I've heard many complaints from fellow association executives about their relationship with their Board. Of course, we all seek a harmonious, productive and balanced relationship where the winner is a fast-growing association with a happy exec, thrilled Board and appreciative membership. Thankfully, some have found that balance.
Frequently, however, there are associations at opposite ends of the balance scale: Some execs complain they can't get their volunteers out of day-to-day operations leaving them to do what they are best qualified to do; while others complain they can't get volunteers involved enough, even to update the strategic plan.
Like most problems in association management, the solution is a moving-target and has multiple elements to consider. Take, for instance, my own experience with my association. When I accepted the job in 2004, I expressly complimented the Board on their history of direct involvement and told them I would need their passionate efforts to grow the organization.
To my surprise, I lost one volunteer after another within my first year. They would each tell me what a great job I was doing, smile and leave me to do my work and the work I thought they should be doing too. Oh well, I reasoned, they are busy running their own company and I have a lot of association management experience so I should be able to fill in for them. Before long, I found myself managing a massively diverse company with a Board who hardly noticed they were needed. Graciously they (some) would attend our quarterly Board meetings but when we couldn't grow new members or education events missed attendance targets, I was left to blame myself.
In hindsight, I recognized my primary failure was to fulfill one of the most important roles of a professional association manager: volunteer development. I was losing the initial board members because they were burned out. They had given a huge chunk of their cash and emotion to our association already before I arrived so, sure, they were happy to have me. In my haste to put my mark on my new association, I tried to replace with hard work a member development strategy that would take a volunteer's passion. I tried to sell seminar seats with smart promotion when I needed volunteers to show their passion for the events they helped plan. I should have spent more attention to filling the vacant Board seats and delegating responsibilities they would likely have enjoyed.
Meanwhile, I see associations where volunteers are picking the napkin colors, designing sales flyers, writing their own press releases and recruiting their neighbors kid as the association's preferred web developer. This is where the professional in professional association management earns his keep. The best of us professionals will recognize how to harness the passion and expertise of a volunteer and balance it with the processes and practices taught by our own American Society of Association Executives to separate the Board's strategic role from the staff's tactical role along a very wide gray line between them.
In developing volunteers and balancing their direct involvement in association activities it is the professional executive director's responsibility to know each members relevant skill and interest, then to direct their effort towards a productive result. Each volunteer has their own skill, interest and level of effort. But most want the same thing from their volunteer experience: A feeling of accomplishment in growing their association.
The professional exec is their facilitator, not their grunt. But it is the Exec's job to make that so.
The Role of Association CEO
Whether your association budget is large with many staff or your budget is small with few or no full-time staff, the responsibilities of the CEO are common and many. The difference is the CEO of the small association is responsible beyond the level of leadership but also involved directly with implementation down to the administrative task. Consider these major responsibilities: Membership Development, Membership Benefits, Membership Administration, Governance, Volunteer Development, Meeting/Event Management, Government Affairs, Market Development, Education, Operations, Communications and Cheerleader.
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