Why Small-Staff Solutions Are Useful to Associations of All Sizes

lewellen georgekis storey - small staff solutions July 10, 2023 By: Molly Georgakis, CAE, Christina Lewellen, CAE, and Annie Storey, CAE

Small-staff associations are no strangers to finding creative ways to adjust to ever-changing dynamics and member needs. Those solutions can help any association, regardless of size or funds, rethink strategies to not only meet member expectations but also improve the organization itself.

Global pandemics, societal issues, and economic recessions present the same challenges to associations regardless of size. However, small-staff associations must do the work without the benefit of the comparatively unlimited resources of larger organizations.

“All associations have been through a lot in recent years,” said Christina Lewellen, MBA, CAE, executive director of the Association of Technology Leaders in Independent Schools (ATLIS). “We’re all facing similar hurdles, but smaller organizations have no choice but to get really creative to serve their members and their industries.”

Lewellen, along with two of her fellow small-staff CEOs, have successfully faced these headwinds and found themselves providing guidance to larger associations struggling to address the same issues.

“Sometimes, smaller associations have to dig deep and find creative solutions because we can’t always throw staff or money at problems,” said Molly Georgakis, CAE, executive director of the Association of Professors of Gynecology and Obstetrics (APGO). “If larger organizations are looking for an influx of fresh ideas, there’s no better option than looking to organizations that make it part of their DNA to find success in alternative ways of thinking.”

Here are some lessons that leaders from groups of all sizes can take from their small-staff association colleagues.

Creative Partnerships

As executive director of the Illinois Section of the American Water Works Association, Annie Storey, CAE, recently had to evaluate her staffing structure to better align it with the group’s growing strategic deliverables.

It was a daunting task to analyze potential staffing models, rewrite roles and responsibilities, and ensure continuity of operations. Short on funds to hire an HR consultant, Storey connected with an MBA candidate specializing in HR through Riipen. The MBA student needed practical experience to complement her coursework and Storey needed assistance and a third party to analyze current role responsibilities against the organization’s strategic plan. 

Throughout the semester, the two connected virtually and discussed current HR trends, additional skills needed, and wrote new job descriptions and external postings. Storey also worked with an HR consultant to review the plan before moving forward. 

Now over a year and half later, the current alignment of staff roles is elevating member engagement with the organization and moving its strategic plan forward. The association also had job candidates share that the job posting language was positive and one of the reasons they applied.

“Small-staff association executives know the power of a great team,” she said. “But sometimes making the commitment to evaluating both current talent and skill gaps and lining that up with your association’s current needs is more work than what the existing team can tackle. This is where creative solutions can help you accomplish outcomes that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford.”

Flexible Workplaces

Facing rising cost of living and inflationary conditions, small-staff associations are also bringing aggressive solutions to the table to attract and retain top-notch employees. According to Lewellen, ATLIS has moved to a four-day workweek and flexible time-off to battle burnout and provide an alternative solution to big jumps in wages.

As a result, ATLIS has retained 100 percent of its employees coming out of the pandemic, which offers critical continuity during a period of significant growth for the association, and her team reports feeling relief and balance even during busy periods. Lewellen has a “waiting list” of applicants interested in joining ATLIS the next time an opening is posted.

“Creating a contemporary workplace with benefits like these required embracing tech solutions and a significant investment in training so we could run a more efficient organization,” she said. “But the result is that we can attract some of the best professionals in the association space, and that’s what our members deserve.”

According to Georgakis, organizations of all sizes can benefit from regular reminders to embrace the entrepreneurial spirit and stretch beyond obvious solutions. When researching apps for its January 2022 meeting, APGO specifically sought an app which, within its limited budget, could flip to a virtual meeting platform if need be. When the association had to cancel the in-person meeting at the last minute due to Omicron, it was able to take the meeting virtual in a matter of days and for almost no added expense.

“The environment in which our associations are operating is changing quickly, and we shouldn’t allow the creativity we embraced during the pandemic to dissipate over time,” she said.

Molly Georgakis, CAE

Molly Georgakis, CAE, is executive director of the Association of Professors of Gynecology and Obstetrics. She is the vice chair of ASAE’s Small-Staff Associations Advisory Committee.

Christina Lewellen, CAE

Christina Lewellen, MBA, CAE, is executive director of the Association of Technology Leaders in Independent Schools in Winchester, Virginia.

Annie Storey, CAE

Annie Storey, CAE, is executive director of the Illinois Section of the American Water Works Association and chair of ASAE'S Component Relations and Volunteer Management Section Council. She is a member of ASAE’s Small-Staff Associations Advisory Committee.