How To Build Your Trade Association Staff

Perhaps you are the Volunteer Leader of a pretty prominent trade association. Lets say your organization services people who operate hot air balloons. I recognize its both a random and odd choice as an example but indulge this scenario:

Your Executive Director just put in their notice because he/ she just accepted a new position with a larger organization. To add insult to injury, they are taking their entire team with them. Now you are a Volunteer Leader of a staffless organization.Its a pretty scary but realistic thought. You and your board are now looking for a roadmap to get your organization back to where it needs to be.

Naturally your best course of action is to hire a firm like Association Industry Matters (AIM) but thankfully there are some quick step guides to help you get things back on track.

  1. Start from the top. Every good association team has an EVP/CEO and then perhaps a Membership Director, Marketing Director, Events Coordinator, Professional Development Manger and so on.  The best thing to do is to hire your EVP/CEO.
  2. Here’s what you should NOT do, hire an insider. The biggest mistake volunteer boards make are hiring friends who may/ may not possess some skills that may be transferable to association management. An even bigger mistake is hiring a tradesman to take on the CEO role. I can not spell this out any simply, just because you know how to fly a hot air balloon does not make you qualified to run the hot air balloon association. Allow me to go one step further, hiring an insider WILL doom your organization.
  3. Clearly the best replacement for this role would be an individual with a =n association pedigree. Maybe someone with association credentials, such as a CAE (Certified Association Executive). Maybe someone who has run an association or has some sort of business acumen.
  4. Once the search committee agrees on this individual, you should allow them to dictate who they’d like to bring on as staff members. Most search committees balk at this idea as it gives a lot of control to a person who was just appointed to the new Executive level position.  The general line of thinking is “how can they possibly know what staff is needed for this hot air balloon. After all, I’ve been a board member for 10 years now and I know exactly hat kind of person should fill these important roles.” This is faulty thinking. I would actually say that a new Executive coming in and hiring their entire time is a far better exercise then a scenario where a new executive is integrated in to a co-existing association staff. here is why:                                                                                        A.  Co-Existing staffs don’t like change, don’t like new comers and are often uneasy about their professional futures when there is new management. You also run the risk that their is friction because a current association staff member was over looked for the Executive level possession and may harbor some bad feelings. Bad for team cohesiveness.                                                                                                                                          B. Hiring a new Executive with a Rolodex of talented people they can bring a long demonstrates they have a network of people who respect them and the probability that this new association team will come together with everyone understanding their roles.

Building your new staff is a slippery slope but Volunteer leaders must understand their roles. Although this new executive works at the discretion of the board, this board must weigh the experiences and knowledge that comes with hiring a complete Association executive.

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It’s been a few months since I updated my blog but I assure you that I’ve been extremely immersed in the fields of association management. I’ve decided to take on a new long-term assignment. It’s funny how life works. In my pursuit of supplementing my association consulting career, I was approached by my mentor who presented me with this tantalizing scenario, “How would you like to work for an association where the membership never changes? The bad news you will never be able to grow the membership base larger than its current state. The good news, you never have to worry about any drops in membership” It sounded like one heck of a riddle.

Naturally, I asked about the demographic of the members. Her reply was “They are homeowners.” I then proceeded to ask her what their platform was, she replied “living.” Now I went from solving a cryptic challenge to intense intrigue. I was ready for the question to her answer. “What is Condo and Homeowner Associations?”

In all my years of managing and consulting with associations, I never once considered this avenue. Mainly because most professionals in my industry have trouble finding the correlations. After having several personal meetings with the leaders of the region’s largest company specializing in condo/ homeowner associations, I began to see some of the commonalities and recognized areas that I can help them maximize their member (homeowner benefits).

Here are ways I am helping this very successful organization. They oversee 75+ properties in the Pennsylvania area. All together they are serving 30,000+ members. Let’s not misconstrue, they are homeowners but in this world, they are also members. These are individuals are paying a membership fee in exchange for programs and services. These services include, the use of commercial landscapers, the privilege of having snow removed during bad weather, the ability to dispose of their trash, in some cases water usage, electricity and or cable services. In other cases, Doorman services, fitness room, recreational amenities.

Each of these properties is overseen by volunteer boards. This is where my professional strength is best utilized. This is my sweet zone. More specifically, I was assigned to 3 specific properties who were lacking formal rules, bylaws, and general governance procedures. In one case, they were a new client with 3 board members who had no idea what their property rules, term limits or obligations were.

