From the Corner Office

From the Corner Office: Wendy Kavanagh, CAE, Georgia Society of Association Executives

By Association Adviser staff • November 5, 2012

By Association Adviser staff

This month, the Corner Office spotlight shines on Wendy Kavanagh, CAE, President of the Georgia Society of Association Executives (GSAE), the Atlanta-based organization devoted to enhancing the careers of association leaders who live and work in the Peach State. During her tenure, GSAE has launched the highly regarded Leadership Academy, celebrated its 90th anniversary, implemented a significant branding and membership marketing campaign, created a Supplier Council for the corporate member constituency, and assisted the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau with securing the 2013 American Society of Association Executives Annual Meeting & Expo.

ASSOCIATION ADVISER: Wendy, you took a unique path to the helm of GSAE. Can you tell us a little about your background?

WENDY KAVANAGH: I have both an entrepreneurial and not-for-profit background, and this job lets me take advantage of that mix. I’ve been the president here since 2005 but was a GSAE board member first. It gave me the opportunity to really know the organization and what it stands for—helping members connect, advance and achieve—before I took the job. Earlier, I founded and ran an association management company called Tessera Association Management.

  • When communicating with members, always respect how busy they are and ask them what “itch” you can “scratch for them.”
  • You don’t need a large budget to do a comprehensive branding exercise or to take advantage of today’s cutting-edge communication and connectivity tools.
  • Don’t be afraid to experiment, and ask yourself every day if you’re having fun. If you’re not having fun, then it’s just not worth it.

Have an opinion to share? Take our online reader poll and get quick results.

AA: GSAE is not an industry trade association per se. Who tends to join?

WK: We have more than 500 members split about 60/40 between individual members and supplier members. Most are senior leaders of Georgia-based organizations, but we have some wonderful “telecommuting” members, as well. By that, I mean they reside in Georgia but work for out-of-state organizations. We have about 50 percent penetration among qualifying association professionals in our state. We’re very proud of that statistic.

AA: Fifty percent penetration sounds like a very high number.

WK: Thanks, but that statistic doesn’t mean anything if that 50 percent is just “checkbook membership”—people who mail in their dues but don’t attend our events, network with fellow members or contribute ideas. We have a very nimble, inclusive and collegial organization and of course, the best group of volunteers you could ask for. They’re very willing to step up and help. They’ve been a big part of many of our new product initiatives and, of course, our rebranding.

AA: Can you give an example of how you help GSAE members advance their careers?

WK: Again, our focus is on helping members become top-notch association professionals, regardless of which industry their employer happens to represent. For example, if you’re a communications director for a healthcare association, we want to give you the tools, best practices and mentoring you need to be a great association communications director, even if you move to another organization outside the healthcare profession. Or, if a member wants to become an executive director in five years, it’s our responsibility to help them get from point A to point B to point C in the right way without tripping over any of the key steps in the process.

AA: Speaking of evolving, GSAE has undergone a significant rebranding effort. What prompted you to make those changes?

WK: I get bored easily [laughing]. Seriously, it was time for a change. We hadn’t shaken things up in a while. There were three primary reasons we initiated the process for a branding and membership campaign. The first was to energize our base. We wanted a campaign that would inspire our current members to tell their own success stories about the value of GSAE. Second, we needed to raise awareness of GSAE’s value to potential members in the association community in Georgia. Finally, our logo and collateral felt like a mid-'80s hair band. We knew we needed to modernize and refresh how we appear to both members and potential members.

Former logo

Former logo

New logo

AA: Many of our readers have expressed interest in the rebranding process. Do you need a big budget for outside contractors and consultants?

WK: Unlike many organizations, we chose to save money by doing a large portion of our research in-house, although we did use a public relations consultant for our strategic planning branding exercise and a corporate member for our non-member research. We wanted to ensure that the organization’s name was understood and not perceived to be exclusionary. We wanted to ensure the organization understood what members wanted from it and what they appreciated about their GSAE membership. We also wanted to make sure our data about brand attributes was used to create a tagline to better articulate the value of GSAE.

Our staff worked with the website provider to design a new user-friendly website. Volunteers and staff created the ideas for the launch video and five other vignettes in which GSAE members tell their stories that align with our core principles:

Advancing Your Career


Learning by Leading


Solving Today's Problems


Building New Skills


Expanding Your Network with GSAE


AA: What are GSAE’s biggest challenges and concerns with respect to its member communications initiatives?

WK: It would have to be information overload. We’re very sensitive about overcommunicating with our members. We want to be very strategic about how often and when we touch them. Our philosophy is basically: We respect how busy you [members] are. So when we send you something, please pay attention to what we say—we’re not going to keep re-sending it to you.

AA: Our annual communications benchmarking survey found that another big concern for associations is making members aware of all the benefits to which they’re entitled.

WK: Our philosophy on that is pretty simple: We’re here to serve members. You’ve got to be relevant and make their lives easier. What itch can we scratch for you? A lot of organizations get bogged down in telling members, “We have 30 great things in our member resource area—live meetings, webinars, etc., go check 'em all out.” But, you can’t be all things to all people. What we try to do instead is say, “Call me [Wendy] directly if you have a question. I’ll try to answer it for you.”

AA: GSAE seems to have strong culture of innovation. How is that maintained in today’s era of tight budgets and widespread job insecurity?

WK: Innovation is promoted by leveraging collective brainpower, conversations, idea exchange and resources in an authentic, safe environment that promotes sharing. Key attributes include staying current through comprehensive professional development, supporting each other without competition, and promoting self-satisfaction and pride.

AA: You mentioned technology has played a key role in GSAE’s evolution.

WK: Like many associations, we have limited resources, so we’ve become masters of the work-around. What I love about technology today is that the price barriers to entry are so much lower than before. These web-based platforms are the greatest things ever. Just about any size organization can start experimenting and playing around with the powerful new tools for managing your database, publishing, networking, and staying connected with members and your staff. It really levels the playing field.

AA: Has GSAE’s technology adoption paid off?

WK: Absolutely. My executives are much more efficient. They travel a great deal, and it’s now so much easier for them to stay connected to the home office and each other. I’m fascinated by how many of our board members are using things like Google apps and group sites like Ning to stimulate discussions and networking.

AA: So, what’s keeping you up at night?

WK: Are we spreading resources in the right ways with our social media “light” initiative? Also, I’m still very concerned about the economy. As associations, we’re slower to feel the pain of a downturn but also slower to come out of the downturn mindset when things start to improve. We’re talking about such a wide swath here in the Atlanta metro area and the state of Georgia. We really depend a great deal on convention business. Are we at GSAE doing enough for our members? Are we giving them enough guidance about negotiating contracts and employee compensation?

AA: Final thoughts?

WK: Ask yourself every day if you’re having fun. We work so hard at our careers. If you’re not having fun, then it’s just not worth it.

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