The Association Workplace: An Inside Look
Photos by Kevin Kennedy

The Association Workplace: An Inside Look

What’s it like to work for an association? Hear from association professionals about what makes an association a great place to apply your skill set, find new challenges, and advance your career.

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What to Expect When You Work for an Association

In many ways, working for an association is different from working in other types of organizations. Here are a few characteristics that most association workplaces have in common—and that set them apart from the for-profit and government sectors.

They’re mission-driven. Every association has a deeply held reason for being. It could be “to build a nation of learners by advancing community colleges” (the American Association of Community Colleges) or “to bring healthcare back home where it belongs” (the National Association for Home Care and Hospice) or even “to promote the long-term stability and integrity of the natural colored gemstone and cultured pearl industries” (the American Gem Trade Association).

This doesn’t mean associations don’t want to recruit more members, increase conference registrations, and sell more products and services. They do—but they want to do these things primarily to fulfill their nonprofit mission.

You don’t have to be personally committed to a particular association’s mission to work there. But a healthy and genuine interest will help you get hired and contribute more fully.

The collaborative style of work in associations requires employees who listen well, are sensitive to group dynamics, enjoy working on cross-functional teams, and are skilled at building consensus.

Volunteers provide the fuel. Governing every association is a board of directors who usually come from the profession or industry. Working with the association’s CEO, these volunteers set the organization’s strategic direction and oversee its budget and activities. In most cases, the board does not oversee or evaluate staff performance, other than the CEO’s.

From the board level down, member volunteers also speak, write, engage in political advocacy, and participate on advisory committees of all kinds.

For association employees, working with volunteers means tapping their enthusiasm for the organization and guiding and coordinating their work to advance the association’s goals. It also means respecting their contributions and remembering that you can never say thank you too often.

Collaboration is a key. This is in part because of the central role volunteers play. Associations depend on their boards and committees to set priorities and on staff to carry them out. A great deal of work in associations is accomplished by staff from different departments working together. This collaborative style of work requires employees who listen well, are sensitive to group dynamics, enjoy working on cross-functional teams, and are skilled at building consensus.

It’s all about the niche. Associations are established because individuals or businesses share a specific—often very specific—interest. For example, a dentist may belong to the American Dental Association. But his or her needs may be better served by an association for dentists who specialize in pediatrics, orthodontia, or sports.

If you are hired at an association below the executive level, no one is likely to expect you to be an expert in periodontology or sports dentistry. But you will need to understand your members’ specific interests, whether you’re applying your job skills to creating and curating content, planning research projects, or designing marketing campaigns.

Many employees get deeply involved in the association world. Professionals who work in associations often find themselves planning their calendars around their annual convention—a major event in the life of staff and members. They become fluent in acronyms like CAE, CVB, and AMC. And many join associations that match their own interests, putting on the member hat and working in a different way toward a mission that makes the world a better place.