Association Career Path

By Tim McNichols • November 5, 2012

By Tim McNichols

 It’s safe to say that you’d be hard pressed to find an association executive who honestly believed upon entering college or the work force that they’d be working for a trade association in the prime years of their careers. But here we are and most of us are glad we’re here.

As a colleague of mine likes to joke when we run into a decision-making roadblock: “When you come to a fork in the road, just take it.”

For those of us working directly for an association, or in a related organization, it seems many of us have stumbled into this “business.” We came from the for-profit world or possibly right out of college into a world that is clearly different from the stockholder-driven, bottom line environment in which most of our peers toil.

  • Many association leaders are surprised to learn how many of their peers seemed to have “stumbled” into this challenging, rewarding, albeit unpredictable, career path.
  • Member-centric organizations have very different challenges from for-profit companies and the solutions to their challenges must often be solved by intuition and ingenuity–not by following a training course. 
  • Assessing the true cost structure and success level of association media properties can be more complicated and less transparent than a similar exercise in the for-profit media world. 
  • There are many training opportunities for you and your staff to assist in adjusting to life in the association world or advancing the knowledge base to the benefit of everyone involved.

Being part of a member-centric organization has its own set of unique challenges and the solutions to these challenges really aren’t covered in a training program. They have to be learned as part of your trial-by-fire initiation into the world of not-for-profit/non-profit management.

When I accepted my first association job–running publications, trade shows and early Internet offerings at ASM International (formally the American Society of Metals)–I thought I could leverage the valuable b-to-b media experience I’d gained at GIE Media, The McGraw-Hill Companies and other bottom-line media companies. Not exactly.

The most difficult part about going from the for-profit world to the association world was accepting that the departments I depended on and the programs I ran were not necessarily viewed as businesses. As is the case at many associations, not all the actual expenses related to the member communications programs are taken into account from a traditional publisher’s P&L perspective. This sometimes makes it hard to gauge what a media property’s true cost to the association is, how its revenue should be applied or even if the publication is covering its real costs.

The expenses of many association media properties are “shared” between departments, which further complicates rigid P&L analysis. For example, in many associations the circulation of the membership magazine is tied directly to the membership department. Simple changes to the membership numbers can have huge ramifications when you look at how they might be viewed by advertisers in the magazine – will they still want to support the publication if the numbers are changed dramatically?

The most successful associations have learned to break down the silo mentality of their communication channels (see related story), but at some organizations, each group historically works in its own silo and many advertisers are being contacted by multiple people from the same association for support of their magazines, booth space, conference sponsorships, education/training programs and even the support of the foundation. As many of you know, integrating the communication and support of these channels is a cornerstone of Naylor’s association partnership program.

When the Bottom Line Collides with Member Service
To say my first association job was an eye-opening experience is an understatement. It required a major adjustment to my way of thinking. As I am sure many of you have experienced at some point in your career, the challenge of balancing your members’ needs, your organization’s needs and your marketplace’s needs is not easy. I have come to appreciate the association industry and realized that it truly is an industry made up of thousands of similar, but different groups all doing essentially the same thing–serving the needs of their members. While the organizations are different, the processes and way of doing business are all very similar.

Is There a Path?
So, how do you and your staff wrap your minds around the fact that the association world is a real career choice and that there are many other people in the same position as you–literally and figuratively?

Let’s start with the fact that the economic impact that associations have on this country is nothing to sneeze at. A new study released recently by the American Society of Association Executives & The Center for Association Leadership highlights the significant economic impact of associations on a national and state-by-state basis.

According to the study, California ranked number one in overall association employment (93,912), followed by New York (72,202) and Illinois (63,699). Washington, D.C. ranked highest in employment within trade and professional organizations with 19,781, followed closely by Illinois (19,606).

Average annual wages of association executives in Washington, D.C, New York, Virginia and Illinois were calculated at $74,248. And as for annual revenue, Washington, D.C. ranked highest at $3.6 billion and Illinois was second with $2.9 billion. The research also showed that for overall association assets, Michigan ranked highest with a showing of $10.2 billion, followed by D.C. ($4.4 billion) and Illinois ($3.9 billion).

When I mentioned this notion of “stumbling” the other day to our Moderator in Chief, Hank Berkowitz, he said it’s more like Strategic Stumbling™–an innovation process for which he actually has a trademark pending. No joke.

Before coming to Naylor, Berkowitz stumbled into an almost decade-long stint at one of the nation’s 10 largest associations. He said the biggest surprise as a newbie association exec. was the degree to which the organization didn’t realize the value of all the assets it had in terms of member trust, built-in massive audience, deep dive research, great editorial resources, a huge platform and industry credibility–i.e. things he would have killed for in the for-profit world and suddenly had access to.

Admittedly, plenty of mistakes were made on his journey–both in terms of execution and protocol–but finding internal champions and correcting (and learning from) early stumbles quickly gave him the footing he needed to successfully navigate the different mindset encountered in the association world while still outpacing the competition.

No matter the upside though, the association was intent on maintaining the right balance between driving revenue and serving its members. Hence, the very thing that makes this industry a unique and rewarding place to be.

Resources and Credentials
Hank’s story isn’t all that unusual, it turns out. For me, it was getting involved in association executive groups like the Council for Engineering and Scientific Society Executives (CESSE). Having even your entry-level staff involved in these groups is important to drive home the point that this is more than just a job and that your organization is part of something much larger.

To this point, there are resources out there to assist you and your staff in these efforts. The Association Forum of Chicagoland, for example, offers an “Association 101” program, which is an “Orientation for Association Professionals.” They have set this up for anyone recently employed with an association and it is “designed to provide a solid foundation of knowledge and appreciation for the unique environment, culture and dynamics of associations.”

Taking this a step further, senior management may consider going back to school. There are formal programs offered by groups like Case Western Reverse University’s Mandel Center for Nonprofit Organizations, which offers degreed programs that will allow structured educational options to learn from your peers.

The other obvious option is the ASAE Certified Association Executive (CAE) program. This probably is the best known program for association executives as it offers a structured environment allowing you and your staff to learn and ultimately prove that they have what it takes to manage in the association world.

In my many years of being actively involved in the association world as a member of various trade and professional groups, working for a large international association, and now with the leading association media company, I think it is safe to say that having the proper support of not only your organization, but of those there to assist you and your staff is crucial to the long term health of your organization.

One of the best experiences I ever had while working for ASM International was going to my first CESSE meeting and realizing that I was not in this alone and that my experiences, frustrations and victories were part of a shared vision that was larger than just me.

Taking the time to grow your own knowledge base and those of even your entry level staff is the order of the day. There are plenty of options for you to accomplish this with little impact to your business.

Links to resources mentioned above:

Association Forum of Chicagoland – Association 101

Case Western Reverse University’s Mandel Center for Nonprofit Organizations http://www.case.edu/mandelcenter/

ASAE & The Center for Association Leadership – CAE Programs

Tim McNichols is a Director of Business Development for Naylor, LLC’s Midwest Region. For more on Tim’s story, and/or to share your own association career story, check out Naylor’s fan page on FaceBook

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