It’s tough working for associations when members do what you do

September 5, 2010

Very early in my association career I decided I never wanted to work for an organization whose members did the same work I did. I made that decision while working in an accounting association, after watching our staff accountant explain how she did the books – year after year – to a succession of newly elected treasurers. Each year, the new treasurer tried to put his own stamp on how the books were managed, and each year she explained she was following effective practice for not-for-profits. Her work always bore a higher level of leadership scrutiny than that of the rest of us, and it made an impression on me.

That early experience came to mind over the past week or so as I read the blog and Twitter reactions to ASAE’s 2010 annual meeting in Los Angeles. Just think of all the CEOs, meeting planners, expo managers, member relations folks, and professional development practitioners at that convention! I’ll bet there wasn’t a single one who didn’t have at least one thought along the lines of “If I were in charge, I’d….” I’ll ‘fess up: I did.

Yes, the meeting had challenges, some more serious than others. Other more experienced bloggers and tweeps have articulated the specifics very well. Maddie Grant over at SocialFish got it all started with her posts both rant and love, and I agree with some of what she ranted and the gist of what she loved (some experiences vary). Jeff Hurt of Velvet Chainsaw’s Midcourse Corrections had a great series of posts, focusing on value for conference participants. Some didn’t directly mention ASAE 2010 yet were clearly inspired by it. Elizabeth Weaver Engel reflected on a few of what might be considered more intimate, yet no less important, aspects of the meeting (the devil’s in those details, particularly to those engaged in them). I loved that Toni Rae Brotons wrote simply yet passionately about not being thanked for her work on the “Guilt by Association” video – I was stunned by this and believe her post should be a clarion wake-up call for anyone who works with volunteers (thanks, Anne Blouin, for your response to Toni Rae – magnificent)! Even the folks not able to attend weighed in, like Shelly Alcorn and Maggie McGary. There were many others with awesome thoughts too numerous to mention here…forgive me if I didn’t mention you…no slight intended. It’s evident that association folks are passionate – Jamie Notter must have read my mind, and he said it way better than I would have. This passion is one of the things I truly love about association work; it’s been evident to some degree in every organization for which I’ve worked or been a member.

Mostly, though, I’m impressed by how some of the ASAE staff have responded to all of this, clearly letting the association community know they are listening and will work to make it better in 2011. Assuming you’re still listening, gang, I’ll bet anything there’s a whole cadre of people willing to step in and help you do that. Just ask us.

Like my former colleague, the staff accountant, ASAE staff work for an organization whose members do what they do – and not just one position: all of them! Think for a moment about the added pressure that likely puts on staff: the perception (and often reality) that everything they do is being put under a microscope by members who have the same types of responsibilities.

Most of the comments about Los Angeles drew a distinction between “ASAE the organization” and “ASAE the staff,” clearly stating support for the ASAE staff with whom the writers engaged. I echo that support! Every staff member I interacted with in LA took the time to listen and help if needed, regardless of how busy they were at the moment. And Brian Kirkland, liaison to the learning lab content leaders: you rock! I never would have known this was your first time doing this if you hadn’t told me. It was great to meet you IRL, and I appreciate the help and support you gave me as a content leader.

To wrap up what ended up a much longer post than I intended, I’ve been what I laughingly call a “serial volunteer” for ASAE since the mid-1980s. Every single ASAE staffer I have worked with over the years was a stellar representative of how staff should interact with members. In fact, my very first ASAE volunteer position, as a member of the Communication Section Council (1986-1989), taught me reams about how to better interact with my own volunteers. Because I felt appreciated by our staff liaison from the beginning, I learned my first and biggest lesson about the value of thanking volunteers for what they do. It made me a much better staff liaison for the volunteers in my employing associations for years to come.

I have a mantra that I regularly share with clients and their subject-matter experts, and with people who attend sessions I lead about aspects of effective learning: Every “event” [however that’s defined] is a learning laboratory for the next one. No matter how many times you’ve done it, nor how many times you’ve yet to do it, you can always do it better.

I have no doubt that ASAE the staff, and ASAE the organization, learned much from this year’s event. I also have no doubt that 2011 will be better than ever as a result. How will you help?

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Julie Senter September 20, 2010 at 7:59 pm

Great post. I didn’t attend the conference this year but have been following the blog chatter with great interest. I’ve thought about this point with several of the associations I’ve been involved with, and I’ve even been in this position as a staff member before, but I look at it a little differently. Yes, the scrutiny is greater when members do what you do, and it does get tiresome being constantly second-guessed, but there is also a great opportunity to be the best practices and innovative example for your members. It’s a challenging but stimulating position to be in, and an opportunity for continual professional development.

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Kathi September 20, 2010 at 8:33 pm

Thanks for your comment, Julie! I agree with you about the opportunities offered by sharing roles with members. While I started with an example that made me cautious early on, over the years I’ve become much more comfortable with the idea, and probably should have included that. It’s very easy, tho, to “Monday-morning quarterback”–we don’t always consider that perspective–and I wanted to acknowledge the issue for this event. All the dialogue out there has been very healthy, and I’m lovin’ it!

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