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Tips for a Career in Associations

Explore the benefits of an association career and the ways you can make the best impact in your role(s).

In a popular episode of The Member Engagement Show, Shaine Anderson, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer at NAIOP, shared her insights on key issues the association industry is facing (e.g. communications, the race for talent, AI, and data) and gave valuable advice on how to approach a career in associations.

Shaine and I have both found working for associations to be a deeply rewarding career. As I shared on the show, “For me personally, and for other people who I’ve talked to in the association industry, most people don’t start out with a degree in association management. They come across associations through one avenue or another and then fall in love with it because they’re so people-centered. You start to get connected, not only with your co-workers and your peers, but the whole membership. You start caring about the stuff they’re working on and their success.”

If you’re just starting out in an association management career – or if you’re someone who’s been at it for a while and like hearing from others doing the same work, this episode with Shaine was both professionally nourishing and FULL of tips to drive meaningful connections and facilitate association success, which in turn can make you a rock star at work.

Associations Are People-First

Working in an association is more than a job. Those who do best in this field sincerely care about their members and the industry their association(s) serve. Successful association professionals thrive on collaboration and understanding the needs of members.

The core of association work revolves around engaging people effectively, be it fostering relationships with members, coordinating events, or advocating for specific causes. By prioritizing the human element, associations can build stronger communities, drive meaningful change, and achieve their goals in alignment with members pursuing and achieving their own goals.

Be a Life-Long Learner and a Generalist

Are you someone who likes to dive in and figure out how to do new things? Do you enjoy trying different projects on a regular basis? Then you could be association material.

Working for an association, you’ll probably become very familiar with the phrase “we wear a lot of hats.” One day you might be helping plan an industry thought-leadership summit, the next you might be building and sending out marketing emails.

“It’s such a dynamic and vibrant career. You get to be exposed to all sorts of industries and professions that you never thought of or knew about,” said Shaine. “I’ve worked for cemetery owners, I’ve worked for healthcare access managers, I’ve worked for indoor soccer arena operators, manufacturing companies, attorneys, you name it… and there’s just so much opportunity, especially for spreading your skillset across all areas of the association: membership, events, public relations, advocacy.

Having a job with an association requires a genuine thirst for knowledge. Professionals in this field benefit from immersing themselves in all the aspects of association management, gaining a comprehensive understanding of their roles and responsibilities, and how their work impacts other staff and their members.

From governance and membership management to strategic planning and advocacy, being well-versed in the many different areas of association work provides context that feeds effective collaboration, decision-making, and problem-solving. A spirit of continuous learning not only enhances your own expertise, it contributes to the overall success and credibility of the association.

association professionals talking about their career in associations

Try, if you can, to become a generalist. What I mean by that is, I think its a really great thing to spend a few years in each facet of an association to really get to know that area. I started in PR and marketing, worked in membership, and then moved over to events. And that path gave me a very good birds-eye view of how and association functions and the importance of each of the pieces…So above all else, if you have a yearning to go far in association management and take on leadership roles, it’s really not a bad idea to spend a little time in a couple different departments.

Be Flexible and Curious

Another phrase I’ve heard a lot throughout my career working with associations and non-profits is, “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” But to help your association stay relevant with members, you must be willing to be creative and propose new ways of doing things.

Embracing innovation and adopting new tools and technologies is essential for the long-term success of associations. A prime example is how many associations are looking for ways to attract and engage Gen Z, which often inspires them to try new strategies. Being open to current trends and tools helps associations solidify their relevance and impact.

But it’s also crucial to recognize that implementing and optimizing these processes takes time, commitment, and patience. Associations and the people who work for them should seek to experiment, with a mindset of continuous improvement, staying aware that results may not be immediate.

By staying committed to testing and refining new practices over time, associations can enhance member experiences, become more efficient, and position themselves against the competition for sustained growth and relevance in a rapidly evolving industry. Be consistent and see things through.

Be a Thoughtful Communicator

Transparency and communication are paramount in fostering trust and loyalty among association members. But you have to approach communication thoughtfully. It’s a careful balance, making sure members aren’t getting overwhelmed with too much information, but also make sure you’re keeping members informed about your programs, advocacy efforts, and other impactful initiatives.

Having open dialogue strengthens the sense of community and reinforces the collective effort toward shared goals. To make sure members digest the information, though, you have to think about how they want to consume information and what will be most relevant.

Shaine shared: “Every association that I have ever worked with – EVER – struggles with how to communicate with members in a way that’s going to reach them. What is the right amount of communication? What are the best, quickest, and most convenient ways to communicate with them? How do they want to consume their information? And with the advent of social media and different technologies it’s gotten both more challenging and easier, because you can offer a plethora of different tools and ways to consume information.”

Be Compassionate and an Active Listener

Like we said earlier – working for an association involves working with people. So having a genuine interest in helping others goes a long way. “The most successful association management professionals I have seen – the best leaders in the industry – have a high degree of emotional intelligence,” said Shaine. “They can connect with people. They are active listeners. They are able to take in what someone is telling them and make connections with them and the services and products that will help them.”

Compassion is another key characteristic [for association professionals]. It may sound strange, but one of the association tenants – especially when you go through your CAE – is that we have a duty of loyalty to our members and we have a duty of care and concern. So you have to have the ability to learn about your members, reach out to them, and get to know them.”

Be Like Your Members – Join an Association!

One of the final takeaways Shaine shared is how, just like association members, association management professionals can gain so much from connecting with their peers. Shaine is part of the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE).

When she became a COO, she used CSAE’s online community, Collaborate (which is hosted on Higher Logic Thrive Community) to seek out a peer group and resources to help her succeed. She meets with other association COOs from around the country to share best practices, successes, and failures.

The Way to Make Yourself Most Valuable

Shaine’s time on the podcast offers listeners a clear picture of the essential elements that drive success in association management and a roadmap for how you can become successful in your association career. By embracing these principles, associations and the people who work for them can foster stronger connections with members, achieve strategic objectives, and ultimately, make a lasting impact in their respective industries.

Higher Logic Thrive is built specifically to make association work easy - and Higher Logic has almost two decades of experience helping associations succeed. Explore our website for more information on our products and to check out our resources for strategies and tips for association management.

Kelly Whelan

Kelly Whelan is the Content Marketing Manager for Higher Logic. In this role, she develops content to support association professionals and advise them on member engagement and communication strategy. She also hosts Higher Logic’s podcast, The Member Engagement Show. She has ~10 years of experience working in marketing for associations and nonprofits.