From the Corner Office

How to Produce Association Rock Stars for 100 Years and Beyond

By Association Adviser staff • March 16, 2017

Wendy Kavanagh
Wendy Kavanagh, Georgia Society of Association Executives

The Georgia Society of Association Executives is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. Landmark anniversaries like that deserve time to pause, reflect on the past, plan for the future and, of course, celebrate. We spoke with GSAE President Wendy Kavanagh, CAE, about the excitement GSAE members are building around their 100th anniversary, how they are preparing for the celebration, and the direction in which they plan to steer GSAE for the next 100 years.

Association Adviser: GSAE has existed for 100 years this year. What are some of the biggest accomplishments the association has achieved in the past 100 years?

Kavanagh: GSAE, along with other societies of association executives around the country, has made big strides in professionalizing association management. What started as an offshoot of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce called the Secretaries Club of Atlanta, has grown into an influential state organization with formal bylaws, a code of ethics and organizing principles. We pre-date ASAE by four years! Our members have worked hard to show that we are a group willing to engage with our local and state legislators to make life in our communities better and make business work more efficiently.

Abit and Kayanne Massey, and Zell Miller enjoying a past GSAE event.
Abit and Kayanne Massey, and Zell Miller enjoying a past GSAE event.

What I think is arguably our most important accomplishment is how GSAE has grown the stature of the Certified Association Executive (CAE) designation. This designation really lit a fire within the association community to improve our skills and the standards to which we hold ourselves. That commitment to the profession in general marks all the work we’ve done in the past 100 years. Being able to organize around communities of practice or shared interest groups was a big organizing opportunity for the profession as a whole. We went from a CEO-based organization that focused on exchanging information to one that still shares knowledge but also provides competency standards that lets people prove their competency as a professional to their supervisors, their peers and the community at large.

GSAE Leadership Class

How do you plan to mark GSAE’s 100th anniversary?

Kavanagh: We’re focusing on a few initiatives that acknowledge our history and how far the association management profession has come in the past 100 years, and we plan to involve our members and potential members in tech-savvy ways.

Planning for our 100th anniversary actually began with our 90th anniversary in 2007. Our 90th Anniversary task force focused on telling the story of GSAE through the decades, and not just telling it, but how to tell it, and what they wanted that storytelling to look like. We wanted our members to be able to clearly articulate the value of GSAE and to become brand evangelists for the association. The 90th anniversary gave us a rallying point around which to get members interested in the content of our story and in the art of telling it well.

GSAE 90th Anniversary task force

This focus on storytelling continued through a membership and branding campaign that began in 2010. Over the years, however, the focus on storytelling faded from GSAE’s priorities, until our 100th Anniversary Task Force convened. Two people on the committee said, “We’ve lost sight of the power of storytelling to benefit GSAE, but the 100th anniversary is a good opportunity to restart.” So this upcoming milestone is our motivation to reinvest in that timeless skill. We will begin using the hashtag #MyGSAE to promote the value of membership and to encourage members to share their association-related stories online.

At our annual meeting (May 31-June 2, 2017 in Macon), we’re going to have several segments that are hands-on learning and sharing of ideas. Our goal is to have people take the storytelling skills they learn at the meeting and teach their peers and colleagues not just about GSAE and the work it does or about their career path as an association professional, but about the technology they could use to share such stories. As our staff wades deeper into using video, Facebook Live, Periscope, podcasts and other impactful technology to authentically share GSAE’s story, we are consciously passing that working knowledge on to our members so they can stay abreast of relevant skills they can use in their jobs. We want to cultivate an army of members who can teach their colleagues what they learn through GSAE, so that in the process of becoming better storytellers, their peers don’t just hear about the value of GSAE, but experience it through the acquisition of a new skill.

AA: Why the focus on video and storytelling?

Kavanagh: Video has become a well-received way for us to convey information to members in recent years. Our members like our video program because it’s a fun and convenient way to stay connected with the association as a whole, and our staff likes it because it’s been so well-received! Video is also a great way to appeal to emerging professionals – they grew up on a digital content diet, and we recognize that we need to address that if we want to continue to grow in membership.

We’ve currently paused the most recent version of our video program to step back and ask ourselves what interactive content should look like for our members. What other exciting, cost-effective and accessible electronic formats are out there that will show how GSAE is a nurturing environment that provides the skills professionals need to be better at their jobs?

AA: What are you looking forward to the most about GSAE’s annual meeting during this milestone year?

