Do You Work for an Industry or an Association?

By Tim McNichols • November 5, 2012

By Tim McNichols

How many times have you tried to explain to a friend, family member or neighbor what you do for a living? How many times do you end up using the industry that your organization represents as the identifying feature of your explanation?

According to ASAEThe Center for Association Leadership, there were 90,908 trade and professional associations, and 1,238,201 philanthropic or charitable organizations in the U.S. at last count. Couple this with the thousands of companies that exist to serve all these groups with products and services ranging from management programs to software and everything in between, and you have what most people would consider an industry.


  • There are over 90,000 trade and professional associations and 1.2 million charitable or philanthropic organizations in the U.S. alone. Chances are you can find several that match your passions and interests.
  • Association professionals need to be agile with a wide variety of skills. This not only keeps your jobs fresh, but gives you highly transferrable skills.
  • We are not defined by the industries we serve as much as by the people who join the organizations we work for–or with.


The official IRS definition of an association is “a group of persons banded together for a specific purpose.” By this definition, I think that we can consider the association marketplace an industry.

For you and those who work with you at your association, the next question is, do you consider this your career or just a stop on the job journey? Are your skills transferable from one association to another or even to the companies that serve the marketplace?

The simple answer is yes. Meeting planning, marketing, finance, management, education, sales and just about every other position within an association-type organization can be easily moved from one group to the next, and the only new element is learning about the membership of a particular organization.

“We don’t always have the luxury of choosing exactly where we get to work, but a key benefit of working for an association is that you begin to build a valuable, diverse skill set that can often be plugged into an association in an entirely different industry,” noted Beau Ballinger, certification programs manager for IMCA, the Investment Management Consultants Association.


See Hank Berkowitz’s story in today’s issue for more comments from Beau about association careers

The association industry is dynamic and one that I did not consider an option in high school or college. As I started my professional career in publishing, I joined the associations for not only the industries I was involved in, but those of my profession.

It became clear to me that there is a unique and dynamic environment with associations, and this was appealing to me. This is why I choose to work for one and why I have come back to the association world with Naylor.

It’s not often that I agree with the IRS, but I do like how they describe what an association is – a group of persons banded together for a specific purpose. This is not only the membership, but the staff members that keep this all running.

The association marketplace is an industry and it really is identifiable. We are not defined by the industries we serve as much as by the people who join the organizations we work for or with. It has become clear to me that there is an association for everything and everybody, and that gives those who look at working for associations many opportunities for building your career as an association executive – plus you don’t have to live in Chicago, New York or Washington, D.C. to make this happen.

As we have focused on in the past, there are many resources for you and your co-workers to help with your chosen career path. Starting with ASAE and your local, state or industry-specific associations, take advantage of the resources they have to offer you as you develop your skills in this growing and ever-changing industry we are involved in.

“Association professionals are very willing to share good ideas and best practices, and I think that’s often because we’re not in direct competition with each other,”said IMCA’s Ballinger. “Ideas and initiatives that work well for an association in the medical field may also work just as well for an association in the construction field or the finance field.”


It would be safe to assume that most of us involved in the association world for any length of time can see the possibilities and career opportunities that present themselves within the organization you are currently with and those down the road.

Having a plan is the first step if you are looking to make the association marketplace a career. Next is making sure you have the right skill sets and even multiple skills, as a jack-of-all trade is a great asset to posses. Finally, take advantage of the opportunities for building your knowledge base with national, regional, local and industry-specific associations for association executives, as well as the vast number of social network groups on LinkedIn, Facebook, Google+, Twitter and whatever the next best online media to be created for networking with like-minded people.

There is truth to the old saying: It is not only what you know, but who you know.

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Tim McNichols is a business development director for Naylor, LLC.