Associations Using Grants More Frequently to Strengthen the Association Community and Inspire Big Ideas

By • April 12, 2016

How associations are leveraging grants to inspire innovation, encourage professional development and expand the association community

Kelly Clark, Naylor Association Solutions
Kelly Clark, Naylor Association Solutions

You’ve probably heard of grants in the context of academia or community building: an organization offers a tidy sum of money to any individual or group that promises to pursue a project, an idea or a program within certain parameters. Receiving a grant has traditionally meant spending hours researching details that justify your need for the grant, writing a detailed proposal that outlines how you would use the grant money and then waiting and hoping you’re chosen to receive the grant. Many professors and public sector employees fund their positions fully or in part through grants.

But, grants aren’t just for academics or community planners. Did you know that associations are using grants to encourage seasoned professionals to continue their professional development or to help young people interested in their industry find internships? Did you know that larger organizations such as ASAE can fund your ideas for innovation?


Associations are growing membership and incentivizing professional development through grants. RealLilTweetables

Grant-funded internship positions allow associations to get the help they need while introducing students/young professionals to association careers. RealLilTweetables

ASAE’s Innovation Grants Program funds big ideas that associations want to explore but often can’t afford. RealLilTweetables


Here are three associations that are using grants to strengthen their memberships and the association community at large.

Grants expand and strengthen association membership

“Grants are used to help fund research projects, and inspire innovation among membership. But, they are also a great tool for driving [member] engagement, attendance at conferences, and for offsetting dues for members who might be having trouble coming up with funds on their own,” said Dana Plotke, a marketing manager at Naylor Association Solutions.

Plotke is currently working with the Florida Society of Association Executives (FSAE) to establish an annual Naylor-funded grant that sponsors a new FSAE member’s dues, and helps that member defray their expenses for attending FSAE’s annual conference. To encourage ongoing professional development for those already working in association communications, marketing or membership, Naylor and FSAE will also cover the fees for an established association professional to attend FSAE’s annual conference as well.

FSAE logoSeparate from Naylor, FSAE administers several grants that encourage member professional development and certification. FSAE’s grants program grew out of a need to serve members who work in middle management – meeting planners, membership directors and marketing staff, for example – who can benefit greatly from FSAE’s educational programs, but who don’t always have the travel budget of a C-suite executive.

“Our grants program started approximately 15 years ago to serve members who can cover event fees but who need help with travel expenses, or who want to earn the CAE or CMP certification and who need extra money to fund their study materials or organized study groups,” said Hester Ndoja, CAE, vice president, membership and development at FSAE.

FSAE members can apply for funds to put towards attendance at FSAE’s or ASAE’s annual conferences, for other approved association management programs, or for training to earn Certified Association Executive (CAE) or Certified Meeting Planner (CMP) accreditation.

FSAE also offers a young professionals grant designed to assist association professionals under age 35 or who have fewer than three years’ experience in association management to obtain further education and training at FSAE’s annual conference.

Grants help associations keep up with member needs

“We try to keep our grant program nimble so we can meet member needs as they come up,” Ndoja explained. “The young professional grants were established at the request of our young professionals’ task force,” she continued. “That group, composed mainly of millennials, saw more and more of their peers joining the workforce but few choosing an association career. The task force wanted FSAE to fund a grant that would make getting involved in association management easier and less expensive,” Ndoja added.

FSAE had previously offered reduced conference registration fees and provided discounts for its other programs, but could not offer a discount on travel, lodging or food—a major barrier that prevented many from attending FSAE’s statewide events. The young professionals’ task force recommended that the FSAE grant committee establish a grant specifically for young/new association professionals that would help offset fees and travel expenses associated with advancing their professional educations, leadership and involvement with FSAE. The grant committee, which examines the viability and popularity of existing grants, the application criteria and the ease of applying, agreed that this type of grant would be beneficial to FSAE and its membership. Committee members presented the grant idea to the foundation’s trustees, who approved their petition. So far, the young professional grants have benefited several young executives eager to expand their career opportunities and serve their organizations more effectively.

“Interestingly, FSAE had to help members overcome a stigma around applying for funds by renaming them ‘grants,’” Ndoja said. “We used to call them scholarships, and received very few applications because members thought of a ‘scholarship’ as need-based. They’re not – our scoring rubric includes mostly merit-based criteria. We called these funds ‘professional development awards’ for a time before changing their label once more to ‘grants.’ That has encouraged more people to apply. So far, 2016 has seen the most applicants ever for Foundation funds – about 40 people have applied for 15 awards. We’re very excited about the interest in these grants and in the professional development they foster.”

Grants funded by corporations such as Hyatt, Marriott and Naylor are often earmarked for a certain purpose. The grants for young professionals are funded using unrestricted Foundation funds donated by FSAE members.

“We like that our grant program is funded by members, for members,” Ndoja said. “These are real professionals helping others obtain the training and certifications they want for a better career.”

