Why work for an association
Photos by Kevin Kennedy

Why Work for an Association?

There are thousands of associations in the United States alone, but you may have never considered working for one. Discover how associations can provide a rewarding career path that may be just right for you.

You probably know about the AMA, the ABA, and AARP. You’ve likely read news stories quoting industry experts from associations and seen advocacy messages in association advertising. But you may not have thought of these organizations as places to work, where you can apply your skills and expertise alongside other professionals from a variety of fields pursing common goals.

Curious to know more? Consider this your job seeker’s guide to associations.

What Is an Association?

The IRS offers this concise definition: “In general, an association is a group of persons banded together for a specific purpose.” Associations are nonprofit, tax-exempt organizations that represent the interests of people in a particular profession or businesses in a particular industry. They provide services such as education and political advocacy, help their members network and share knowledge, and build public awareness for a cause.

According to the IRS Data Book, in 2013 there were 66,985 trade and professional associations and more than 1 million philanthropic or charitable organizations. (The latter is a broad subsection of nonprofits that includes public charities and grant-making organizations, which are not associations.) The Washington, DC, area is home to more associations than any other city in the United States, and large numbers are headquartered in state capitals as well as in New York and Chicago.

But associations can be found just about everywhere. An internet search of the words “association” plus the name of your city may turn up a surprisingly large list of these organizations near you.

Associations provide services such as education and political advocacy, help their members network and share knowledge, and build public awareness for a cause.

Types of Associations

Associations come in three basic types:

Trade associations. Trade associations generally represent businesses, not individuals. Even though they’re competitors, these companies band together for the good of their industry. They find it mutually beneficial to make their voices heard in national, state, or local governments; conduct research on their industry; promote business ethics; and track new trends and products.

Among the best-known trade associations are the American Petroleum Institute and the Motion Picture Association of America. But there are thousands you probably have never heard of, like the Fantasy Sports Trade Association or National Christmas Tree Association (not to be confused with the American Christmas Tree Association).

Professional associations. These groups are made up of individuals, so they are sometimes also called individual membership societies. Professional associations represent people who join to keep up with what’s going on in their profession and to exchange information with colleagues.

Among the best-known professional associations are the American Medical Association, the American Bar Association, and the National Association of Realtors. Some individual membership societies are not based on profession but on some other common interest or characteristic. The biggest is AARP, which has 37 million members age 50 and up.

Philanthropic and charitable associations. These are advocacy groups that work for the good of a cause, such as disease prevention, education, or the environment. You have no doubt heard of the Nature Conservancy and the American Heart Association. Some of these types of organizations have members, and some have donors or other kinds of supporters.

By the way, Association CareerHQ is brought to you by ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership, formerly known as the American Society of Association Executives. And yes, that means ASAE is the association of associations.

Explore More

Association Job Summaries and Salaries: Wonder what kinds of jobs are available in associations and what they pay? Peruse this list of common job titles across 13 functional areas from education to technology to executive management, based on ASAE research.

Employment with Purpose: When you’re working for an association, you’re making a difference. Find out how.

An Inside Look: Every association workplace is different, but most have characteristics in common. Learn what association workplace culture is like, and in our video series, meet real-world association professionals.

Best Places to Work: Take a look at almost any list of “Best Places to Work,” and you’ll find associations represented. Get to know a few of them.