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February 25, 2005

CAE = The Association GED?

A momentary break from the tips...

The other day I came across this post from November 2004 on the View From the Corner Office blog regarding the CAE designation. If you haven't read it, you really should -- it asks some good, tough, provocative questions of the CAE program.

If you don't have the time to read it fully, basically the author states that by simply testing the basic skills of association management in the CAE exam, the CAE is relegated to the association industry's equivalent of the GED.

I was stunned by the contempt the author shoveled upon the CAE program. Now, I won't say that the CAE credential is perfect, and the author did bring out some good points -- some of which I'll post on later. But I have to wonder if our mystery author is a CAE. Why?

Because a CAE should know that credentialing activities (like the CAE certification) are fraught with legal landmines, and one good way to invite a lawsuit is to require a person to demonstrate more than the minimum relevant knowledge in his/her field in order to earn the certification.

If our anonymous author is a CAE, then one could argue the CAE program is failing -- at least somewhat -- in certifying that the successful candidate has a basic understanding of association management. However, if our anonymous author is not a CAE, perhaps this demonstrates that the certification is not as elementary as s/he makes it out to be.

In either case, isn't it ironic that the author calls the CAE credential's credibility into question based on a lack of understanding of the fundamentals of association management?


Jeff De Cagna said...


You know how much I respect your views, but I have to challenge your assessment that the View for a Corner Office Mystery CEO's post "calls the CAE credential's credibility into question based on a lack of understanding of the fundamentals of association management..."

I don't know whether the Mystery CEO is a CAE or not, but her argument (I believe she has previously identified herself as a woman) points out the fundamental contradiction between describing the CAE as an indicator of the highest level of professional achievement in the association community, and the CAE commissioner's observation that the designation is simply an assurance that its holders will not "do harm" to the association. This isn't a trivial concern.

If association management is to be regarded as a true profession, its system of voluntary certification must insist upon a higher level of mastery on the part of designation holders. That we might seek to justify a lesser standard on the basis of a legal argument strikes me as very unfortunate, especially against the backdrop of recent malfeasance in various non-profit organizations.

I think the Mystery CEO, you and I would all agree that pegging the CAE to anything remotely like the lowest common denominator demeans the designation, its holders and the entire association management field. The CAE can and should be more, and I think her arguments are worthy of serious debate and discussion. I congratulate you for bringing them up here and look forward to that conversation.

Ben Martin, CAE said...


Thanks for posting. I'm not sure I understand your position on this. Are you suggesting ASAE should insist that CAE candidates exhibit a higher level of mastery regardless of the potential legal liabilities?

Jeff De Cagna said...


Thanks for seeking clarification. In a field such as "association management," what is the objective standard of competence or mastery? Well, there really isn't one other than the one the field creates for itself. So what I'm arguing is that we should simply set a higher standard for ourselves, one that is comparable to the traditional professions of law and medicine.

Consider what the Mystery CEO wrote in her posting. Her colleague who was invited to write questions for the exam was rebuffed in his request to use non-ASAE leadership texts in developing those items. Instead, he was confined to using the ASAE literature, which I think we all know isn't exactly at the leading edge. But what is preventing us from taking it there? Nothing except for the will to go there in my view.

Let me recommend an essay I read recently from three authors at Harvard Business School titled, "Is Business Management a Profession?" You can take a look at it online at:

I think it has clear implications for the association community, which is so heavily influenced by what is going on in the corporate sector.

One other point. About a year ago, I was agitating for the development of a master of science degree in association leadership for a variety of reasons that you can read more about at:

I am hoping that this conversation we are having will provide some renewed momentum to the idea. I believe creating such a degree would be an important step forward for our community. Once again, I want to thank you for reopening this important line of inquiry.

Ben Martin, CAE said...


In studying for the CAE exam I learned that to require a certification candidate to exhibit more than a minimum competency is to invite a legal dispute. The CAE exam is very similar to the bar exam or the state boards. When a law student passes the bar exam s/he has demonstrated that s/he has obtained at least the minumum competency to practice law. Same goes for doctors and the state boards.

What exactly would make the CAE a higher standard? More preparatory materials? A longer test? A code of ethics? More experience? A Ph.D?

Does the body of knowledge that an association professional truly requires on the job merit those additional requirements? Probably a few of them (as you know, ASAE already recently increased the number of preparatory materials). The devil is in the details, and I look forward to more discussion on the matter.

Jeff De Cagna said...


Thanks so much for continuing the conversation. I think these are very important issues and I'm delighted you're so open to pursuing them.

I recognize that there may be legal implications to what I am proposing, but I'm significantly less concerned about the legal risks of requiring a higher standard than I am about the risks to organizations in the association community if "certified association executives" are actually certified to nothing more than the minimum standard of competence. Associations face significant challenges in the years ahead and if we're going to actively encourage CEO search committees to give preference to CAE holders, the designation must mean something more than "do no harm."

