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August 05, 2005

Responsibilities of an Association

Over on ASAE's Exec Sec listserv, a compelling conversation is in progress on the responsibilities of an association. The conversation was initiated by the following post...

I am perplexed by what seemed to be a simple discussion about the mission or purpose of our association. Our board v.p. (who will become the next president) made the statement that "all of our decisions need to be based on what's best for the member, not the association." Is this how other executive directors see their role, and that of the boards they serve? Have I been operating under an erroneous belief that it's not one or the other, it's both in various degrees?

The email trail goes on for at least 20 posts, and the debate has been pretty juicy. Early on, someone weighed in with, in my humble opinion, the most important point, saying...

I would take the position that it is not actually either one of those, but what is best for the profession or trade that the association serves. Serving the "greater good" is what gives associations their unique position legally, especially in the eyes of the IRS.

What is best for the profession or trade may or may not be what is most expedient for the association itself or the individual member. Of course, in the long run, we would hope the what is best for the profession or trade is going to be most beneficial for the association and thus the individual members. But I can see where our limited perspective might make that difficult to see.

This is key. One of the major concepts in the CAE curriculum is that a nonprofit association does not necessarily exist to advance the interests of its members, but to advance the interests of the profession or industry it represents. Of course, by advancing the industry or profession, it stands to reason that the association and its members will benefit via a trickle-down effect. But the members can't come first. (Yikes! Those are blasphemous words for a membership director like me)

I think issues like this one, that demonstrate the unique nature of the business of non-profit associations, are contributing to my reluctance to emulate for-profit models in much of my work. See my earlier post on this tangent.

What are your thoughts? Comment here.

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