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Professional comfort

Is there something wrong with all of us?

Harvard Business Review's resident nonprofit provocateur, Dan Pallotta, asks this question about the profession in his latest blog post, "Nonprofit Pathology." I urge you to read the whole post, but here's an excerpt:

"Maybe people get into the compassion business full-time not because they're more compassionate than others but because they're codependent. […] I see people who wear the debilitating lack of resources in their organization like a badge of honor, despite the fact that the deficiency undermines their ability to impact the community problem they are working on. I see people moving from one nonprofit to another, from one cause to another, seemingly more addicted to 'the struggle' than passionate about solving any particular social ill. […] And while they lament it, they have no commitment to doing anything about it. There's a sense of pathological contentment."

Ouch. That's a harsh diagnosis, but it rings true. When good intentions run aground time after time, frustration bleeds into martyrdom, and you can recognize it from a mile away. After hearing "we have to do more with less" enough, it begins to sound more like an excuse than a call to action. I don't think Pallotta means to indict an entire sector of professionals (well, maybe he does), but rather I think he means to point out that too many nonprofit professionals take the easy way out, lamenting the system rather than trying to fix it.

Philanthropic nonprofit work and association management have their similarities, of course, but the two attract a fundamentally different kind of worker that leads to a different strain of "pathology" in associations. Philanthropic organizations draw the bleeding hearts, workers who are stirred by the challenge of direct social or environmental change. Association work is more indirect; associations make the world a better place, too, but they do it by helping other people (doctors, builders, scientists, whoever) be better at what they do. And so association management is often less a profession that is sought out than one that people "fall into."

Meanwhile, associations have a steady pool of customers (members) to a degree that far exceeds any other type of business, for-profit or nonprofit. When you can rest easy in knowing that 80 percent of your customers will give you money every year, that's a comfortable, built-in audience.

What do you get when you put that together with a large pool of professionals who arrived in their jobs by chance? Instead of a workforce driven by a core purpose or an innate will to change the world, you get a workforce that discovers, likes, and comes to depend on the comfort of the status quo. And it goes without saying that comfort breeds complacency. That's the association pathology. We're codependent, too. We need members so we can feel needed.

I've read arguments that the struggle to change is magnified or somehow unique to associations, and generally I chalk that up more to overall human nature. We all hate change. But I can see how the nature of associations makes change an uphill battle. The chips are stacked against us by the inherent structure of the membership model, which is only reinforced by the workforce it engenders.

At the Great Ideas Conference last month, I listened to Shelly Alcorn's summary of her lengthy study of association executives' visions of the future. Her handout listed a series of "provocative proposals," phrased as "what if" questions, that emerged consistently in her study. More than one of them focused on transforming association management into a profession that is sought after rather than fallen into. If we're ever going to break our dependency on membership as we know it, that's going to be a key step.



Brilliant, Joe. We have all talked about how association execs are inherently addicted to the status quo, but I've not seen anyone put forth such a clear reason for it. Having an "automatic" customer base leads to complacency.

I wouldn't want to dismiss role that association execs' dedication to mission (i.e., cause)plays in their frustration and eventual burnout. As an exec, it's tough to see what needs to be done and be unable to convince stateholders to move in that direction. Some execs wrest control of the organization and do it anyway until eventually the board summons the courage to take back the reins.

I always felt this but I never clearly articulated it. I'm glad someone did and put forth the call for action that we all "feel" needs to happen but didn't consciously decide to do.

Association management is a profession, fallen into or not, and it's the profession of a unique business model -- nonprofit.

Nonprofit does not mean don't succeed. It just means we are "organizations exempt from federal income tax" as the American Nurses Association so succinctly defines it.

A question I have is this: where was the outcry when nonprofit management graduate programs were eliminated? Those who want to improve their professional expertise and standing must go with another graduate degree, usually the MBA.

I believe it is appropriate for a profession to have graduate level learning; the CAE and IOM are profession-specific credentials, but do not carry the gravitas of a graduate degree.

If we want to professionalize, let's take our studies and development seriously. That will begin the path to our profession being sought after rather than happened upon.

I never thought about this before but this totally resonates with me. A friend who recently went from an association career to working for a for-profit company confided in me "I always turned up my nose at for-profits because I felt like working for an association or non-profit was better somehow, but it turns out I was totally wrong." I confess I've had this same thought/feeling, and it has a lot to do with your points about feeling superior that you're in a "helping" profession because you're helping members versus just selling product or services, and also the guarantee factor where you know that most of your members will continue to renew each year.

For better or for worse, I think that the main parallel with the association profession is the Federal government--as in, if you want a cushy job where you don't have to work hard and get great benefits, work for an association. Just as with Federal workers, of course this stereotype is not always true, but seems to be true enough of the time to keep the stereotype alive.

Thanks Bob, Cecilia, and Maggie.

@Maggie: Interesting comparison to government work. Fair or unfair, government work has a bad reputation. But I don't think association work has any reputation at all. At least not one isn't just lumped in with nonprofit work in general. So here's a follow-up question. Which is worse: a bad reputation or no reputation at all?

@Bob and Cecilia: I want to respond to your points together. I love the idea of association management becoming a course of study within colleges and universities. But Bob's comment about boards that want to "take back the reins" makes me wonder if this only solves half the problem. If even the most skillful, experienced association executives today find themselves struggling to guide volunteer stakeholders toward common goals, will having some kind of post-secondary education in association management make a difference?

Hm, good point...I'm going to go with "no reputation at all." Associations get lumped in with nonprofits, but for people who don't work in the association sector, the thing they think about when they hear "nonprofit" is "fundraising." They don't get the association thing.

Thanks Maggie. The other reputation associations might get is that of "special interest," which I'd classify as a bad reputation as compared to being lumped in with nonprofits, which to me is more like having no reputation. So I think I agree with you, because at least with the "special interest" reputation, people have a biasic understanding that associations engage in government advocacy. I often find that people who use the term "special interest" pejoratively aren't upset about our rights to organize and petition the government; they use it to label lobbying organizations that don't align with their own political opinions. So in that regard, I think it's easier to fight the bad reputation by reminding people that the work associations do helps the government make better decisions. But for people who have no impression of association management at all, it might be harder to paint a clearer picture for them. Bottom line, though, neither of these options bodes well for the prospects of developing a workforce that is attracted to the profession rather than simply there by chance.

Joe: thank you, this is very thought provoking (as was Dan's original article on 'Nonprofit Pathology'!) I incorporated a reference & link to it for my blog post today, "Scorched Earth: Can you Survive?" (http://www.monkeybarmanagement.com/scorched-earth-can-you-survive/). Obviously, there are exceptions to the rule, but I think you've identified correctly that the lack of a passionate and motivated workforce is a major generalized issue facing associations. If every person on the team felt that it was their personal responsibility to truly 'earn' our members every year, I suspect many of them would behave very differently. In general, are we creating jobs or careers? Are we creating passionate advocates, respected specialists, or cogs in an assembly line? I don't have all the answers, but thanks for asking the powerful questions.

Thanks Kellee. I like your idea of asking staff to "earn" their members every year. You're right that that would engender some very different behavior. I also like the "scorched earth" exercise you mention in your blog post. Those are tough questions to answer, but they're the type of questions that an association could go years without answering just by maintaining the status quo. The model doesn't naturally demand answers to those questions. So an association exec should make a conscious effort to agitate, to get staff a little uncomfortable, enough to shake them from their ingrained habits and routines.

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