Association Management

Association Staff Stretched to the Limit? How to Get More for Your Association Without Breaking Your Team

By Barbara Arango • March 22, 2019

The new norm is to have more work to do than can possibly be done with the current level of resources. What can association professionals do to make the most of the resources they have without leading to staff burnout?

Slightly more than half of respondents to the 2018 Association Communications Benchmarking Survey reported feeling understaffed. Organizations can find themselves in this situation because of any number of circumstances. Changing technology can lead to the need for different skill sets. Open positions may take longer to fill in a tight job market. Small staffs may not have the experience or ability to address certain specific needs. Whatever the reason for feeling understaffed, there are steps you can take to address the gap and keep your association on the right track.

More staff vs. the right staff

A sense of feeling overwhelmed can be the result of having too much to do or having to do tasks outside your skill set. Association professionals are used to wearing many hats, but they can’t be expected to be an expert on everything.

One key skill in any role is knowing when to ask for help. Sure, you can put together a design for your monthly e-newsletter, but will it be done as effectively as one by a design professional? Outsourcing select functions can free up time for your staff to focus on their particular areas of expertise.

Our benchmarking survey identified the following communication functions most likely to be outsourced:

  • Production design 30%
  • Advertising sales 25%
  • Video production 21%
  • Magazines 16%

These results provide insight into areas where associations are utilizing outside professionals to augment their staff. Consider outsourcing one or more of these functions to not only increase the quality of your service, but also to free up staff time to focus on other initiatives.

Large associations may have the ability to hire for very specific skill sets, but most medium to small associations would be better served by finding outside help. The first step in finding the right fit is identifying the gaps your association needs help closing. According to our survey, nearly half of respondents recognize they need help identifying the ideal member communication frequency. A professional communications firm, for example, can help develop sophisticated survey tools to identify ideal frequency, messaging and channels. When association staff are confident in their tools and processes, they are less likely to feel overwhelmed and understaffed.

Tight labor market

Low unemployment is great for job seekers but can prove challenging to organizations looking to hire. This is especially true for associations that are attempting to recruit individuals with a specific skill set. When organizations have open positions that take months to fill, the workload falls on current staff which can lead to stress and decreased job satisfaction. In addition, when there are more openings than there are professionals to fill them, associations may need to settle for less than ideal candidates or else ask more of their current staff. Either way, there will be a gap between the ability of the staff members and the day-to-day operational needs.

One way to fill that gap is by working with an association management company. AMCs can offer anything from help with temporary staffing needs to permanent offloading of entire functional areas. Working with an AMC can save you from the ups and downs of hiring and training.  You can also feel confident that they will understand the unique components of the association industry.

Know your own staff

Managers must have an open and honest understanding of their teams’ capabilities. Staff members must feel confident that expressing a need for outside support in one area is not perceived as a weakness by their manager. The overall needs of the association should be evaluated and when there are disparities, managers should consider all options. This may mean bringing in an independent contractor or outsourcing certain functions. If there is a team member that is interested in learning that specialty, associations can also consider offloading less skilled functions to a temp or outside vendor, so the staff member has bandwidth to train in the new skill.

This line of thinking can extend to national organizations helping chapters expand their capacities as well. After reviewing their Chapter Needs Assessment, the American Academy of Pediatrics decided to find an AMC to help fill the gaps for their 66 US and Canadian chapters. After an extensive vetting process, the AAP named WJ Weiser and Associates, Inc. as their Preferred Provider.

Nicole Blankenship, MBA, CAE, American Academy of Pediatrics
Nicole Blankenship, MBA, CAE, American Academy of Pediatrics

“We know that our chapters vary in strengths and staff capacity,” said Nicole Blankenship, MBA, CAE, AAP’s director of chapter and district relations. “The AAP board of directors was looking for a solution to help chapters build their capacity and focus in on the mission work of the organization. Our staff reviewed various options and ultimately decided that having an association management company as a preferred resource would be the best for our organization.”

Annie Storey, MS, CAE, American Academy of Pediatrics
Annie Storey, MS, CAE, American Academy of Pediatrics

AAP chapters have the option to contract with the AMC – or not, depending on their specific needs. “It’s really up to our chapters to take the initiative to call and learn more about how an AMC can provide a solution to their organizational need,” added Annie Storey, CAE, AAP’s senior manager for chapter and district relations. “The chapters as separately incorporated organizations have the ability to contract directly with them. We launched this service in November 2018 and within the first two months had ten chapters contact Weiser and two chapters had contracts with them,” she continued.

Because of their depth of knowledge of the association industry, AMCs can prove to be a great partner in meeting your needs. Contracting with an AMC is like having access to part-time experts as opposed to hiring full-time generalists. Identifying skill gaps can be tricky, but once they are identified, a good manager knows there are options to filling that gap.

Association work can be very rewarding, but we’re constantly asked to do more with less. Keep your staff happy by taking a close look at your association’s needs and ensuring they have the support to meet them. Outsourcing, partnering and planning for the future are key to ensuring you have the skills in place to get the job done.

About The Author

Barbara Arango is an executive director with WJ Weiser and Associates, Inc.