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Questions I still don't have answers to

A few weeks ago marked my fifth year on staff at ASAE. When I came on board in May 2007, I only had about year of association experience, so of course I had a lot of questions. I did not know the difference between a 501(c)(6) and a 501(c)(3). I assumed "ROI" was French. I needed Scott Briscoe, CAE, to explain to me what "social responsibility" was.

Of course, over time I found the answers to these questions and so many more. A side effect of editing day in and day out is absorbing what you're reading. (A back-of-the-napkin estimate: I've edited, proofread, or written more than 2,000 articles and blog posts on association management in these five years.) While none of this equates to direct experience—I can write about an association CEO having a new boss every year, but I don't know what that feels like—I like to think I've learned quite a bit about associations in general.

Yet, a few big questions persist, thoughts that crossed my mind early in my time here and which I assumed I would eventually come to understand better. But that hasn't happened. Five years and I'm still wondering. Maybe you can help.

Why hadn't I ever heard of association management before I came to ASAE? It's a deeper question than this, but that's how I first thought about it back then. Maybe I just wasn't paying attention. But now I wonder why there are almost no degree programs in association management in colleges and universities. I wonder why, even in Washington, DC, I still have to explain to friends that an association is not a union, and it's not just "a bunch of lobbyists." Why did seemingly everyone in association management "fall into" it? Is anyone here on purpose?

Why is there no universal governance model? There are countless stories in the archives of ASAE publications on associations overhauling their governance models, with nearly as many resulting structures. Are we really all so special that we need each need our own unique way to drive group decision making? We're all human, right? Policy Governance is the only model I can think of that even has a name, and, while it has its ardent supporters, it is anything but universal. Boards are often cited as CEOs' biggest headaches, so it was no surprise to me that Harrison Coerver and Mary Byers, CAE, got such a strong reaction when they recommended a five-member board. If nothing else, five was a number, something tangible to latch on to in a field with little consensus.

Are millennials not joiners, or are we just not at the right career stage yet? There is certainly no shortage of opinion on this, but neither side has won me over. I may just have to wait for time to tell. When baby boomers finally retire and millennials approach the middle stages of their career, I guess we'll find out. This is one of those questions of recency bias that makes me wonder if we're constantly overreacting. Is change really faster today than ever before, or do we just like to think that? File this question alongside "Is membership dead?" and "Is print dead?" and so on.

Perhaps these are questions you've wondered about yourself. Or maybe you too have questions about associations that you're still in search of answers to. Either way, please share.



I don't have any answers for you unfortunately, but just wanted to say congrats on being at ASAE for five years! They're lucky to have you!

Your unanswered questions are right-on.

You have some great questions, and I think your first one does bring up a good point. I generally just tell friends and family I have a Chandler Bing job - who knows what I do. It is a shame that such a great field is not more well known, however I have seen degrees in Non-Profit management popping up, so maybe that is a step in the right direction...however the local program here in Arizona won't allow students to do internships with a c6 but only with a c3, which to me is such a loss to the student who could be missing out on a great opportunity. So the question then becomes, does ASAE as a national organization feel any need to add promotion of the career field as part of their mission. At our association we have taken on promoting the career field of beauty professionals as one of our top priorities. We want to attract the best and brightest. Maybe someday it won't be so hard to explain what we do. Maybe all that is missing is our own main stream TV show with the main character running a trade association.

@Maggie, thanks for the kind words!

@Devin, glad these questions resonate with you, as well.

@Lisa, indeed, some days I feel like a transponster. I've definitely seen some nonprofit management programs as well. A lot of them seem to fall into graduate programs in Public Affairs or Public Policy, and they do often seem to focus more on c3's. A step in the right direction, yes, but not enough. Surprised to hear about the program that doesn't accept internships at c6's. That's really too bad. Seems like a chicken-or-egg situation: would creating more academic programs in association management raise more interest in the profession, or does there need to be more interest to justify creating those programs?

Hey, Joe, I like your observations about millenials and boomers. While every generation may have its own style and way of doing things, each follows the same path.

The way millenials are talked about today is just the same as Boomers were many years ago.

My mother always used to say, "wait until you get older. You'll see." Now I see.

Hey Joe. Please allow me to be a little snarky/ranty here. (You know I love you, man).