So this is why I’ve put some consulting projects on the backburner. I have been exhausting efforts in building strong board alliances and instituting a new culture to some of these properties. Let me make this very clear, this company I’ve been working for has been around for 30+ years. They already have a strong reputation in the industry. My work has only fortified these efforts.

It’s been a challenge. In addition to developing new board relations, I have also been reviewing procedures, analyzing contracts and addressing homeowner concerns. One important lesson I learned is that homeowners are generally tough people to work with, some have language barriers, others have zero background in organizational planning and many are angry about insignificant things but in fairness, they also have valid concerns. These are individuals who pay $50- $500 a month to protect their biggest tangible asset, their homes.

Although it’s been a challenge for me, I am really enjoying the experience. I’ve had the opportunity to teach my own methods but even more importantly, I’ve had the opportunity to learn. I am adding this to another successful venture in managing an association albeit a bit different than traditional 501(C6) model but one that exists and is very sophisticated in the association world.

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I was recently working with a friend who serves as the Chairman of a leading Toy Association. He asked me to consult with them about the best ways they can evaluate the performance of their longtime Executive Director (ED). In theory it seems silly that an Executive Board that hires and oversees the ED position struggles when it comes to evaluating.  The truth is my friend runs one of the best toy manufacturers in the United States. He has over 1,000 employees, 3 locations and lots of leadership plaques hanging in this office. He knows everything there is about Toys but what he DOESN”T know is the quality it takes to run an association. This is scenario can be mirrored by the volunteers of thousands of trade associations. They know a lot about their own industry but not about their own. Its like the D of the Toy Association telling the Chairman how he should make certain toys. Stick to what you know best.

Executive Boards are a volunteer role. It’s an important role but it’s still a volunteer role. My friend  has never run a Membership Drive Event, Implemented a Marketing Campaign, Led Professional Development Courses or recognized what goes into creating non-dues revenue.

The truth is there are a lot of Volunteer Board Members who are misevaluating their ED’s. I will briefly outline some practical ways to evaluate them but we must also recognize there are two other areas that need to be evaluated too. The ED needs to evaluate his/her staff, The Executive Board evaluates the ED and the General Membership evaluates their Volunteer Leaders.

1. Let’s start with the easy stuff. The ED is supposedly hired because they have association knowledge. Ideally the ED hires people on their team who have the qualities and knowledge to lead certain departments (Education, Marketing, Membership, and Legislative). In this scenario, the Board can only bless and approve any requests for the ED to hire someone but there should be little input on the final choice(s). The ED is ultimately judged upon the staff they hire. Certainly there are assessments the ED can utilize to measure efficiency, dependency and desire but there can also be reasonable benchmarks.

2. In regards to the Board measuring the success or failures of their ED, which I reiterate is the only position they should be looking at, and the exact challenge given to me as a consultant. I obviously have quite a few ways to tackle this subject which I charge a small fee to do but I will offer a few diverse approaches which can be parlayed together nicely.

A. When this ED was hired there was likely a Job Description offered to them. As an Executive Board, I recommend going through each line and assessing the performance with the basic volunteer eye test. Some of the areas will be black and white (I.E quantifiables) and some areas are shades of gray (Adaptability, Dependable, Flexible). This should be a litmus test.

B. Board Survey – This group includes Executive Board but also Committee Chairs and Vice Chairs or General Board Members. These are volunteers who probably work the most often with the ED. Yes, the opinions matter but it’s not the final word. I have customized surveys, which can be utilized for this approach.

C. Survey Your General Membership – The reality is most Executive Boards chose to ignore the majority opinion. They may not see the work of the ED on a frequent basis but they deserve to be asked and counted. I had a personal experience a few years ago, where I fulfilled all the job description as an ED. Furthermore, I significantly grew the membership and created a great culture within the organization. It would be fair to say that I was really appreciated by the General Membership but not by the Executive Board. When I was evaluated this was not taken into consideration and really created a rift between the Executive Committee and the General Membership when I left.

3. It should also be noted that the General Membership should also get to evaluate their Board Leadership. Associations are a Democracy not a Limited Republic. Leaders (even volunteers) should be evaluated on the merits of their work too. Your Bylaws may prevent consequences other than NOT being reelected but that doesn’t mean the General Membership shouldn’t have a voice in evaluating leadership.

