CSAE Trillium PDX May 19th Association Day Presentation: How Small Associations Can Deliver Member Value

By Stephanie Lockhart CMP, Executive Director, Canadian Superior Courts Judges Association and Nancy Barrett CAE Acc.Dir, Partner, AMCES Association Management & Consulting

Leading a small association can be simultaneously rewarding and challenging.  As the leader, we have a unique perspective and influence on the whole organization but we are also expected to wear many hats and balance the needs of many “stakeholders” (members, Board, volunteers, staff, other organizations) all with limited resources.  So how do we deploy the resources available to deliver the maximum value?

We have been fortunate to have worked with a variety of associations large and small and share the following ideas:

Set Expectations

Ensure that expectations are defined and manageable.  To do so, there must be a focus on people, policies and processes and an understanding of stakeholders.

  1. People. Positive, productive relationships with the Board Chair and the Board must be cultivated.  It is helpful to understand the Chair’s goals for their mandate and how to help them achieve those goals.  It is also important to help them understand their strengths and address their weaknesses so that they are well-positioned to lead the Board.  In terms of the Board, an annual Board orientation is a must for a clear understanding of the role and responsibilities of the Board and the staff.

The staff of a small association also needs to be versatile with an ability to be creative and think big but also willing to roll up their sleeves when required.  Association leaders need to create an environment that supports continuous learning and team building.

  • Policies and Processes.  Clear policies and processes are helpful in setting realistic expectations.  The following policies will help both the Board and the staff: 
  1. Strategic Management Policy and Process.  This will help define the Board and staff roles in setting, implementing and evaluating strategy and will help the Board set its priorities.  Activities undertaken by the organization should tie directly to priorities.
  • Clear decision-making processes will help the Board make choices and focus on priorities.
  1. A policy for introducing new programs and services and abandoning existing ones is critical when resources are limited. 
  2. Member Intelligence. With finite resources available, it is helpful to understand member and stakeholder segments.  Each segment has specific needs and engages differently in current programs and services.  Understanding members will ensure that limited resources are being allocated efficiently and effectively.                            

Lean on Your Network

Association leaders can do this in a variety of ways:

  1. Benchmarking to Best Practices.  There are many sources for best or “wise” practices.  Formal sources include associations such as CSAE and ASAE but it can be as simple as tapping into your colleagues at other organizations for ideas and sample resources.  The association sector has a reputation for generosity, and it is likely that you will have an opportunity to reciprocate on another occasion.  Boards are more often inclined to support a proposed approach if it is benchmarked to best practices of other successful organizations.
  2. Partnerships.  Partnerships work well for advocacy initiatives.   For example, in this time of COVID 19, many services were postponed including diagnostic imaging.  In response to the eventual easing of restrictions, the Radiology Re-entry Taskforce was created to develop guidelines for the resumption of service. The taskforce was comprised of associations which were able to contribute specific expertise under tight time constraints and ensure that the guidelines provided the best possible re-entry plan to ensure patient and healthcare professional safety.  The individual organizations could not likely have had a similar impact on their own.

Partnerships can also work well for events such as national and international conferences as they can bring together diverse and high-profile speakers, a larger pool of delegates and increased sponsorship.  The workload and potential risks can be shared among the partners. 

The rules of engagement for partnerships can be documented via a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), often used for larger initiatives, or a terms of reference (TOR).   MOUs typically spell out which organization is doing what, how decisions are made and how costs/profits are shared.

  • Outsourcing.  Outsourcing can be more cost-effective and lower risk than hiring employees.  With outsourcing you can access the most up to date expertise when you need it saving time and money as no investment is required for training.  An outside “expert” can be effective in helping you to convince the Board to do something especially if the expert can share what other successful organizations are doing.  Examples of outsourced services include technology, accounting, event management and governance support.
  • Subject Matter Experts.  While large associations often have subject matter experts (SMEs) on staff to provide leadership for regulatory matters and certification programs, this is typically not the case for small associations.  Smaller associations can access this expertise via member volunteers and consultants, and should have processes in place to manage these relationships with clear policies for conflict of interest, confidentiality etc.  Calls for Expression of Interest or Requests for Proposals are suggested when sourcing SMEs to ensure that the scope of work, timing, fees etc. are clearly defined.  They should be selected by a staff/volunteer committee with no conflict of interest and letters of engagement should be put in place that define the deliverables, timing, fees, satisfaction of performance etc.  Subject matter experts typically offer their services to gain experience, receive recognition or give back to the profession and it is important to understand their motivation and ensure their goals are met.

Leverage Technology  

Small associations can leverage technology to deliver value.  It is important to understand the needs and capacity of the association’s various stakeholder segments and use the appropriate tools.  During this pandemic, all organizations have had to adapt to new technology for remote teamwork and to deliver services to members.  Flexibility and a willingness to experiment will help identify the tools that work best.  Policies and guidelines (particularly for external communication) can provide a useful framework.

Association professionals are committed to delivering value regardless of the size of their organization.  While small associations often face more challenges, these challenges can be overcome by nurturing relationships, investing the time to put policies and processes in place and leaning on your network.