Kavanagh: I’m really excited about the education and speakers. Everything is focused on what’s next. The #MyGSAE retrospective pieces celebrate a little of the past and the present, but everything else we have planned – from education sessions to keynote speakers to workshops – is focused on the future and the habit of forward-thinking.

Tech is always going to be disruptive, but the education we want to provide with our anniversary materials aims to address other trends – connected workplaces, flex working, how to be nimble in mind and activity – that will allow association professionals to adapt appropriately to emerging trends and policies in the American workplace without wigging out.

AA: Any plans for a straight-up party to celebrate?

Kavanagh: Yes! We’re hosting a gala in November. Our members asked for an occasion to dress up, visit with old friends and indulge a little, so we are delivering! We may have a speaker or two at the gala, but the focus at that event will be a celebration of 100 years of our profession.

AA: What lasting pieces of content is GSAE planning to create to keep the momentum from this year’s celebrations and reflections going?

Kavanagh: We’re adding to the retrospective we created in 2007 with both electronic and printed updates. We’re considering creating some sort of contest or game that members can prepare for at the annual meeting. We want a fun element present at the meeting that encourages members to learn more about GSAE and how it has impacted their individual career arc. We’ve been collecting ideas for such a contest from other associations although we haven’t settled on a final idea yet. But we have a little time.

We’ve been collecting ideas from several associations who have celebrated significant milestones about how to mark our anniversary in style and substance, actually. We have several idea files, both paper and virtual, where we’ve been dumping notes and examples from other organizations for a few years now. Associations North (formerly MSAE) has been a particularly exciting and helpful role model for us because not only did they mark their 60th anniversary last year, but they took on the challenge of completely rebranding themselves at the same time! We watched their efforts unfold very successfully last summer and have been taking notes about how to replicate the excitement around their brand.

We’re also putting together an eBook of leadership profiles from GSAE luminaries. We actually started collecting input from association CEOs in 2008. Our 2007 Celebration Task Force identified individuals from various professional backgrounds, experiences, staff sizes and industries represented and asked if they would share their hard-earned wisdom for other professionals to learn from. We’ve already collected advice from 96 individuals, truisms about association management, and advice for working better with boards and look forward to completing this resource.

In addition to the eBook, we’re also planning on producing playing cards with our leaders’ words of wisdom printed on them. We think these pieces will be a fun way for members to commit these gems to memory. Honestly, with the rich history GSAE has, I feel like we should be doing more!

AA: Where did your anniversary theme, “Producing Association Rock Stars Since 2017 & For the Next 100 Years,” come from?

Kavanagh: “Producing Association Rock Stars Since 1917” came from our 2013 annual meeting in Augusta, GA, which is also birthplace of James Brown. We wanted to play off that local history while emphasizing that associations make the world a better place. We make society smarter and stronger.

As for the second half of the theme – “& For the Next 100 Years”: people say things like, “You don’t want your children and grandchildren to suffer x, y, z.” When our Anniversary Task Force was brainstorming themes for marking a 100-year milestone, they started asking, “What are we doing to make our grandchildren successful? Not all will be involved with associations, but what can we do to create an environment in which they can be successful?”

Our theme speaks to the question GSAE members seek to answer in their jobs and in their community roles: What can we do to be information curators, foundation builders, problem solvers that move society forward?

AA: How does GSAE plan to serve its members during the next 100 years?

Kavanagh: Our desired future accomplishments revolve around supporting emerging and less experienced professionals. We want to engage that population because they are the future of association leadership. To bring them into our fold, we know we must be willing, as an organization, to pick things up and put things down. In other words, nimbleness and a willingness to keep learning is a skill that we’ll continue to need to teach. Association professionals must master the ability to discern, “How am I leading, based on the data at hand? How can I take risks in the right, responsible ways? How can I teach the younger generation what they’ll need, when we don’t know what they’ll need?” If GSAE can successfully teach the ability to pivot and still move forward, we’ll have prepared our members for almost any challenge they’ll face in their career arc.

But most of all, we want to sow faith in all association professionals that we understand what you do, and we are here for you. GSAE will continue to ensure that we have a culture that supports one another.


Wendy Kavanagh has served as president of the Georgia Society of Association Executives since 2005. She has been a nonprofit manager since 1995 and previously owned and operated Tessera Association Management, an association management company. Her prior work experience includes positions with the International Association for Financial Planning, Phi Mu Fraternity and the Institute of Industrial Engineers. Wendy earned her Certified Association Executive (CAE) designation in June 2002.