Associations Operating Virtually – Their Experience

An increasing number of CSAE Trillium Chapter Association Executives are operating virtually, so we interviewed over a dozen of them to learn about how well that is working.  This article summarizes our findings.

A virtual organization can be defined as an organization involving detached and disseminated entities (from employees to entire enterprises) and requiring information technology to support their work and communication.  In this article, we focus on members who do not leave home to go to the office on most days.

Three Examples of National Associations That Operate Completely Virtually

Christine Charnock, CAE is CEO of the Canadian Rheumatology Association a national association that operates completely virtually.  Her team consists of both employees and contractors, all who work from home-based offices. They value face-to-face team meetings, which they have on a regular basis in one of their homes.  They realized years ago that their members didn’t come to the office, and that they could hold Board meetings in rented meeting space.

Michelle Legault is Executive Director of the Canadian Society of Landscape Architects, a national association that also operates virtually.  She began as a contractor, and when the work became full-time, CSLA switch to an employee relationship to satisfy CRA requirements.  She outsources to contractors, some who also work virtually (e.g. communications expert).  Michelle highly recommends the free Google app for non-profit organizations, and takes advantage of CRA’s T2200 that allows employees who work from some tax incentives.

Carol Ann Burrell, CAE, is Executive Director of the Canadian Institute of Food Science Technology, another national association that operates virtually.  She maintains a contractual relationship, and contracts other professionals to provide specialized services virtually.  Carol Ann remarked that having a dedicated workspace at home without regular interruption can be considered a luxury when compared to the cramped, open workspaces many not-for-profit organizations provide.

What Did The Virtual CEOs We Interviewed Agree on as the Benefits?

Enhanced Productivity:

All interviewed agreed that operating virtually results in increased productivity due to that lack of commuting time, lack of distractions, flex work schedules, and being able to “go to the office” on weekends, snow days, even sick days.

Cost Reduction:

Operating virtually provides significant cost savings for the Association, eliminating rent, taxes, insurance, salaries and employee government remittances and less paperwork.  It also affords significant cost savings to virtual workers who save on commuting costs, restaurant lunches and wardrobe maintenance, as a few examples.

Ability to Attract Best Talent

Many of knowledgeable, creative people your team needs may not be located in your geographical vicinity; operating virtually allows you to hire the best, no matter where they call home.

Wayne Glover, CAE left his AMC office continue to function in Toronto when he moved to Salt Spring Island, BC eight years ago, where he has continued to be President of Associations First, managing as many as a dozen associations at one time.  Several of his employees work virtually from their home base offices. Wayne credits his ability to attract the best talent to work on his association clients’ files to being able to find people anywhere in Canada.  For example, his Director of Education works virtually from Halifax.

As employees or contactors themselves, those interviewed valued the independence: to work when they need to and decide in which ways.  Many mentioned that their amount of stress has been reduced: no workplace pressure and consequently an improved personal and family life.  And obviously less money spent: diminution of gas consumption or money spent on public transportation.

Key Approaches that Working Virtually Requires

Organization Leaders Need to Trust & Support Their Team

A key success factor for a virtual operation is having leadership trust their team; this includes the Association President / Executive Director, key Managers and the Board.  Performance needs to be measured in agreed-upon outcomes versus hours in the office.  Team members must be supported with well-functioning technology and access to needed resources, including the organization’s leaders.

Communications Need to Be Positive and Strategic

Liz Fisk, CAE is Executive Director of Distress and Crisis Ontario, a virtual operation that has a combination of contractors and employees, some full and some part-time.  She emphasizes the tone and timing of well-worded emails is key, and a robust strategic plan to confirm the work’s purpose is also. Writing thank you for a job well done is just one example of positive communication. She brings her team to the Trillium Chapter Holiday party, to allow them an opportunity to interact with other association people. Strong written communications ability by all is a crucial requirement.

In an article written by Raymond Lee of Careerminds posted on the internet, he stated that “Employees are most effective when they are given direction and are made fully aware of what is expected of them. This also enforces accountability. Assignments are needed, but strategy meetings on a weekly or bi-weekly basis are vital. (Skype counts!).”

Rebecca Alexander, Business Development Manager for the NFP Meetings & Conventions PEI, is one of our pioneers of working virtually.  25 years ago, the Holiday Inn Downtown did not want to lose Rebecca to motherhood, and negotiated a work from home plan.  Today Rebecca continues to work from home as she has for several employers over the years, and she also maintains that “Communicating” is key to success.  The perception of someone working from home can conjure a vision of someone working in their yoga pants (or worst pj’s) so it is important to frame any reference to this properly; working from a satellite office creates a safer and fitter image.


What are some Downsides of Operating Virtually?

As just mentioned, despite the advantages provided, it can be quite challenging to those familiar to being in a conventional work group to lead and participate as a virtual organization.  It can also be daunting to those just entering the workforce who have little or no experience in goal setting and time management.