“Sponsored grants are a mutually beneficial way for supplier members to invest in their industry and customers while building goodwill for their business,” Plotke added.

Since 2002, FSAE’s Foundation has provided association executives with $192,700 for educational programming, given $121,440 in scholarships/grants to 205 association management professionals and provided $237,000 to staff to implement Foundation initiatives.

Grants introduce young professionals to association careers

GSAE logoVeteran professionals certainly appreciate the money to further their association careers. But grants can also be a powerful seed that help students and young professionals grow into a career within the association community. Fifteen years ago, the Georgia Society of Association Executives (GSAE) examined the state of its professional development scholarship program and realized it was frequently not disbursing all the funds it could. Supplier members and other companies were generously donating to GSAE’s foundation to support individual members’ professional development, but the demand for those scholarships was dwindling. In response, GSAE assembled several task forces to discuss how better to use its funds, and focused on what an association career path really looks like today and how GSAE could be a leader in showing the multiple paths that lead to a fulfilling nonprofit or association career.

“We realized that GSAE could better maximize our foundation donors’ investment by redirecting the money into an internship grant program,” said Wendy Kavanagh, CAE, GSAE’s president. “Expanding members’ networks, building new skills and advancing members’ careers are all strategic goals for GSAE. Bringing new members into the association management field contributes to all three of those goals. So we started offering an internship grant in 2002 for associations and nonprofits with at least one GSAE member who want to hire an intern but need help affording their wages.”

Applications are judged on the quality of the internship experience described in the organization’s job application, and all applicants must commit to sharing the cost of the intern and to paying them a living wage.

“Grant recipients must have skin in the game,” Kavanagh said. “We expect them to offer a living wage to interns they hire using GSAE funds because we want the internship to result in meaningful work for the intern and the organization. We don’t want people hiring interns to clean out a break room or file paperwork from 20 years ago. Internships funded by these grants should be based on work that drives the mission of the organization forward while showing off the rewarding nature of an association or nonprofit career,” she added.

Camille Odom is one student-turned-association professional who has started a career in association management thanks to GSAE’s internship grant program. Odom met Samantha Kilgore, director of communications for Association Services Group (ASG), at a University of Georgia career fair and successfully applied for their internship funded in part through GSAE’s grant.

“I had no clue what association management was, but after meeting Samantha and talking with her about ASG’s work, the internship seemed like a good fit for my interest in business communication,” Odom explained. “During my internship I was able to learn about several areas of association management while keeping a focus on communications.”

Kilgore agrees that the funded internship was a good fit for both parties. “We’re a fairly small company of about 30 employees in western Georgia, outside of the Atlanta metro area. GSAE’s internship program allowed our company to get on the map for future graduates who are looking for a job but don’t know about association management,” she said. “Their internship grant, which ASG matches, gives us the funds to introduce graduates with interests in many business specialties to association management as a viable, exciting career.”

“When ASG offered me a full-time position last June,” Odom echoed, “I took it because I liked that there is always something new and interesting going on with associations. Juggling multiple responsibilities keeps my work exciting.”

Grants help associations help each other

Jennie Nesspor, CAE, manager for events and administration for the Georgia Association of Convenience Stores (GACS), applied for an internship grant last year because it was an opportunity they couldn’t afford to miss.

“We had a staff of three that served 400 company members, and our president was preparing to retire,” Nesspor said. “With our fall show coming up, we really needed an extra pair of hands. Our intern jumped in feet first and gained lots of experience in event registration and database management. His previous skill set included video production, so we tasked him with creating a new membership video as well as a recap video of our board members’ tour of the state. This experience allowed him to combine past knowledge with new experiences while giving GACS some much-needed assistance.”

During the 15 years that internship grants have been awarded, organizations in association management, construction, consulting, counseling, economic development, finance, health services, hospitality and retail have benefited from money to help introduce a young professional to the association community. Recipient organizations and interns must check in with GSAE during and after the internship via written articles detailing what they’ve learned. These articles are often integrated into GSAE’s publications to recognize the member and further promote the internship grant program.

GSAE’s internship grants are underwritten with money the GSAE Foundation collects from fundraising events and individual donations. Most donations come from GSAE members, which create a “really nice feedback loop of positive reinforcement for the association community,” Kavanagh notes.

“You don’t go to college to get an association management degree,” Nesspor said. “This internship grant program opened the door to someone new to associations while offering us the chance to obtain some needed help.”

“GSAE’s internship grant program has been a super way for nonprofits to afford meaningful help in their office while showing a student with interest in working for a nonprofit that professional societies and trade associations are excellent options for their career path,” Kavanagh said.

