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As a leading Association Management Company (AMC) we are often asked by prospective association client partners and volunteer leaders of associations, “What is the key to making an association successful?”.  They, understandably, want a ‘silver bullet’ or ‘easy button’ answer – something they can easily implement to make their association successful. 

The answer is easy.  Unfortunately, the implementation is complicated.  The key to association success can be found in one word – Members

Associations that are most successful over long periods of time have figured out how to engage their members continuously

So, if you agree with my premise, the next logical question is “How do you engage members continuously?”.  That’s the complicated part.  There isn’t a simple methodology that works for all associations because each association and even each member within each association is different.  Members have different reasons for being members; they have different goals; they have different interests. 

Associations used to be able to engage all or most of their members around a single issue impacting most or all members.  (Often government legislation or regulation helps with this).  However, these days with member interests being so diverse, one issue doesn’t necessarily make as great an impact as it used to.

These days, associations need to understand the interests and needs of their members, much the way a retailer understands their customers.  Associations need to collect data on their members and the interactions each member has with the association and then deliver products and services that meet the member needs.  But doing just this isn’t enough.  This doesn’t create real engagement with members.

In addition, associations need to create opportunities for their members to interact with each other and the association based on their interests and needs.  The interactions can be through large events, small meetings, online groups, committees, and more.  These interactions must be expertly planned and coordinated by the association and they must allow the members to contribute to and derive value from the content or create knowledge shared during these interactions. 

Members are the lifeblood of associations.  Without members, even with a good and noble purpose, associations do not exist.  However, over time we may begin seeing a shift in how associations are organized around their “members” – this shift is one more reason it’s so important for associations to be engaging their members now

One possible shift could be that associations will cease to have “members” as we know them now.  People and companies won’t pay annual dues to be a “member” of an association and then pay additional (though perhaps discounted) fees for certain engagements with the association.  Instead, people and companies will pay for what they want or need. 

By figuring out ways to truly engage “members” today, associations will be successful today and their success will be sustainable regardless of what changes the membership model for associations encounters over time. 

Association Management Companies (AMCs) have been providing value to associations for more than one hundred years.  What kind of value do they provide and how do volunteer leaders determine the best model for their association – and if that model is the AMC model, how do volunteer leaders determine which AMC is right for them?

These are difficult questions to answer – especially for a volunteer leader who doesn’t have the expertise, time or resources to dedicate to find the right answer. 

So, in the spirit of former late-night host and comedian David Letterman, here are the Top Ten Reasons Volunteer Leaders of Associations Should Select an AMC (and specifically CM Services):

10.  Associations managed by AMCs outperform associations not managed by AMCs from a financial perspective.  Click here to review an article describing a 10 year study which supports this claim.

9.  Associations managed by AMCs realize significantly greater growth over time than associations not managed by AMCs.  Click here to review an infographic demonstrating this point   

8.  Associations managed by AMCs have the flexibility to adapt quickly to changes in their marketplace and redirect or redeploy resources necessary to achieve new or ever-changing goals. 

7.  Associations managed by AMCs receive the expert guidance they require for their specialized projects and activities. 

6.  Leaders of Associations managed by AMCs can focus on their organizational mission, strategies and related outcomes rather than managing employees and day to day activities. 

5. Associations managed by AMCs have more money to devote to membership programming and adding value to members as a result of the efficiencies and leveraged resources brought to bear by AMCs.  In fact, when reviewing the American Society of Association Executives Operating Ratio Report, associations managed by CM Services spend on average 10%-20% less on the resources to manage their association as a result of these efficiencies and leveraged resources.

4.  CM Services’ Core Values mean CM Services creates long term relationships with our client partners and employee partners.  They are: 

  • We put our client partners first
  • Integrity in all we do
  • Expertise in the industries/professions we serve
  • Collaboration to achieve best results
  • Deliver innovative solutions for our client partners
  • A team based work environment that is fun

3.  CM Services was one of the first companies worldwide to achieve Charter Accreditation by the AMCinstitute.  Achieving AMCi Accreditation means CM Services has demonstrated its procedures meet or exceed the best practices documented in an ANSI standard for Association Management Companies.  It also means CM Services passes an independent audit of its procedures every four years.  CM Services is dedicated to continuous improvement of its proven practices. 

