Association Heads Hunker Down in the Heat

By Hank Berkowitz • November 5, 2012

Hank BerkowitzWhile most Americans headed to the beaches or mountains to escape the late summer heat, association leaders were hunkering down in windowless conference rooms at convention centers throughout North America for some of their most important annual meetings of the year.

We attended as many association confabs as we could and when we regrouped, the consensus was that you could literally feel the sense of urgency in the air. It was a sense that it’s now-or-never time to make the bold changes you and your board have been contemplating for years. It’s now-or-never time if you want to continue attracting your industry’s up-and-comers and remain their go-to source of education, career development, connections and best practices. You don’t have to become an instant Twittering-Facebooking-blogging-podcasting-crowdsourcing savant overnight. But, you do need to find new ways to connect with members of all ages and stay relevant while you’re at it.

Lose the relevancy and you’ve pretty much “signed your death certificate,” Patricia Dameron, executive director of the Professional Retail Store Maintenance Association (PRSM) told me during a session break at one of the events I attended. See related story in today’s issue.


  • Great association leaders have the ability to align, empower, serve and collaborate.
  • Innovation should be a data driven discipline, not just a fad. It’s not just about developing new products and services for your members. It’s about improving on your existing ones.
  • The importance of staying relevant and top of mind with members cannot be underestimated. Great associations aren’t just nimble. They’re great listeners. They’re transparent about their decision-making processes and they empower their staffs, members and constituents to contribute to their success.


In the association world, August seems to be the new September and increasingly your colleagues are hitting the ground running before Labor Day. They’re making their budget commitments for 2011 and beyond with memories of the once leisurely pace of decision making in the NFP world fading fast in the rearview mirror.

Wendy Luke, a human resource consultant to corporations and associations, said she’s finding that increasingly organizations are ditching the time-consuming process of strategic planning and SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) for the “strategic visioning” process, which can be done in one or two days as opposed to several months.

When it comes to budgeting, Rob Bartala, CFO of the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), may have summed it up best at a roundtable discussion I attended: Things will get better, but at the same time, you’ve got to let go of past. “You probably won’t ever have the budget, the staffing or the decision-making time that you had five or 10 years ago when jobs were cushier and staffing more plentiful. Frankly you don’t have to go back to those days to be successful,” he said. “Even now, there’s still a lot of inefficiency in the association world.”

For instance, Association Adviser’s latest online poll found that “Membership Sustainability” was our readers’ second most pressing concern after “Current Economic Conditions.” But, is that where most of the resources are going? Not quite. Nearly half (47.6%) of respondents reported that their organizations devote less than 10 percent of their headcount to membership development. One membership director of a nearly 175,000 member organization confided that he’s been getting by with only three full-time staff. He says he sleeps reasonably well most nights, but looks both ways before crossing any street and reminds his staff to do the same.

Another disconnect was brought to our attention by NaylorCMG’s Camille Stern, who attended the recent Membership Group Share Luncheon at NACS — The Association for Convenience & Petroleum Retailing. The prevailing sentiment there was that in tough times, electronic media was being favored over face-to-face events instead of being used to complement it. By contrast, our reader poll found that the No.1 source of new member leads for 85 percent of respondents was– ou guessed it–conferences and events. So even after all these years, association management remains a work in progress.

To that end, we consolidated the highlights of our collective fact-finding missions into the categories below:


In these challenging times, we need a new model for choosing our leaders that’s based on their character, not on their reputation or their coziness with the chairman or the board, said Bill George, Harvard Business School professor of management practice and a keynote speaker at the recent American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) Annual Meeting & Exposition in Los Angeles. George’s four keys to 21st century leadership are the ability to align, empower, serve and collaborate.

Anyone can get the numbers right, he said. But can you align them around your organization’s sense of purpose? Great leaders also empower their people to step up and lead. Great leaders create a culture in which you’re not just serving their members, but their members’ clients and society as a whole. Finally, great leaders have mastered the art of collaboration. They realize they can’t do it all by themselves and they have a unique ability to foster buy-in across the organization toward a common purpose. “I’ve never seen leaders fail from lack of IQ, but I’ve seen hundreds of leaders fail from lack of emotional intelligence,” said George.