Remaining Strategic

Rozalyn Werner-Arcé, CAE, Executive Director of Therapeutic Recreation Ontario says the way her team overcomes the challenge of having regular strategic conversations is to schedule regular, face-to-face meetings dedicated to covering the deeper issues. They also have intermittent webinar discussions.   And like many we spoke to, Roz says it is always a challenge to achieve work/life balance, which is why her office has a door!  Most interviewed admitted to working through lunch and not taking regular breaks.


Marion Tripp is the Chapter Administrator for the HRPA York Region, but during the previous 10 years she ran her own company, Virtual Options, that offered virtual back office and meeting planning support to associations.  She, like many we interviewed, admits that while it allowed her to be home for her young son, working alone can get lonely.

In her article entitled  Working from home: how to avoid feeling isolated Judy Heminsley wrote: “So, over the many years I’ve been working from home, I’ve come to believe that the most important priority is to plan in your diary, every week, the contact you need with other people and the outside world” (see article for “how to”).

The Virtual Work Space Should be Used for Work, and Not as a Secondary Den

Tracy Blyth, CAE, our CSAE Trillium Chapter Executive Director works virtually, with an Assistant who can too.  Tracy remarked that it is important to have a fully equipped, professionally appointed office to work in.  Yes, she can work from the cottage on a weekend when required, but she notices it isn’t as supportive an environment because it offers too many distractions.

Some association executives use a virtual office which is a shared office with communication and address services without providing dedicated office space, and this can be the solution for those association executives who need to work virtually, and also need “to leave home” or use a mega photocopier.

There are many tools to support operating virtually.  Email, of course, is #1.

When researching this article, I took advantage of tapping into my ASAE Fellows network and talked to two US association executives who operate virtually.

Onboarding New Staff

Jessica Chase, CAE is Director of Membership and Marketing for the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, a national American organization with nearly 1,000 members.  Theirs is a hybrid virtual organization, with numerous staff working virtually.  Jessica emphasizes the importance of onboarding new staff and mentoring them on how to work virtually successfully.  The key is to know your goals, be self-driven, hold yourself accountable and be an effective communicator.

Telecommuting (as operating virtually is sometimes referred to) is not an alternative to childcare

Gordana Krkic, CAE Deputy EVP for External Affairs and Jennifer O’Leary Deputy EVP for Internal Affairs of the Illinois Academy of Family Physicians.  When their old “bricks and mortar” building became an issue, the organization moved to the virtual model.  They acknowledge it was important for their Board to feel comfortable with the change, too.  They worked closely with their auditors to adapt the checks and balances required of the financial operations. They rewrote their internal operating policies. They require fixed child and/or elder care during agreed upon business hours. They use a UPS box (because it provides an address whereas a PO Box does not).  They have learned to avoid operating in silos, they schedule regular virtual meetings and they survey their staff to get their feedback.

Working Virtually in a Global Village

Ruth Abrahamson, CAE is President of Base Consulting, an association management company that operates international associations virtually.  She shared that it is important to facilitate engagement among team members and ensure they appreciate how their roles intersect.  They need to be provided the right tools (laptop, mobile phone, 4 in one printer and fast internet).  Respect and consideration for cultural differences is important. Emma Flood is a Senior Account Executive at Base, and she emphasizes the challenge of accommodating significant time zones, and uses Doodle to make the setting of meetings more manageable.

Jane Garthson is President of Garthson Leadership and an active leader in, an American-based organization that connects with numerous countries using virtual technologies.  She, as many, values the easy, affordable visual participation afforded by Zoom video conferencing.

Virtual Works for our Business Members Too!

Susan Saganski, CMP, Global Account Executive for Marriott International has been selling and servicing the association market for years, working virtually from her home-based satellite office.  Susan knows that the key to success is to provide excellent customer service and meet identified targets.  The same applies to not for profit organizations.

Want to Know More?

If this article has whet your appetite about working virtually, we found a website just for you:  We found another potential benefit to working virtually. “There are many ways to narrow the gender gap in the workplace, but digital is a very promising avenue,” said Julie Sweet, Accenture’s group chief executive for North America, in a statement announcing the research earlier this month.”

Some interviewed expressed an interest in being networked with others operating virtually.  I volunteer to administer such a network; let me know if you want to be included ([email protected]).

Tools for Operating Virtually

There are many tools available to facilitate working virtually; email is of course #1.  For an ultimate list of tools to assist those who work virtually, check out The Couch Manager. One that combines many of the services below is Time Doctor to improve virtual teams’ productivity.  And here is the list we amassed while researching this article:

Knowledge Management Technologies:

Phone Systems:

Google Voice


Remote Phone Systems

Google Hangouts

Create Videos:


Sign Documents


Share & Store Documents

Google Docs



Join Me


Google Drive

Cloud Storage Providers

Free storage providers

List of 31 providers

Faxing (free)

My Fax


Freshbooks or Quickbooks

Project Management









Mobile Payments


Website Management

Google Analytics


Legal analysis of news


Social Media Scheduling


The top social media platforms remain Facebook,  LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram and Pininterest.

Virtual meeting platforms

Go to Meeting


About the author:

Paulette Vinette, CAE, FASAE is President of Solution Studio Inc.  She serves as part-time Executive Director of the Landscape Architecture Foundation of Canada in a virtual capacity.