Monday, May 9, 2016

All Associations Are Not Created Equal

I write a lot about associations on this blog. That makes sense, since I serve as the staff executive of an association, and confronting the challenges inherent in that role comprise a significant portion of my mental life.

One thing I know I'm guilty of (as are, I think, many others who write publicly about associations) is the unfair extrapolation of my association's situation and challenges to all associations.

Associations, truth be told, come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, each with a unique set of challenges that confront them. Assuming that all associations face the same problems and can solve them through the same strategies fails to recognize the inherent diversity of the association landscape.

I received a concrete reminder of this when I attended the Annual Conference of one of our partner associations this week. Although operating in a space aligned with ours, with their members confronted with many of the same challenges as ours, they have enough significant differences from us to mandate two different approaches to solving our common problems.

Our essential difference is one of size. Their budget is one fortieth of ours. We have twelve full time staff and they have one part time administrator. They have forty or so companies in their membership. We have more than three hundred.

They are, in essence, a small volunteer-driven organization while we, in comparison, are large and staff-driven. And that means that many of the things I preach in my organization won't necessarily work in theirs.

Look at my last blog post, for example, where I (again) presented my case for program committees reporting not to the Board, but to the staff executive. There came a moment in the Annual Meeting of our partner association, as volunteer chairs stood up and reported on the activities of their committees, when I realized that this prescription would not work in their association.

Unlike our association, where staff are responsible for program development and execution and committees are responsible for communicating the needs and providing the perspective of the members in that process, in our partner association, no such separation exists. The people on the committees defining the needs that should be met are the same people designing the programs that will address those needs and the same people executing and promoting them to the rest of the membership. These are all tasks given to volunteers in their association, because there is not staff to take on these responsibilities. In that environment, these committees naturally do and probably should report to the Board.

The realization was a jarring one for me, pointing out as it did that all associations are not created equal. But even that realization was not as jarring as the one that followed.

In the environment of our partner association, with volunteer members doing all of the committee and what would be termed staff work in my association, their committees, in a way that ours do not, better understand not only the needs of their members, but also what possible program prescriptions are more likely to deliver the solutions and value their members seek. Comprised entirely of members, their committees, by definition, are more in tune with what their members really want.

Unfortunately, given the relative scarcity of their resources (both time and money), they are less able to execute on the things that they know matter. They are a small, volunteer-driven association with a keen sense of what needs to be done but not enough resources to accomplish it, while we are a large, staff-driven association with the resources needed to execute programs well but far less of an understanding of what really matters to our members.

Is that one of the paradoxes of association management I've been thinking more and more about lately?

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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