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All Non-Profits are Created Equal or Are They?

Although this is a blog that concentrates primarily on issues relating to membership organizations, I am often reminded that we are often the unforgotten child of the non-profit world. Without diving into specifics, they are different 29 variations of tax exempt organizations. We have educational institutions, museums, religious institutions, general membership groups and charitable organizations to name a few. The purpose of this blog entry is to uncover the clear difference and paralleled similarities of the standard 501©(3) Charitable model as compared to the traditional 501©(6) membership model.

Charitable organizations solicit funds for a general purpose of healing, fixing, improving or solving a societal problem. A prime example is Stand Up To Cancer. A person or company writes a check and and in return they feel like they are helping in the advancement of finding the cure for cancer. In exchange, said individual or company can file these donations as part of their annual tax deductions. In comparison, an individual or company can write a similar check for a membership organization and in return, they get to belong to that organization. The term belonging has its own set of definitions but the general perception is that the person or company gets a benefit(s) of some kind.  In this scenario, there is no tax deduction. Although it can be claimed as a business experience.  Often under the ledger line of marketing or education. Bottom-line is that on the surface these two non-profits have two distinct purposes with 2 different advantages / disadvantages in the realms of tax deductions and intrinsic/ altruistic values.

So why is this so information important? It’s important because charitable and membership non-profits have more in common then you may think. I would even go as far as saying that charitable organizations are creatively changing their general model to make themselves appear to be more of a membership organization and still maintaining their tax benefits in a very legal way.

Allow me to explain. I recently had a client who could best be classified as a non-profit ambulance company. They were structured as a 501 C3. This allowed them to offer tax deductions to donors and also allowed them to be eligible for grants (Membership Organizations are not permitted this luxury).  When I walked into their board meeting, I asked them what was their biggest challenge as an organization . Without hesitation, they said “fundraising.” I then proceeded to ask them what the value proposition was to their intended donors. As I expected the reply was a simple “Their donations are helping to save lives.” I then turned the tables on them and I informed them that potential donors can not feel the feel of the values of their donations. What if that donation helps to save THEIR life? The response I received of course drew a lot of confused looks.

I then proceeded to explain that their stakeholders need to feel like they belong to the cause. They need to get an ROI for their kind donations that they can feel, touch and or point to. I wasn’t implicating that the donors should hope to need an ambulance. My point was that by offering a membership package, donors can now become members and it changes the entire perception of the monetary transaction. Now you are not viewed as a faceless contributor. You are now getting value in return, which is why I personally prefer being part of the membership model.

What does one get? Organizations need to be clever. In this particular case scenario, the ambulance company implemented a tiered membership package. For a few hundred dollars a year, your family is covered in case they should ever need an ambulance. In addition you get CPR training, use the stations banquet hall, VIP invites to special fundraisers, etc.

It’s a win-win. The ambulance gets a much needed financial boost and the individual / company is not only helping to sustain a great organization but they can justify it by getting something in return. Not to mention it’s also an allowable tax deduction. Everyone wins.

In a similar fashion, the terms “donation” and “sponsorship” can also be used interchangeably. After all, what is a sponsorship? It’s a donation that helps underwrite a program, event or expense. Thus  I advise an association executive who is exploring professional positions for a 501(C )(3) organization to keep that answer in mind. When the board says that the primary factor in sourcing their next ED is to have some knowledge into fundraising development, the appropriate reply from said candidate is “this is very much a functionality in the association world.” Most associations can not exist on dues alone. Many of us heavily rely on non-dues dollars and that includes larger sponsorships. This is our version of fundraising.

I hope the preceding comparison helps you to recognize the strong similarities of the 2 non-profit models.

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What Every Executive Director Should Know: You are easily replaced without warning or without reason. Your job is always in jeopardy even if you have a terrific track record leading your organization.

What Every Board Member Should Know: You can also easily replaced by other volunteers who think they can better serve than you.

These are harsh realities of association management. These are lethal swords that I have encountered in the past and unknowingly will probably face in the future. It’s a Dog Eat Dog world. There is such a thing as an Association Ecosystem. In it, things can blossom, ideas are harvested but it’s also entirely possible that things sometimes begin to rot and lose its resourcefulness. My insight for this blog entry is written from two very different perspectives. How does one survive in a changing association climate as a staff member as a volunteer board member?

