Association Management is a Partnership

If you look at most successful Associations you will find a partnership between the Association Executive, the Membership and the Board of Directors or Association Leadership.  For those of us who have been around the block more than once, it is important to find the right environment so that all elements of that mix can ultimately provide positive results.

I had the opportunity a few years ago to be the Charter Exec for a trade association.  It was a wonderful chance for me to be creative and to structure a new association.  Unfortunately, there was no partnership to be had with the Board.  Since the organization was formed and operated by member volunteeers during it’s incubation period it became quite clear, very early that though I was promised with the responsibility and authority to move the new association to the next level that the very involved Board and Members were not willing to step aside.  It was their baby and no outsider was going to take it from them.   In many ways I became an Executive Secretary, the title and the role that many served during the early years of associations in the last century.

Volunteers are essential for an association of any kind to succeed but those members must also be cognizant that they have capable and professional management available to move their association forward.  If I have said it once I have said it a dozen times:  “The worst thing any association exec can do is to forget that the association that he or she is managing is not theirs.  In many ways we are all caretakers but we must never forget that we are not members or shareholders of the entity that we manage.”

From day one, that means from your first interview with the prospective association board, candidates must emphasize that we are professional association managers.  We may not be expert in regards to the membership and their talents, though we will over time develop expertise,  but that we have spent our professional lifes perfecting our role in the association management  trade, be it professional societies, non-profits or trades.   We are more than a “hired hand,”  we bring much talent to the table and if allowed we will take the membership and the association to the next level.

Unfortunately some Board Members believe they can do your job better and will annouce it the world.  Such a scenerio is not beneficial for any involved.  Obviously Boards and members have their own jobs and their own responsibilities.  Their careers have taken them to the level of Leadership in their association.  They certainly have opinions, which should be heard and discussed but the end result is management is there to perform their jobs and hopefully all can agree on the distinct roles within the organization.

Sarbanes-Oxley has certainly defined the role of the Board.  Prior to SOX, some association boards were only rubber stamps, they approved everything management brought forth and oversight was barely provided.  Those days are over thanks to failures in the corporate and association world.  However, it is important for successful organizations not to excessively maneuver the pendulum over to the other side.  The award-winning associations that we hear of are always positioned as a partnership of Leadership and management.

With Boards performing an important and hopefully temperate role in the success of the  association it is important for an outside consultant, an attorney or maybe even a past Board Chair to annually remind the Board what their role is within the association. It is vital for this message to relayed by someone other than the Association Manager.  It is self-serving if he/she provides such a message.

 Bob Harris (Robert C. Harris, CAE) has a wonderful handout for Boards at The one page laminiated handout defines the balancing act between staff and Board with his favorite phrase being:  The board governs…..the staff manages.”   ASAE annually produces The Volunteer Leadership Issue of Associations Now which I would make a point to distribute to Board Members early in the year and if budgets allow, there are numerous workshops that CEOs and Elected Officers can attend to structure their relationship and association partnership.

Personalities play a very important role in the partnerships we create.  For the sake of a successful association it is always important for the Board and the Association Exec to create a relationship that will allow both entities to grow and prosper.  Before you take that new job, make sure all parties understand their roles and understand that all will benefit from a positive interaction that starts from the very beginning. 


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