Grants provide seed money for innovative projects

ASAE Logo. (PRNewsFoto/American Society of Association Executives)
ASAE Logo. (PRNewsFoto/American Society of Association Executives)

Promoting professional development and expanding the association community are two of ASAE’s goals as well. But in the late 2000s, the ASAE Foundation wanted to push the innovation envelope. The ASAE Foundation’s primary purpose is to sponsor and conduct research in a variety of areas that would be too broad and in-depth for most associations and professional societies to do on their own.

The foundation has a multi-dimensional portfolio of research initiatives designed to 1) advance a body of knowledge, 2) define and inform effective practices, and 3) provide outcomes that lead to data-driven predictions and decision-making.

The Foundation created a new task force to look at what was going on in the world regarding innovation. They saw a lot of projects and research about innovating in the areas of business, academia, and other organizations, but not as much within associations and nonprofits. ASAE assembled another task force of individuals from diverse backgrounds to look at what that meant for the association space. Two important ideas emerged:

  1. Establishing a separate unit within ASAE that would focus on innovation, ideation and new product development. ASAE now has a VP of Innovation (Mariah Burton Nelson, MPH, CAE) who is charged with creating and cultivating programs that encourage innovation.
  2. Creating a grant program that would fund organizations who want to pursue a new idea or process, but need extra funding to do so.

Over the next year (2012), the ASAE Foundation pulled together a steering committee to establish what a grant program would look like. It defined the objectives of the grant program, looked at metrics for measuring short- and long-term success, created the application process and established review criteria and expectations for grant recipients during their grant year and beyond.

The Innovation Grants Program provides awards to support innovation exploration and development in order to raise awareness and engagement in innovation efforts for the association community. Grant recipients receive $10,000 to dive deeper into innovation and get support to implement their project ideas, creating models of innovation for the entire association community.

“The types of proposals that are submitted are a reflection of the interest organizations have in addressing needs in different functional areas of an organization,” said Sharon Moss, CAE, chief research officer for ASAE. “One might think, ‘Oh, you’re only going to see proposals in tech,’ but that’s not the case. We continue to see interest in tackling problems or creating new programs or resources across the spectrum of the organization.”

In 2013, the first call for applications attracted more than 100 submissions from applicants who differed in size, sector and nature of proposed project. Over the past three years the applicant pool has grown significantly. The ASAE Foundation awards four innovation grants each year.

ASAE makes a strong effort to communicate with potential applicants and provide them with the resources needed to develop a successful and fundable proposal. This yields a better crop of applications and results in a greater challenge for the review panel in selecting just four proposals to fund, said Moss.

“It’s a good problem to have,” Moss laughed. “We are getting better proposals each year, and the concepts that are reflected in the applications are a testament to our community grasping the importance and relevance of innovating within the work they do.”

The Innovation Grants Program gives grant recipients a lot of latitude to define innovation for their organization or discipline. ASAE shares its working definition of “innovation” with applicants, but where a project falls within the spectrum of innovating is the organization’s decision.

“What is also exciting is that [the Innovation Grants] aren’t your typical, ‘Here’s money to develop something’ program,” Moss continued. “We understand that part of the effort is developing a culture of innovation. ASAE wants to be the catalyst for organizations to develop and sustain a culture of innovation.”

Innovation grants come in exploration, travel or hybrid forms. Exploration grants focus on helping an association build upon an idea for a program, process or product outside their normal boundaries. Travel grants helps organizations defray the cost of training its staff or volunteers. A hybrid grant allows an applicant to both explore and travel.

“For example, we’ve seen applications where the organization uses funds to visit another organization (such as in academia or for-profit) and observe how the host organization does things,” Moss explains. “The visitors act as flies on the wall to learn how the hosts do things, what their obstacles were and what solutions they developed to overcome those obstacles. Those applications have very specific objectives and timelines for visiting other organizations, how they plan to internalize what they learn and how they plan to implement those lessons within their organization.”

Grants positively impact association members beyond recipients

Hands writing and a laptop 618x412Innovation Grant recipients must document progress in addressing their goals and apprise the ASAE Foundation of any changes in their work plan. They also must submit a final written report at the end of their grant period. Depending on the nature of their work, there may also be an expectation that their work will at least be submitted for presentation at one of ASAE’s conferences or at another industry conference, or for publication in a scholarly journal within their industry. ASAE requires this step to ensure grant recipients give the association community the opportunity to learn about their work and new solutions.

Now that the Innovation Grants Program is in its fifth year, some early award recipients are completing longer-term goals that extended beyond their original funding period. They may be in a position to apply for phase two of their initial ideas, and ASAE welcomes those applicants back to the Innovation Grant Program.

“[Associations and nonprofits] are also starting to see opportunities for collaboration while executing these grants. We love seeing this; it has been an unanticipated perk of the program,” Moss said. “The notion that there could be partnerships in developing and executing innovation plans has been a really good offshoot of our original goals.”

In what ways has your association used grants as a tool to enhance the membership experience? Share your experiences in the comments below.