Association Management

The One-In-One-Out Rule: What Associations Can Learn from Minimalism and Decluttering

By Danielle S. Russell, CAE • November 3, 2022

Article originally published in Canada Society of Association Executives’ Association™ Fall/Winter 2022 magazine

I received my Certified Association Executive (CAE®) designation in the summer of 2015 and within 24 months I had also given away/donated/tossed over 70 per cent of my possessions. The process of building my leadership and management skills, while simultaneously shrinking my stuff, helped me zero in on how lessons from the process of decluttering and living a more minimal life could be applied by association executives to enhance the value they bring to their organizations, and the value that, in turn, is created for members and other stakeholders.

I have a few minimalism rules to live by, that also come in handy at the office.


You’ve probably done some version of a stop-start-continue exercise with your teams or Boards, or perhaps as a solo activity. There are a million different ideas, suggestions and initiatives that come up when you have passionate, engaged and creative people working together, but it’s been my experience that since the “stop” list is the most challenging, it often gets skipped over and then either gets insufficient attention or none at all.

In our “do more with less” world, it is tempting to allow this scope creep into our jobs, to grin and bear it in a show of dedication to the cause our association was created to advance. But the truth is, it is actually really inefficient to be spending your scarce resources on unnecessary, non-essential or, at the very least, less-important tasks.

Much like the one-in-one-out rule of minimalism, holding fast to creating and actioning a “stop” list takes discipline, and may take a bit of backbone as you stand up to others or to the little voice in your head that says if you were really dedicated to the cause you’d find a way to make this happen too.

Years ago, I was guiding a new (to me) organization through a budget cycle when one of the directors asked me point blank which programs, initiatives or other expenses I thought could be cut to make more budget room for emerging and growing priorities. When my first couple of suggestions were dismissed as unworkable, I turned the question back to the group. Not a single person had a suggestion. The trouble is, by the time you mount the learning curve and deeply understand what the organization (generally) holds as sacred, you are likely to have also taken a deep sip of the Kool-Aid.

Which brings me to my next point…


Put another way, if everything is sacred, nothing is sacred. In minimalism and decluttering, we see this in the idea that stuff can’t hold memories and holding onto something that belonged to another person won’t help you hold on to them or their memory. In associations, ascribing deep and non-transferrable meaning to any one program, initiative or offering locks us in and hampers our ability to respond to shifting and emerging trends.

This idea is deeply applicable specifically in member-based organizations. We’ve all heard that to be all things to everyone, you become nothing to anyone. Sometimes the thing that needs to be re-evaluated isn’t a specific offering to members: it’s the inclusion of an entire class of members. One of the key success metrics of many organizations is membership, but I challenge you to think about how much better you might serve your core mission if you stopped trying to attract and service members who would not otherwise find value in your organization.

In many ways, COVID-19 disrupted many of our deeply held beliefs as shifts took place regarding what work looks like, and what it means to “work as a team.” These unavoidable changes helped demonstrate that culture trumps the bricks-and-mortar “office” environment. While some people by their nature do need to be physically in the same space as others for their mental health, the place (and all the stuff in it) were shown to be so much less important than we had previously believed.

If you haven’t already done so, it is time to stop letting a good crisis go to waste and look at which idols need to be overturned so that you can emerge, stronger, nimbler and more mission-focused than you started.

Okay, great, you’ve managed to find a way to declutter your professional life, not just your personal stuff. “Why should I care?” is probably what you’re asking yourself.


One of the more positive outcomes of the last few years is that we now talk more freely and openly about the value of mental and emotional health. Burn out, overwhelm and decision fatigue—along with a healthy dose of survivor’s guilt—have been the markers of those of us who survived the early 2020 constriction of the job market, followed by unending disruptive change. It was all too much.

In the same way that the stuff in our homes can send us silent messages if we leave them lying around: that pile of bills – “You’re broke, work harder”; those clothes in your closet that are getting a bit snug – “you’re lazy, get off your butt”; the “stuff” cluttering our to-do list can also send us messages: “You’ll never catch up, work harder; tired is for other people, rise and grind.”

Embracing that there is a finite amount that any human being can do in one day, and then letting go of the guilt that you can’t be all things to all people all the time will give you more energy, focus and motivation for what you can, should and need to do well. As a bonus, you’ll also be putting less pressure on your staff and volunteers, both by modeling a healthier approach, but also by creating whitespace that you can pass on to your support team.


I like to say that I’m too lazy to micromanage, which is partially true. I get paid to do my job and to oversee the jobs of others, not to do the jobs of others. But, I also believe that it is giant waste of time and resources to duplicate work and to work inefficiently.

It all comes down to ROI, sometimes even at a short-term cost to the bottom line. If you burn out yourself and your teams adding more and more work, quality will slide until the point where your work is of little or no perceived value to anyone, which is not good for growing or even maintaining revenue.

If I have you convinced, you are probably wondering where to start. Start anywhere. The journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step. It might be scary, it will probably be unpopular, but can you afford not to try?

About The Author

Danielle S. Russell, CAE is a Canadian not-for-profit industry leader, college professor, speaker, consultant and YouTuber who proudly lives life as a practical minimalist. Danielle has worked in various roles in the association sector for over 15 years and is an active industry volunteer, including serving as a member of the CSAE Board of Directors. She hopes you’ll connect with her on LinkedIn or follow her on Twitter @dani_s_russell and become part of her professional community. Reach her at [email protected].