Association triage: 911 for your organization

by Gordon Dixon

We’ve all been there. You joined an association because you believe in its mission or that it would help your professional development. And you were active over the years, providing ideas, time and money.

Eventually, you made it to one of the top leadership positions. But an unnerving thing happened once you got there. You saw the association through a completely different lens (as an administrator) and realized the association is in trouble, and maybe has been in trouble for some time.

So, what do you do?

Associations are essential to American life, but these days must be more sophisticated in numerous areas: membership, marketing, technology, advocacy, finance. How do you address all of these issues while still doing your day job and having a life?

Let’s talk about association triage – a quick and to-the-point assessment of your organization. Before going further, though, please understand there is a LOT involved in running an association, and not everything can be covered in this posting.

Good governance
First things first. Make sure your have the proper documentation for your organization. Find and read the following: articles of incorporation, bylaws, IRS Determination Letter, insurance documentation, and current and past budgets.

Once you have those, review your financials and, if you don’t understand them, reach out to someone you know and trust in an accounting role. He or she can help you ask the tough questions. The budget can tell you a lot about the organization as well. What is your outstanding debt? What is left in the budget? How much is in your reserve fund? Should you have a reserve fund at all?

Look at your current board and ask yourself, are these the leaders in your community (current and future)? Is your board more strategic or more transactional? Have you allocated your resources correctly? These are things the board should be discussing, and not necessarily the transactional work. Transactions are for subcommittees to drive.

When you get down to it, associations are about communication—providing the right messages to members and others. What do your communications say about your group? Are you the subject matter experts in your field? Are you the top education resource? Do you provide a sense of belonging and satisfaction? People join associations because they want to be with like-minded individuals and help themselves become better. Is your group welcoming them or turning them off?

Membership services
Quite often, this is the core of your organization. Membership is your lifeblood. Each organization needs to provide the services members expect, and feed them as they grow so they are a stable foundation. Members who volunteer allow you to leverage that base to strengthen the organization as a whole. How do you welcome and orient members, and educate them on all the benefits you offer?

Look at your past and current meetings and see how they measure up for content, attendance, and location. Are you providing the type of meetings your membership is looking for? Do you have the right people attending? Often, people go to meetings mainly to connect with others—making a meeting both educational and a good networking opportunity is a double win.

Volunteer or professional support?
There may come a time when an organization run entirely by volunteers, or a small professional staff, may want to seriously consider hiring the right subject matter expert to address their core needs. Maybe you need marketing help, or a fundraising professional, or an event planner. There are businesses that provide individual project management for associations at affordable prices. Keep in mind that often you get what you pay for.

Associations with limited budgets can and should consider hiring professionals to help them get to the next level. Whether you need a little help or a lot, there are those who are used to working with members of associations and providing direction on key issues.

Talk with colleagues
Leadership is a lonely place. People are looking to you for answers (and to take the liability). One of the best things you can do is to talk with colleagues or others in your membership about the organization and what is needed, or what needs to be eliminated. Sometimes in order for an organization to grow, they need to limit activities and focus on their core competencies.

Scope creep is legendary in organizations, and you don’t want to stretch your resources and continue leadership burnout.

You can always reach out to other nonprofit leaders. If all else fails, give us a call, we can help you think through your organization’s issues. After all, that’s what we do best.

What do you think are the core responsibilities for running/leading an association?