2.  CM Services has a proven process to assure our client partners succeed.  The process includes developing strategic and operational plans for our client partners and keeping the Board focused on achieving those plans. 

And the Number 1 Reason Volunteer Leaders should select CM Services as their AMC:

1.  CM Services’ Three Uniques – What makes us different than all other Association Management Companies –

  • Focused on our client partners’ results – we invest ourselves in your industry and make sure you are achieving your goals
  • Consensus Builders – we help your members make decisions through consensus
  • Client Recognized Superior Customer Service – highest Net Promoter Score among Professional Services Firms

We can likely all agree that in business cash may be King but accountability is next in line for the throne. 

In our businesses if we don’t establish Strategies, Goals and specific, measurable Objectives we hold ourselves and each other accountable for achieving, we will not achieve our mission.

Associations are no different – except that associations are led by volunteers.  Everyone knows you can’t hold volunteers accountable right?  WRONG!

This is the biggest mistake we see associations make every day.  However, it’s an easy mistake to make because of the nature of volunteer leadership.  Volunteers have “real jobs”; volunteers have families, volunteers have other interests AND volunteers aren’t getting paid to do their “Association job”. 

What are some things that can be done within the association framework to change this paradigm and create accountability?

  • Staff and volunteer leadership both need to make sure the association has SMART (Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Relevant and Timely) goals aligned with the association’s mission.
  • Each SMART goal MUST have a person responsible for making it happen.  (Note:  This person doesn’t have to do all the work but is the person RESPONSIBLE for making sure it is accomplished by the deadline). 
  • At each meeting (committee, board, staff, etc.) SMART goal status should be shared.  If a goal is falling behind its scheduled deadline, that should be reported and discussed.  If changes are appropriate, they should be made and documented.
  • Between meetings, staff MUST follow up with volunteers who have been assigned responsibilities.  The purpose of the follow up is two-fold.  First to make sure the volunteer understands his/her responsibility and the task at hand.  Second to make sure the task is being addressed and an appropriate status report will be given at the next meeting.
  • Between meetings staff MUST report to the chair or appropriate volunteer leader on assignments for which they’ve been given responsibility.  This will help hold staff accountable for their responsibilities as well.
  • During meetings it’s likely that additional tasks will be identified.  It is the responsibility of the staff and chair of that meeting to clearly articulate the new tasks at the end of the meeting and make sure they’ve been made SMART and have a responsible party assigned to assure their implementation. 

Following these simple guidelines for holding staff and volunteers accountable will help your association be more productive and encourage a healthy environment between and among the volunteers and staff who are all working together to achieve the mission of the organization.   

One often heard piece of advice is when a person steps into a leadership role in business, the first thing they should do is find their successor. That’s very true for most companies. Is it true for associations?

The short answer – YES.

Think about the various leadership opportunities within an association. The Board of Directors, the Officers, the Committee Chairs, the Chapters (if there are any). It is critical that association leaders have planned successions for all leadership positions.

But how can they do this? After all, they’re volunteering their time and need to focus on the important aspects of the association, like its mission, right? Of course that’s true, but remember, if there is no succession plan, there is no way the organization can achieve its mission.

Here are some helpful tips for volunteer leaders to initiate succession plans:

• Officers. Every association should have a policy for electing officers. However, in addition to the election policy, there must be a clear path to find the best candidates for office. Typically these candidates come from the current Board of Directors but may also come from committee chairs or even committee members. As soon as one is elected into an officer position, he/she should start thinking about who would be a qualified, effective leader in that role. At that point the “recruitment” process begins. The officer should initiate discussions with other officers and those tasked with developing nominations about who the best successors may be. After consensus is reached, the officers and nominating committee members should reach out to the potential nominees to gauge interest and “sell” the positions. Many associations do some form of this but most wait until the end of their term to begin this process. It is critical the process to find your successor start at the beginning of your term. What kinds of qualities should you look for in a future officer?

o Someone committed to achieving the mission of the association
o Someone who has demonstrated their his/her willingness and ability to commit the required time to the position
o Someone who is open minded and interested in the opinions of others
o Someone who is a consensus builder
o Someone who has a positive attitude and outlook about the association

