Since Associations generally run on volunteer manpower, there must be a constant presence, a corporate “voice of” history, and consistency within the organization. Board of Directors (BoD) are often volunteers with a limited term and limited time to devote to the association’s business. While some BoDs are highly efficient and get an incredible amount done during their term, some BoDs are not as productive and often don’t know what is expected of them. The Executive Director or CEO is a recognized presence for an association to ensure the work of the Board is implemented and its mandate completed. It could be education, conferences, advocacy, government relations, membership, or more.
However, it is fair to say that generally, the membership of the association and the Board of Directors often don’t understand what the role of the CEO is (I will use the term CEO, but the role is often referred to as Executive Director, Association Manager, or Chief Staff Officer.)
I sat down with Shari Bricks, CMP, DES, who runs her own association management company, Bond Association Management. Shari has a team of 11 and works with 10 different full-time association clients, as well as a number of other association clients who only utilize conference/meetings management. I wanted to get her viewpoints on why an Association would hire either an association management company or a CEO to run the association.
Rhonda: Say I belong to ABC Association (fictional), and we have 5000 members. If we were to hire a CEO, what could we expect you to do? What role would you play?
Shari: Every association is different, and the needs are very different for each association. Typically, I am hired via RFP (Request for Proposal), where the client’s needs are clearly spelled out. I tender what I will do for the association based on the needs identified and am compared to other association management companies or CEOs. I am the named CEO for four of our association clients, and my team typically provides all the support and skills required to run the association.
For a large association like you describe, the association may already have hired dedicated staff and are looking for an external CEO to operate in a contract position. The CEO could be expected to have a variety of responsibilities (all or any of the following): the governance portion of the association, Operations Manager and manage not just the Board of Directors but all the association’s finances, governance, lobbying and advocacy, membership, etc., and potentially manage all the staff that are employees of the association.
If it were a smaller association, we might be hired for the CEO position and provide all the required staff. This way, the association doesn’t worry about the day-to-day operations (and overhead and expense) of running the association. They pay the association management company, typically a fixed monthly fee, to run it all. It could be a turn-key solution where the members only need to worry about paying a fee to the company and not consider running the company with all the associated expenses and overhead.
The CEO can play any role and should know all the different pieces of what makes an association tick. They should be able to step in and ensure all aspects are operating at peak efficiency. They are the conduit between the Board of directors and the team running the association. You can say in this scenario, no one is ever on vacation, as there is always a team member to back up even the smallest association.
Rhonda: How does an AMC (Association Management Company) make an association stronger?
Shari: As board members have finite terms and the members of the Board typically adjust on different cycles, we can provide consistency from year to year. The membership and volunteer base is always evolving, but the association retains its institutional knowledge by having an AMC. Since I am CEO for multiple associations, I can also offer my clients the benefits from my relationships with vendors and offer efficiencies of scale. Your association may have one or two conferences a year, which gets you no leverage with hotels, conference vendors, and sponsors. In contrast, I run over 20 conferences a year, so I can negotiate far more aggressively for all of my clients. I have relationships with all facets of the association world, which could benefit your membership and association.
Not every association needs to hire full-time employees. Instead of having a part-time or contract staff for meeting planning, membership, advertising, web maintenance, and more, you can get all of those things from your AMC. I have all of those skill sets within our team members, and they can give your association the amount of time it needs in each area. Not all associations are big enough to need a full-time staff force. With an AMC, you only get what you need.
I also can bring each association the best practices from all the other associations I work with, which, as you can imagine, benefits your association.
Rhonda: What if the Board of Directors isn’t happy with the CEO or AMC that is hired? What options do they have?
Shari: It is standard practice that your CEO or AMC is hired on a contract. There are performance expectations that are easy to measure the same way there would be with any employee. Each contract should have a 60-90 day escape clause if there are issues. Since the Board is cyclical, personality issues are not long-term issues. If there are performance issues, you can cancel any contract. This should be a positive experience for both parties and if either side is unhappy, the continuance of the relationship should be considered.
Ultimately the CEO works for and reports to the Board of Directors. If there is a problem with service delivery, it is the Board of Directors’ responsibility to take care of it. That is what the membership expects them to do when the membership elects them to that role. The Board makes the decisions that are in the best interest of the membership and association. The CEO/AMC doesn’t run the association; they run the association’s operation and execute the strategy and decisions made by the Board of Directors.
Rhonda: How is the CEO/AMC involved in finances? Is the association placing a lot of trust in one individual financially?
Shari: Not at all! Each association will have bylaws and policies on how the finances are maintained. All of my associations have a two-signature policy. I need to have two signatures before I can pay a bill, before transferring money, and before spending any money. I am only one of those signatures, so someone else on the BoD has to approve any money spent.
Rhonda: How do you ensure that each new board member knows their role and responsibilities?
Shari: We have a board manual that we update as needed, basically a living e-document, and we give it to each new board member. They each understand how we work with the BoD and what their role on the Board is. I have an open-door policy for any board member to reach out to me if there are questions.
Rhonda: Ultimately, I see that your role, whether you are providing CEO services or turn-key association operations, is to ensure the association is following the bylaws and policies to best serve its members, take care of its membership, and ensure the association remains financially viable as much as possible. Is that correct?
Shari: In a nutshell, yes. We make sure the business of the association is running smoothly, professionally, with the best efficiencies possible, and legally.
Running an association, large or small, takes a lot of work. Knowing what your role is to ensure that it is running well is essential.