I read this on Tom Morrison's blog the other day and thought it was one of the best answers I'd ever heard to one of the most debated questions among association staffers.
Who's association is it? Yours or the members?
Personally, I've always thought it was kind of a false dichotomy. The association obviously belongs to both the staff and the members. Would you really want either camp to act as if the association belonged to the other?
But let's take a closer look at the philosophy underlying Tom's comment. It applies most relevantly, I think, to the association's chief staff executive (CSE), for whom the question is more typically something worth considering.
It seems to me that the CSE absolutely must run the association as if it was his or her own. In essence, this is what the CSE job entails--running the association. You can't defer that responsibility to the board, and we all know why. They're volunteers, they're a committee, they don't have the professional expertise--we know the dangers of turning the management of any organization over to such a group, however well-intentioned they may be. The CSE must own the association in a way that enables him or her to make the proactive and often difficult decisions that are necessary to keep it growing and successful.
But the terms of that growth and success have to be determined by the board, and they should always remain in the position of ownership that will enable them to exert the power and influence necessary to hold the CSE accountable for those terms. In Tom's phraseology, the board members are the owners--or perhaps more accurately the elected representatives of the owners--and their primary task is to employ a CSE that can take the organization where they want it to go.
And I think this is why some CSEs shy away from the ownership idea. It's far easier to think that the board members are in charge, that it is their association, and that if something goes wrong, it is because they led the association in the wrong direction. To me, this is overly simplistic, and doesn't take into account the real decision-making role that the CSE must play if any association is to be successful. If you're the CSE, you must own the association, because only you are in a position to take it where it needs to go.
But that doesn't mean you get to do anything you want with it. You're running the association, yes, but you're running it for the benefit of the members, and their representatives, the board, will (and should) always have the power to fire you if you stray too far from their vision. It may be difficult reality for some CSEs to face, but it is an absolutely necessary one.
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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit www.ericlanke.blogspot.com, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.