• Directors. The pool of potential Directors is usually larger than potential Officers. Typically these are the people who are chairing committees or who have been engaged in the association for some time. It is every director and officer’s job to help find (and even groom) future directors. Again, this process should start at the beginning of the director and officer terms to allow ample time to find the right candidates. The process should be coordinated through the Nominating committee process. What kinds of qualities should you look for in a future director?

o Someone committed to achieving the mission of the association
o Someone who has demonstrated his/her willingness and ability to commit the required time to the position
o Someone who is open minded and interested in the opinions of others
o Someone who has a positive attitude and outlook about the association
o Someone who will come to meetings prepared and ready to make necessary decisions

• Committee Chairs. Typically, any member of the association can be a committee chair. The best way to assure a smooth succession plan for a committee is to appoint “vice chairs” for each committee. The vice chair is the logical successor to the committee chair. As soon as one is appointed committee chair, he/she should begin the process of finding and selecting someone to serve in the vice chair role. The best pool of candidates is, of course, from active and engaged committee members. However, that’s not the only pool. There may be other members interested and capable. If you know someone who has the leadership qualities you desire for the association, but they haven’t yet been engaged, a vice chair role is a great place to start. What kinds of qualities should committee chairs and vice chairs possess?

o Someone who has a positive attitude and outlook about the association
o Someone who has the willingness to commit the time required for the position
o Someone who has specific knowledge or interest in the content area the committee is focused on, is helpful, though not required
o Someone who can run an effective meeting by keeping the committee focused on the agenda
o Someone who can engage others and encourage their participation in the committee or other association activities

As an association leader your most important job is to focus on achieving the mission of your organization. Your second most important job is succession planning – making sure your association has qualified leaders filling officer, director and committee chair roles for years to come.

I view leadership as a journey. Like most journeys it has its highs and lows. Sometimes I am working on all cylinders and practicing great leadership techniques. Other times, I struggle and find myself practicing more of the “don’ts” than the “do’s” of leadership.

I suspect most leaders have similar experiences.

Like most worthwhile things in life, I find when I’m struggling with leadership I need to go back to the basics – to remember that leadership isn’t about ME – it’s about others!

If you think about most great and sustainable leaders throughout history, they have one thing in common. It’s not that they were the smartest people of their time. They didn’t have the most resources at their disposal. They weren’t always the most outgoing or had magnetic personalities. The one thing they all have in common is that, as leaders, they served others, not themselves.

Given how true it is that the best leaders are selfless leaders, it amazes me how little is written about being a selfless leader. If you google “selfless leadership”, the second and third items are from 2015 and 2011 respectively. That’s incredible!

Click here to read an interesting post on selfless leadership.

Click here to take Inc. magazine’s test to see if you’re a selfless leader.

Personally, I think leadership can be learned and there are a few things you can practice to become a selfless leader. (You won’t do these all the time. When you catch yourself falling short – try again).

In every situation, put others before yourself. Recently I had an opportunity to take the day off for something we call Summer Friday’s. However, the person mainly responsible for answering phones in our office was on vacation. Rather than have someone else in our office come in on their day off, or have our customers call in to an automated system, I answered phones for part of the day. Doing so allowed others to focus on their jobs and gave me an opportunity to “walk a mile” in our receptionist’s shoes.

Be positive, not negative – Encourage, don’t criticize. This can be a hard one for anybody. It’s not easy to always be positive. Truthfully, no one can do that. But staying positive especially during times of adversity and giving words of encouragement instead of criticism is the mark of a selfless leader.

Taking time for others. A selfless leader ALWAYS makes time for others even when they don’t have time to give. We are all very busy in our lives. Time is our most precious resource. The best leaders find ways to give their time to others every time they need it. The people they lead aren’t “afraid” to ask their leader for help and appreciate it when their leader spends time with them without being asked. Back in the old days, some people referred to this as “MBWA” or “Manage by walking around.” For selfless leaders it’s more than that. It’s not just walking around but actually engaging with your team and giving yourself to them unconditionally.

Be an active listener and a passive talker. This one is difficult for me. I, like many leaders, am a “talker.” I enjoy interacting with people. However, selfless leaders actively listen to others. They don’t just hear the words, but they also relate to them and engage with that person to help solve their problems or contribute to their goals. As a goal, leaders should listen 75% of the time and talk 25%. As a leader, I need to remind myself, as I do often, that listening is more powerful than talking. I try to be the last person to talk in a meeting or in a conversation so I can hear what everyone else is saying first and only contribute when I have something valuable to offer.