1. I'm tired of the "why haven't they heard about us/our program/our career" question. Why do we NEED them to? We've created an awesome profession that nearly all of us stumbled into. So what's wrong with that? I get the desire to have this be a more "in demand" profession, but I have the sneaking suspicion that we're being too "old school" in wanting that. The days of single careers are done, so why do we want to spend time and effort creating a really clear "career" that everyone wants to be in?

2. There will never be a single governance model! Because single models that never change only work for machines. Even the big-picture models that have been successful (democracy, free-market capitalism) have been far from perfect and are really more like a collection of principles than a flat-out model. Let's forget our need for a model and start actually governing.

3. Oh dear God, not another joiner/not joiner debate?!?! Didn't we get enough of that with Gen x about five or six years ago? (my favorite response to that, by the way, was a suggestion, at an ASAE conference no less, that we just wait Gen X out because the Millennials WERE joiners...thanks a lot folks!). I think it's a myth that any one group is a joiner or not. Sure, Xers are known for their independence, but I think that just impacts how they participate in membership organizations. The research I saw showed that compared to Boomers at the same life stage, they joined in higher percentages. Forget the obsession on joining and start looking at the way generations collaborate differently.

Again, Joe, this is not a rant against you (you are super smart and I value all your posts). This is a bit of a rant against our community. Questions like these just feel a little too close to the "we are the center of the universe" sentiment that bugs me.

Thanks David and Jamie!

@David: I definitely tend to think differences between generations are exaggerated. Of course there are some important changes, but I think we're comparing apples to oranges when we compare 50-year-olds to 30-year-olds, and so on. Your mother's words are wise.

@Jamie: Profuse thanks for your rant. I like to know I've stirred the pot. Question 1 is where I'll push back the most. I think of it from a numbers perspective. If there are X number of super-talented workers in the workforce, better awareness of association management as a profession would, in theory, attract a higher volume of potential workers and accordingly a higher percentage of those super-talented people. In general, I'd just rather see more people seeking out the profession than stumbling into it. I'll stand by my post from a couple weeks ago. But your point is well taken about people not staying in one profession for a whole career. Certainly true, but people seeking association management for even just a portion of their careers, to me, is still better than nothing.

Your thoughts on question 2 are enlightening. I'm still surprised there aren't more proposed governance models out there, given our penchant for at least trying to create models for everything. But you're right about democracy, capitalism, etc. They're not universal either. (Is anything, really?)

On question 3, I should just apologize for poking the hornet's nest. I mostly think the generations debate amounts to an unanswerable question, so maybe it wasn't fair of me to even pose it. I agree with you that we should fret less over trying to put each generation into buckets and rather focus on how best to meet each generation where they seem to be.

Thanks again!

Joe -

This is really a great post and I have been struggling with the same questions. According to the 200 interviews with association executives we did last year many executives are taking the lack of a talent pipeline very seriously. How can we expect to attract the best and the brightest into a career nobody knows about? Do we really think the best and the brightest will simply find their way to our shores?

On the other hand, we could question how far should be pursue becoming embedded in the post-secondary world when it is, itself, searching for relevance in an increasingly diversified post-secondary environment. I still think there is merit in having those discussions but nobody ever seems to want to seriously engage on it. This topic bubbles up every five to ten years or so and then nobody does anything about it or we tackle it in a disorganized, ad-hoc piecemeal fashion.

Maybe we don't embed ourselves directly into the post-secondary system - maybe we have to start sooner and get down into the high schools. Perhaps we direct talent we find there to a system we build on the outside that is more sophisticated than the ones that currently exist?

Also, I believe in flexibility and don't believe any one governance model will work for everyone. But maybe we should be looking at this question from a different angle. Perhaps why we struggle is we have not done enough serious research on figuring out why these social systems evolve and exist over time in democratic societies. A lot of what we know is anecdotal or apocryphal, not necessarily rooted in any evidence based scientific analysis. The rest of what we know tends to be borrowed and adapted from studies done on our for-profit cousins. Is that really good enough for the association of the future?

As to the generational thing...I don't have the energy to go there right now. What I do know is this - the kids will be alright but only if we let them help us right this ship.

Thanks Shelly for your thoughts. Clearly the issue of the association workforce has been on my mind a lot since you raised it in your session at Great Ideas. You make an excellent point that perhaps it's a bad assumption to think that post-secondary institutions are where we should focus our efforts. There could be a much wider range of options for solutions, as you mention.

Regarding governance, your comment reminds me of Mark Engle's recent research on strategic decision making in association boards [PDF]. In his review of prior literature, he noted the same "deficit in research" on board workings.

Thanks again!

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