People Power: Three Allies Often Overlooked by Association Executives

People Power November 18, 2019 By: Tom Kimbis

Don’t think of resources solely in terms of dollars and cents. Many organizations have access to highly engaged staff, volunteer leaders, and outside partners who can work as allies in support of an association’s mission.

Association leaders often bemoan the constant need to drum up resources to achieve success, envisioning how far they could advance an association’s strategic goals with an injection of additional revenue.

But resources aren’t limited to budget dollars. Sometimes, the chance to offset expenses and free up revenue is in plain sight. Three powerful allies that CEOS often overlook include staff, the board, and external partners.

Staff Team

Association leaders realize the need for staff to keep engines running smoothly, but they often undervalue the valuable insights held by staff at every level of the organization.

For instance, imagine that as part of routine task to boost member satisfaction, a team member working primarily below the radar of leadership identifies a key market trend affecting the association. Most of the time, that knowledge stays buried with the task. But if the leadership learned of that same analysis, it could resolve costly issues chewing up dollars.

Leaders must use creative methods to gain visibility into staff insights. One way is creating interdepartmental teams where engaged staff members are charged with resolving high-level problems or opportunities normally reserved for leadership using innovative methods.

By welcoming input from staff across departments and different levels, new avenues emerge for fresh staff insights to flow upward. As a bonus, the more cross-functional interaction, the more comfortable staff become in sharing their next idea.

Board Members

Board members can be one of the most powerful assets to help CEOs advance the association’s mission—and do so at no cost.

Volunteer leaders are more likely to offer time and energy within a board culture that celebrates collaboration, transparency, and contribution. Leaders can enable such an environment by picking out a few board champions and encouraging them to model for their peers how to advance the association beyond cutting checks.

Meanwhile, leaders have to make a habit of employing greater transparency in sharing with the board how and where they need help most. By better understanding why and when their help is needed, board members can assist associations in the most timely and impactful ways, rather than through well-intentioned but often inaccurate guesses at how to help.

Most CEOs are so focused on working with only time-tested organizations that they overlook dozens of potential allies, some that may be unlikely partners on specific issues or functional areas.

There’s no end to what board members can do as added resources for the association given advance planning by the CEO and properly crafting the ask. Leaders may ask volunteer leaders to rally their organizations, industries, and networks to support important association initiatives. Board members can also lead discrete projects, serve as echo chambers, or craft op-eds or blogs that advance association activities.

What about leaders facing delicate issues that can’t be shared with the rest of the association management team, but who could benefit from sage guidance? Look no further than board members who have fought similar battles and are willing to walk through options.

External Partners

External partners are among the most powerful entities that can push forward an association’s extensive agenda.

Most CEOs are so focused on working with only time-tested organizations that they overlook dozens of potential allies, some that may be unlikely partners on specific issues or functional areas.

Look for partners in different geographic areas, on opposite ends of the political spectrum, or with goals that seem only tangentially related at first glance. Oftentimes, a lack of similarity is valuable in providing fresh perspectives on nagging problems. But until leaders reach out to possible allies, it’s hard to know if any organization is interested in building a closer relationship.

Consider an association pushing a public policy issue in Congress that reaches out to a fellow organization operating in an adjacent field of work but that has strong political support from different angles. Winning this ally could lead to backing from an entirely new set of stakeholders (e.g., policymakers, donors, activists, and more) who are typically out of reach of the association on this issue.

Strong external leaders may also assist beyond policy issues, helping to cross-promote communications, events, membership, research, and other association activities. These mutually beneficial relationships can work wonders without spending a dime.

Remember that gaining allies takes courage and patience. Leaders must sow some seeds early. Knocking on the door of a possible ally when assistance is critically needed is not a recipe for success. Familiarity comes before action. Building rapport, finding commonality, and keeping relationships current can yield potent resources for the association when needed most.

Tom Kimbis

Tom Kimbis is principal consultant at Enflection, LLC, and former interim president and general counsel of the Solar Energy Industries Association in Washington, DC.