So why is selfless leadership important to associations? Associations are natural places for selfless leadership to be practiced and learned. By their very nature association leaders are volunteers putting the needs of others before themselves.

If you’re an association leader, you are already practicing some of these selfless leadership concepts.

If you’d like more information on being a selfless leader or if you’re interested in professional management for your association, please contact CM Services’ President and Head Coach, Rick Church at rickc@cmservices.com

Being a volunteer association leader can be very rewarding both professionally and personally. At the same time, it can be one of the most challenging undertakings for a leader.

Let’s face it – people who choose to lead are typically the busiest people we know. There is an old adage, “If you want to get something done, give it to someone that doesn’t have time to do it”. That adage seems to often hold true.

It defies logic though doesn’t it? How could the busiest people we know manage to get more done than other people we know? The busy people aren’t necessarily SMARTER than other people we know; they aren’t BETTER EDUCATED; they aren’t MORE ENGAGING. What makes them so different than other people that they are able to succeed in the job they get paid for, succeed in their family lives AND ALSO find time to help lead an organization of peers on a volunteer basis?

What makes them so BALANCED?

Clearly they have mastered Executive functioning skills. Executive functioning includes the ability to focus or pay attention; ability to organize, plan and prioritize tasks and activities; the ability to focus on the completion of a task already started rather than getting distracted; the ability to recognize differing points of view and assimilate them effectively; the ability to control one’s emotions.

To some people Executive functioning skills are second nature. These people don’t even know they have a skill, practicing these skills is just what they do. Chances are, if you’re a successful volunteer association leader, your Executive functioning skills are strong.

However, to many people Executive functioning is a skill that needs to be learned and practiced. The good news is that they can be learned and practiced. The result? A more rewarding life because you are able to accomplish more given the same amount of time and other resources as others.

How can you learn to practice these skills? There are many books, consultants and tutors out there to help. One I’ve found that I like and connected strongly with is a book called Decide by Steve McClatchy. The book is a short read and is very useful.

You can catch a glimpse of Steve’s philosophy and a little about the book by watching this short video clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LJcmT_qbw0E

Another way to learn these skills is through training provided by your Association Management Company (AMC) or by observing the way your AMC team approaches the business of association management.

At CM Services, we know the volunteer leaders of our association client partners have jobs, families and other outside hobbies and interests. So we don’t waste their time and resources. Instead we provide them with training, guidance and counsel so they can succeed in their volunteer roles with our client partners.

Remember the phrase “Jack of all trades and Master of none”? Some people think of Association Management Companies (AMCs) as just that – Jack’s of all trades but masters of none. That perception is simply not true. AMCs are Masters of One, not Jacks of All.

In fact, the opposite is quite true. Association’s that hire their own employees as staff (especially small to mid-sized associations) tend to ask their employees to be more “generalists” in association management than “specialists”. In other words, direct employee staff of associations are often asked to do more than that for which they are trained for or schooled in – beyond their core competency. They may plan meetings but are also asked to do the accounting. Or they may answer the phones and also be asked to develop educational content. When working outside their core competency, people cannot be efficient in delivering services and perhaps, more importantly, the services they provide outside their core competency will inevitably not be expert.

An Association Management Company is, according to the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE), “a professional service company that specializes in providing management services for associations on a fee-for-service basis. AMCs provide the professional staff, administrative support, office space, technology, and equipment an association needs to operate efficiently.”.

By their very definition AMCs are specialists.

AMCs deliver professional services to associations in a number of areas. However, because AMCs deliver these services to many associations, their employees can focus on delivering the services they do best. So, when partnering with an AMC, an association won’t get a generalist who is having to do many, often unrelated tasks. Instead the association will get experts who specialize in an area of expertise and work to deliver the best possible quality service to their association client partner.

Not only are AMCs providing expert resources to deliver services to their association client partners but, most often, they are able to provide resources that their association client partners couldn’t otherwise afford as a result of the AMC’s shared resources approach to association management. So, an AMCs client receives specialized services from expert resources they otherwise may not be able to afford.

The next time you’re considering how your association should be managed, consider an AMC so your association can benefit from the specialized expertise it needs and deserves.