Christine Umbrell is a freelance writer based in Herndon, Virginia.
A tight job market has made it difficult for associations to fill positions and retain employees. The AMC model offers a reliable alternative.
The U.S. workforce is becoming ever more transitional. Low unemployment rates and the rise of the gig economy, combined with new generations of workers who seek opportunities for advancement at a faster rate than previous generations, have led to reduced employee retention and difficulty in filling positions at traditional workplaces—such as standalone associations.
In this uncertain employment environment, AMCs offer an alternative that provides continuity of service and the benefits of shared resources, as well as subject matter expertise in all areas of association management.
“AMCs were founded on the idea of solving staffing issues at associations,” says Trudie Bruner, CAE, president and COO at Fernley & Fernley. “The model is well suited to helping organizations become more fluid” during times of transition, which occurs with increasing frequency given the challenging hiring climate.
Compared to traditional association models, AMCs offer more flexibility. “We’re able to adjust resources and find shared opportunities with other clients, which can allow an association to scale up,” Bruner says.
Specifically, transitioning some or all staff responsibilities from a standalone association to an AMC can prevent downtime when staff members leave. Alternatively, AMCs can easily absorb expanding workloads, without relying on assignment of full-time personnel.
AMCs were founded on the idea of solving staffing issues at associations.
—Trudie Bruner, CAE, Fernley & Fernley
Bruner points to the example of an association with special interest groups that typically meet once a year—until interest in the SIG program surges, triggering more frequent and larger meetings. Staff can be overwhelmed by the additional meeting-planning responsibilities, but at an AMC, “we can add half of a meeting planner to manage the growth,” she says.
“It’s all about resource allocation,” says Karen Kramer, SPHR, executive director of human resources for Association Management Center. When short-term projects arise, or when a staff member suddenly takes unplanned leave, “we can generally manage them without bringing in more staff.”
In addition to flexibility, AMCs can offer appropriately trained personnel for new programs. As associations move to experiment with innovative benefits and services, AMCs are uniquely suited to aid in these efforts, with less initial investment than might be required at standalones.
Innovation “can be intimidating, but working with an AMC, it’s easier” to try something new, says Bruner. An AMC’s responsibilities can be expanded without hiring dedicated staff, and resources can be scaled according to the success of new programs.
Partnering with an AMC can conserve resources when implementing new programs as well as during crunch times, says Emily Bardach, a director at Interel Group. Bardach serves as the executive director of client organization Women in Government Relations, which she helped transition from a standalone to an AMC-led organization several years ago.
Three dedicated AMC staff are permanently assigned to WGR, but Interel has additional staff available with specific expertise in finance, meetings, and government relations who can engage when projects or events come up. “You don’t have to adjust your staff—and no one’s sitting around part of the year,” says Bardach.
AMCs typically employ individuals with targeted experience in specific areas of association management, and their expertise can be divided among several client organizations, which means associations benefit from the expertise of highly skilled subject matter experts.
“At a standalone organization, you may need someone in a specific area—such as meeting planning, financial services, or creative media services—for only 30 percent of the time,” says Kramer. “An association may hire someone with that [qualification] who handles that responsibility part of the time” and then assign that individual other tasks “that aren’t really related to their area of expertise.” At an AMC, on the other hand, “we have skilled professionals in all facets” who are assigned to handle association tasks, “and we can flex to meet the organization’s needs.”
What’s more, AMC employees assigned to a given association can turn to their AMC coworkers to problem-solve when issues arise, says Bardach. “At Interel, there are 18 executive directors. We will sit together and discuss challenges. We have monthly client leader meetings and encourage our staff to participate in and run hot-topic quality circles,” she says.
Once an association decides to move some or all of its staff responsibilities to an AMC, honesty and transparency are key to a smooth transition. Bruner recalls one instance where the board of a small-staff association decided to hire her AMC upon learning its executive director was leaving. Fernley & Fernley began the transition a year before the executive director retired, working department-by-department to ensure a full transfer of knowledge about processes and procedures.
In another case, Bruner worked to onboard a standalone association that had only a full-time executive director, plus several part-time employees and consultants. “The previous structure was a bit disperse, and we were able to consolidate it all into a single management solution,” she says.
Involving board members in decision making and alleviating their concerns is important during these transitions. “The board may have been working with a standalone staff for a very long time, so AMCs need to establish trust—and help those board members understand that AMC staff also are passionate about the success of associations,” says Bruner.
Bardach agrees that trust needs to be established during staff transitions, adding that relationship building is the key to alleviating fears and ensuring boards that the association will be run according to plan. She encourages one-on-one meetings with board members at the beginning of their terms. That way, if a problem arises, the foundation of the relationship is already established.
Ultimately, working with an AMC means board members can allocate more of their time to the big picture—and less time to the details of staff transitions.
“It’s all about flexibility and shared resources, and bringing economies of scale to associations,” says Kramer. These features can serve as the perfect solution to an association facing staffing challenges—and an attractive alternative in today’s tight labor market.