Staff Retention vs. Fresh Perspective


“We tend to over-emphasize the importance of staff retention and longevity over results,” according to Brent Woods, executive director of business operations for National Institute of Governmental Purchasing. “If employees have been at the same organization for 10, 15 or more years, they tend to get complacent and become less willing to innovate.” You need to find a balance of new faces with fresh ideas along with long-timers who have deep institutional knowledge, he said.

HR consultant Luke said we tend to reward longevity, not innovation and contribution. “Find a small number of really key people who are vital to your organization, and get them the leadership training they need to be as effective as possible.”

Elizabeth Chazottes, executive director of the Association for International Practical Training, shared this insight about succession planning: “I’ve been here for 23 years, and over a decade in a leadership role. Yes, it’s likely time for me to move on. My successor will likely be someone 20 years younger and I will stay on for a while as the ‘wise elder.’ It’s important to help build a new culture for Generation Y and the Millennials.”


“Over the long run, an empowered organization will outperform a traditional top down hierarchical organization any time,” said Harvard’s George. “You got to give your people the opportunity to fail. The lessons learned from trying and failing are often more valuable then successfully running the same old program.”

PRSM’s Patricia Dameron agreed: “We tell members we’re going to empower them. We tell our staff we’re going to empower them. PRSM is a very fluid organization. Good ideas can come from anywhere and anyone in the organization and also from your members.”

Tom Hood, head of the Maryland State Society of CPAs (MACPA), said he’s not at the helm of a big organization, but he has three full-time staff dedicated exclusively to innovation. “They’re encouraged to fail. We hope they fail from time to time. If they are not failing they’re not trying hard enough. The key is learning from our mistakes,” shared Hood.

“Innovation should be a discipline, not just a fad,” said John Graham, ASAE’s president and CEO. “We all need to adapt and be more nimble. It’s not just about developing new products and services for members, but improving on our existing ones.”

“Our executive director is very hands-off and let’s people run with it,” said Joe Syrowik, membership director of the 160,000-member ASCD (formerly known as the American Society of Curriculum Directors). “It’s OK to fail as long as you learn from the experience and have the data to back up why you made your decisions.”

Member Communication and Interaction

“We’re the digital curators”–that’s a role associations are struggling to deal with,” according to Don Dea and Hugh Lee of Fusion Productions, which works with many not-for-profit organizations. “We were brought up in a command and control environment where we control the message and the member listens. Not so today. It’s a two-way 24/7 dialogue now and we’re falling behind.”

Krista Gulbrensen, vice president of marketing and membership for San Francisco-based Western Independent Bankers, concurred: “We shouldn’t be controlling the member dialogue anymore. Our role is not to run the discussion but set up a comfortable environment that lets the conversation flow between members.” (See related story in today’s issue.)

Town hall meetings, in which the association’s president or executive director goes on the road to meet with members, has proven to be an effective antidote to the impersonal nature of e-mail communication, according to the Texas Pharmacy Association, the Maryland State Society of CPAs and the American Society of Curriculum Developers, among others. Several organizations confided to us that they’re now holding “Fishbowl” style board meetings so any member who wants to can listen in and ask questions at the end. And increasingly organizations such as American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the American Bar Association and the Society of Petroleum Engineers are recruiting volunteer “ambassadors” to reach out to new members to make them feel welcome, and to ensure that new members are aware of the myriad programs and resources the association offers.

Big Picture

As CEO or ED, your main job is to be chief innovation officer and chief collaboration officer, said MACPA’s Tom Hood. “Make sure your members, your volunteers and your staff are aligned with you and engaged with you. It’s not ‘my project’ anymore. It’s ‘our’ project. It’s very important that people can see your thinking process clearly and buy into it.”

So, do you need to invest in a lot of sophisticated collaboration tools and ERP systems to make the right data-driven decisions that will prevent you from losing your job?

“I’m a tech guy by nature, but nothing seems to beat good old fashioned MBSN (management by sticky note),” said Hood. “You know. You write your goals and objectives on a big sheet of butcher paper, stick it on the wall, and encourage everyone at your organization to put sticky notes on the quadrants or circles where they think their ideas belong. It doesn’t take long before some sectors look like skyscrapers and others look like sparsely populated ranch houses.”

The key, said Hood, is collaboration. Get everyone involved in the process and make sure they can see the results of their input very clearly. It doesn’t get any easier than stacks of sticky notes on a wall to elucidate your organization’s vision. They’ll get the picture, even in the heat and humidity.

Hank Berkowitz is the Moderator-in-Chief of Association Adviser eNews

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