The organizational structure of a standard 501(C6) trade association is dramatically different than any other work structure in our society. By comparison, most companies have an owner or a CEO. These individuals oversee a contingency of employees. These employees are chosen, evaluated and assigned work duties by their superiors, who are also paid employees. Most of the time there is an HR department for larger companies to act as a referee for employee disputes. If said employee is under-performing or not aligned to the right job, they can be reassigned, offered work assistance or in the case of the US federal government, be sent to a dark room to play Candy Crush until retirement comes along.

92% of all trade associations have 3 employees or less. That means the dynamic of the job is vastly different than the traditional small business and or corporate world setting. The role of Executive Director is chosen by a volunteer makeshift HR team consisting of members of the organization, who often have a great pulse on the culture of the said organization but hardly ever has the understanding of what it takes to be an Executive Director or for that matter, an association staff member. Thus there could be no relevant coaching or experience sharing on these matters. This often leaves staff and volunteers divided.

Furthermore, there is no traditional HR department to act as a mediator and no departments to reassign disgruntled staff. There is only one way to go if you are a staffer and that is the unemployment line.

 Reasons I have seen Association staffers let go (Particularly ED’s):

-Volunteer Board wants to save money and do the job themselves,

-Staffer doesn’t match the personality style that volunteers have in mind

-Volunteer board member has an unemployed relative/ friend who they may want to secure employment for them.

Very rarely does a job termination have to deal with the performance of the organization. It’s just the reality of the job.  It’s the profession we chose and the best ways to circumvent that are:

1.       Ask for a binding-contract when hired to prevent untimely termination.

2.       Ask for a better salary to compensate the job risk.

3.       Build a New Army of Volunteers

In most cases, option 3 is the most realistic choice. This tactic is sometime called

”Operation Undercover Executive Director”

It works like this:

The Executive Director spends the first 18-24 months assessing his/her board. They begin to learn who are valuable assets and who may cause personal / professional discord. During that time, the Executive begins to scout and recruit more viable leaders from the general membership pool. It’s sneaky and manipulative strategy but in the end it helps create a more harmonious organization, where tasks are completed and unease is defused. Most would argue against this approach and say that a good Executive Director should be able to work with difficult volunteers. This decree sounds good in principle but when evaluations and observations are being formed by personality traits logical benchmarks are not considered then the best way to nip these negative feelings in the book is to build a new army that you can count on.


This tactic is designated for high-performing executives who have been dealt a hand of under-performing volunteers to run their board.

As for my Volunteer Board perspective:

I am not anti-volunteer. Infact, I am strongly pro-volunteer, which is why I chose this career. I believe there is an essential function to a volunteer board. That role is to be the gatekeepers and industry advisors. It is to guide without impeding and to commit without ruling. Most organizations really count on this group but it’s important to not overstep their boundaries. I have lucky enough to be on both sides of this paradigm. It’s tricky but it’s what makes this structure so intriguing.

My advice to every Executive Director is to make time to serve as a volunteer at a local non-profit. Try switching your role and see how difficult it is on the other side. As a volunteer board member, I am careful to not impede and instead act as sounding board to the staff of that organization. When asked to serve, I follow-through and I don’t do anymore then what’s asked of me. I do not rock the boat and I certainly judge based on personal preferences.  As a volunteer, my professional opinion of a staff is based on measurable success.

I believe we all need to recognize everyone’s role in making an association operate efficiently. By doing this, we can avoid occupation hazards.

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“Race For Relevance” is become a must read book for every association leader. I’ve read it cover-to-cover 3 times. In the years since, the authors wrote “Road to Relevance,” Which is an equally superb bible of upkeeping an association. In their first book, they challenged associations to trim the size of your board. There are many reasons for this argument but the best reason is to make sure you have a board filled with volunteers who can do certain tasks as opposed to those who are simply taking space.

In an association I’m currently managing, we have 15 board members for a group of 150 general members. In my opinion the board size is disproportionate. Not too mention, not every pulls their weight. In an ideal world, your board should represent 3 to 5% of the overall size of the entire association.

Here are some general thoughts. Obviously the makeup and structure of each association is different.

Executive Board- Chairman/woman, President, President-Elect, Treasurer, Secretary.

