Karla Taylor is a communications consultant in Bethesda, Maryland.
Three FAQs about how an association management company can help an association experiencing the excitement and challenges that come with growth.
In 2014, the leaders of a professional association knew the organization was ready for growth. The only trouble? They didn’t know how. So, they signed on with an association management company to find a way forward.
The AMC discovered the association had not increased dues or other fees in more than five years. While the leaders had been eager to keep members happy, flat revenue was hampering the association’s growth potential.
To help the leaders get past their fears, the AMC offered a clear analysis of the association’s financial position plus strategic recommendations on how to aim for growth while respecting the association’s culture. Then the AMC created a communication plan to explain the upcoming changes to members. The plan included talking points and coaching to make leaders feel comfortable delivering the news.
The result: The association implemented higher dues and event fees with little discontent from members. “Now the association is positioned to realize a net income gain this year and positioned for a healthy, thriving future,” says Dara Rudick, CAE, CEO of Management HQ.
Sometimes, for associations like this one, growth is an imperative. Sometimes it’s a choice: You decide to forge into new markets or take on new legislative initiatives. And sometimes growth is thrust upon you when your industry and your offerings unexpectedly take off.
Regardless of the reason, you may wonder where to get help navigating growth’s inevitable ups and downs. If one option is an association management company, here are three frequently asked questions about what an AMC can do to help you with smart growth.
Experience. Because they work with a range of clients, AMCs have staff specialists who have probably already done what you want to do. Maybe you need to lay the groundwork for change by educating your board or upgrading your database. Or maybe you need to take professional development global by offering meetings in China. “Chances are someone at an AMC has done that and can tell you what to prepare for,” says Kay Whalen, CAE, president of Executive Director, Inc.
Perspective on best practices. “We know what works and what doesn’t based on our knowledge and network,” says Leslie Murphy, FASAE, CAE, president of Raybourn Group International. “And if we don’t have direct experience with a new program, service, or association, we have a variety of tools to research and implement successful initiatives.”
Support services. Growth puts major strains on everything from accounting to IT to communications. You don’t want your website to crash during a major volunteer signup drive. AMCs have experts to ramp up your capabilities or to put resources in place if you don’t have them already.
It means you can add what you need when you need it, and pay for only as much as you use.
Scalability applies to expertise as well as staff time. Launching a project requires high-level capability to design new systems, for example, or develop a financial plan. This naturally costs more. Once the project is running, maintenance mode requires less work and skill, so you pay less. An AMC can evaluate your short- and long-term needs so you can increase or decrease in ways that associations with dedicated staffing, benefits, and office space cannot easily do.
Faced with industry disruptors from the sharing economy and rent-by-owner housing sources, the Corporate Housing Providers Association wanted to both grow and differentiate its members by showcasing their professionalism via training programs. A full-service client of Raybourn Group, CHPA quickly assembled an expert team to pilot new regional conferences. AMC staffers set to work on budgeting, forecasting, logistics, and marketing. The popular conferences have attracted new members and engaged existing ones who never participated in events before.
Now that the labor-intensive growth process has ended, the conferences are coordinated by a meeting planner who shares her duties with several other clients. “This reduces the cost for CHPA as it maximizes return on investment,” Murphy says. The association has been using a similarly flexible staffing plan to start and sustain accrediting and quality assessment programs.
The American Academy of Emergency Medicine has worked with an AMC to grow its membership from 130 to more than 8,000. Scalability helps it run a high-profile European meeting that takes place only every other year. “They can staff up and then staff down, and their AMC fees change accordingly,” says Whalen.
You can even have a scalable CEO by getting an executive whose time is allocated for half-time service to your association. “It’s the kind of executive flexibility that’s much harder to do without an AMC’s backing,” says Murphy.
Provide professional expertise. When the International Parkinson and Movement Disorder Society signed on with Executive Director, Inc., it sought help improving its customer service and international presence. EDI saw that neither of those would spur growth unless the society grappled with a bigger problem: It lacked accounting procedures and a robust database.
Over the years, the society has built a firm operational foundation, learned from what EDI taught about similar associations’ successes and failures, and adjusted its staffing as needed. The society has grown from fewer than 1,000 members in 1999 to 6,000 today.
Offer staffing flexibility. The Society for Immunotherapy of Cancer needed help both shrinking and expanding. After years in which the society grew at a healthy rate, industry-wide problems with a once-promising therapy caused sponsorship dollars to drop. To help the society stay afloat, EDI helped make strategic cuts that reduced staffing costs by half. Sponsorship funding has since increased, and EDI has helped the society more than quadruple previous levels of both member services and staffing.
Provide blessed relief. Most volunteer leaders are grateful when they’re freed to focus on high-level work—such as setting a new direction for the expanded membership—instead of planning the banquet menu.
Handle other byproducts of sudden growth. For example, when changes in your field create strong demand for training, you may not have enough volunteers and subject matter experts to handle it. An AMC can help you anticipate that problem, launch a leadership development program to grow your volunteer ranks, and advise you on how to get the necessary resources to make your new programs a success with members right out of the gate.
An influx of members or money doesn’t mean your problems are solved. You have to know how to use windfalls strategically. It can be tempting to invest in new staff or office space without realizing how they can pull your focus away from your mission and toward costly overhead. Better to work with experts who help you plan wisely—including creating contingency plans.
“Most people in associations don’t go through growth spurts every day,” says Rudick. “It’s good to be with someone experienced.”
[This article was originally published in the Associations Now: Guide to Association Management Companies print edition, titled "Time for Growth."]