive, so that when people see the Incentive Gift Card Council (IGCC) or the Incentive Manufacturers and Representatives Alliance (IMRA), they know they are all part of the IMA," she says. "That's necessary to build the brand."

The association is also redesigning the content and layout of its website to be more end-user-centric, while maintaining its current focus as a portal for members.

Beyond that, she says, "we're conducting end-user focus groups to see how the IMA can bring more value to this important group," Chrobak says. "We want end-users to look at IMA members as a resource when they're looking for incentive and recognition products and services."

Another focus is improving outreach to other incentive industry associations and trade shows, Chrobak says, noting that the IMA is working with the Incentive Research Foundation (IRF) on two big research projects. One focuses on understanding the various factors that affect the award preference of participants, she says, calling it, "a hard look at what drives participants to pick a particular award." 

IMRA is also working with the IRF on a study of how smaller businesses are spending their incentive dollars. These smaller companies, Chrobak says, are often being ignored by the incentive industry, and go to their local grocery stores to buy their gift cards, or a local retailer to buy their merchandise awards.

With regard to the IMA Summit, the association is working with all of its strategic interest groups to make it, "one of the best conferences we've ever had," Chrobak says. "We have a really great keynote speaker, we're developing refreshed, new, and thought-provoking educational sessions, and our members have really stepped up and are sponsoring some blow-out networking events. We've got fantastic participation from all segments of IMA. I'm pretty excited about it."

Another area of focus for the IMA board this year has been working to create a clear and specific outline of what it and its members expect from their association management company, Chrobak says. "When we transitioned to Ewald Consulting, we never defined a detailed scope of work," she adds. "When Karen was here, she knew everything and handled everything. Once she wasn't here, we realized just how much she was doing."

That outline will be sompleted shortly, and the IMA board will also consider its management options going forward, Chrobak says. 

While Chrobak has a lot of work to do, says she is excited by the challenge. "I think everybody is reinvigorated and sees a lot of potential and optimism in the future," she adds.