Some associations have a 2nd Vice-President, 3rd Vice-President, Honorary. My question is, do these other board positions have roles, functional values and responsibilities or are they simply there because it makes them feel important?

Other associations have their Committee Chairs and Vice Chairs sit on the board. May view of that is simple. Include, Committee Chairs if it brings you to your proportioned rate of 3-5%. I would NOT include Vice Chairs. Another technique is to not include Committee Chair or Vice Chairs. Instead there are general open board positions.

I don’t mean to be cheeky but there is an old saying. Its not size that matters, its what you do with it. In my opinion, you can have a large board that’s ineffective or you can have a small board that is largely effective.

This is why each member must pull their rate. Everyone needs to be accountable. Are they on the board because it looks good on a resume or is there a passion for the cause. Do each member of your board know the key issues facing your organization? Do they make calls, promote your association or help enhance the group in any fashion or are they dead weight?

Each board member should have a full report on what they personally accomplished to help your association. They should also be present, participatory and proactive. The most important thing you should also look out for are fake reports. Many times board members will say a lot but in doing so, they will say very little. It is the responsibility of the other board members to make sure this does not happen.

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Technology In The Association World

A few weeks ago I attended a regional association conference and the topic was, “Technology 2.0.” The first thing I thought about was how silly and cliche the “2.0” sounded, why not 2.5? or 7.64?But when I stopped questioning the thought processes of the conference organizers, I began to actually learn something.

I learned that it was time for me to do a complete audit on the way I run my small trade association. This self-audit included, how we communicate with the members, how we manage contact data, how we accept payments, how we educate members, etc. As an added charge to myself, I wanted to explore new and innovative applications to help enhance our association image. Such as multimedia devices that sharpen our social media platforms.

In fairness this is something I subconsciously think about all the time because in my current world my brain is triggered to the following mantra, more-efficiency and less costly.  What I learned is more expensive can often mean burdensome, cumbersome and not a good resource in general. Lets begin with some functions of Technology.


The friendly skies of information sharing. The word DropBox is trending in the association world as much as Justin Biebers name is being dropped in Junior High schools across America. Its not just the lingo (DropBox not Bieber) but its the way of sharing with your files with membership and in my association with committee chairs. Way, Way back to the old age of like 2007, we used shared network drives to communicate with each other. In today’s world, association executives and volunteer members are on the go and the opportunity to drop files into a magically shared folder for a low to no cost rate is innovative, practical and time-consuming.


This winter our association will be doing something it has never done in its 21-year history. It will proclaim that they have the best Executive Director ever….and when I wake up from that dream, I will be implementing their first webinar ever. I should preface this statement by saying that our monthly educational classes often require our members to travel 30-60 minutes to a mutual destination. Webinars is the norm for national and international memberships. This technoogy is such a no-brainer. Everyone has a computer, most of us have a places to go, why not make education affordable and accessible.


Ever hear of Responsive Web Design? Neither did I until a few weeks. Most of us have experienced it but not recognized how great this technology is shifting our mobile experiences. Ever go on your phone to buy tickets to an event and instead of zooming out your screen, searching for the icons and waiting for these sub-sites to load? Now  leading websites like USAirways, StubHUB and USA Today all making mobile phones a great tool in managing these things in our personal and professional worlds. We can easily, find and load exactly what we need, pretty quickly.


This is perhaps the trickiest of all technology. There is not one right solution for every association. If there were, there would only be 1 company to chose. Instead there are dozens. In my years in this industry, I have used around 1/2 dozen of them. Some I liked, some I cursed. When choosing your AMS (Association Management Software), you need to briefly forget about cost and make a list of your pressing needs. For example, I reviewed 1 platform that was really impressive but it had a heavy emphasis on conference planning and less of an emphasis on member management. I knew that wouldn’t be right for me.

For my current association we have a list of 4 needs…

1. The ability to have limitless contacts (many of the AMS’s upcharge depending on the number of contacts).

2. The ability to host and maintain our own website

3. The ability to accept payments online

4. The ability for our members to login and edit their profiles

After, we sorted out our needs we shopped around for the company that most matches these needs. In truth this is something we started to research before “Technology 2.0” and it’ll be something we will be working on for many more months. The choice produces many consequences and choosing wisely is in the best interest of your association.

Regardless of how your association operates, I think its important to give yourselves an honest audit and find new ways to deliver in the ever-changing landscape of association technologies.

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