In the case of law and medicine, new graduates are examined (on the Bar and boards respectively) after years of specialized academic study and supervised practice in their disciplines. Even though it is a minimum standard for law and medicine, I would argue that it is a higher absolute standard than the knowledge that is evaluated by the CAE exam.

By contrast, CAE candidates do not come to their examination on the basis of a clearly recognized pathway of academic preparation for their work, which essentially means the common knowledge base is, as you point out, three books. Is that really everything that CAEs need to know?

In a blog posting on February 23, you wrote:

"If you're studying for the CAE exam you might feel tempted to study up on some current...topics in Association Management magazine or the Journal of Association Leadership. You'll be a better professional for doing so, but it probably won't help you in passing the CAE exam."

I think you might agree that this is somewhat problematic.

On a related point, CAE candidates are not recent graduates, but more experienced practitioners (many with graduate level education in unrelated fields) who likely have learned and mastered more knowledge in their association careers than the minimum standard. Why shouldn't they be examined on that knowledge as well?

Let me also add that I believe the "psychometrically valid" multiple choice examination isn't an especially good way to evaluate whether someone is an effective association executive. I would submit that the old essay form, which allows for the discussion of complex and nuanced issues situated in a relevant context, is much closer to the day-to-day reality of the manager or executive. Perhaps if the exam returned to this format, thereby allowing candidates to share both what they know and how they think, it might not be necessary for CAE candidates to "become 60-year old white men" in order to demonstrate their mastery of the association executive's real work.

So, to answer your question about what would make for a higher standard, let me offer the following four items:

1. Relating the CAE exam to a standard of what an "exceptional" association executive should know.

2. Developing a resource list for exam preparation that reflects the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of the knowledge that an exceptional association executive should possess.

3. An examination format that includes several essay questions so that candidates have the opportunity to demonstrate their mastery of the material and also how they think about those ideas. It would also provide a practice space for integrating knowledge into more real-world situations, a worthwhile goal to help move studying for the CAE exam beyond simply prepping for the test.

4. A clear connection between the CAE exam/designation and a master's level degree in association leadership to help clarify the professional learning pathway for the exceptional association executive.

I know that this is a long comment and I'm probably getting myself into trouble with what I'm writing, but I continue to be grateful to you for the conversation. Thanks!

Ben Martin, CAE said...


I've had some time to think over some of your points, and I agree with you on some level -- just not sure what that level is yet. Certainly CAEs should strive for excellence. However, I still don't think there's anything fundamentally wrong with the CAE program. Let me respond to a few of your points at my own peril -- I feel like I'm debating my old college professors with no chance of winning ;-)

First, some low-hanging fruit: As I mentioned in a previous comment, ASAE has expanded the list of authoritative readings, so they have done something along the lines of your recommendation. I think it's a good thing.

I don't pretend to be an expert on whether the examination should be essay or multiple choice, but I will tell you that in my experience, the CAE exam does test one's ability to apply knowledge to real-world situations. I would estimate that around 75% of the questions on the CAE exam require you to apply knowledge to a real-world scenario. The exam consists of very few straight definitional questions. The questions are incredibly nuanced and subjective (to the point of extreme frustration over the shades of gray), but also require you to apply hard facts and best practices.

Let me also submit to you that while the CAE exam tests a lower absolute standard than law and medicine, it is perhaps an appropriate standard for two reasons. One, there is an abundance of research and case studies to draw from for law and medicine which has been compiled over thousands of years, and a dearth of similar materials for association management by comparison, a profession that has existed for just 50 years. Two, most of the skills necessary for association management are not unique to the profession. Why reinvent the wheel by testing knowledge and skills that have been (or can be) demonstrated elsewhere?

I mean no disrespect to you, Jeff, or anyone for that matter, but I observe that the CAE program's biggest critics those who haven't taken the exam, or those who took it umpteen years ago. One can examine a recipe and based on the ingredients conclude that a dish will taste awful, but only after one has consumed it can one truly know whether or not the dish is unpalatable.

Hey, maybe in umpteen years we'll be on the same page ;-)

Jeff De Cagna said...


Thanks again for posting. I really appreciate this conversation and I will be making others aware of it by providing a link to it from my blog tonite. Just a couple of brief (brief for me that is) observations.

1. I have no doubt that the questions on the exam deal with real-world issues, and that is appropriate of course. The point I'm making is that you rarely confront a situation as an association executive where someone lays out all of the alternatives you have to choose from and then you decide on which one to pursue. As managers and leaders, we have to evaluate situations, make sense of them and then choose from among competing courses of action. That is what it means to be an association executive and multiple choice questions, no matter how good they are, just cannot get at the insight, judgment and perspective required to be successful in this work. There is too much context to be considered and that is probably why the multiple choice questions are so frustrating; you're given some context, but not enough. I want the exam to assess how CAEs think about the challenges they face, not simply whether they can choose competently from among four or five possible answers.

2. I agree that medicine and law have much more material on which to draw, which is part of the problem not simply for association management (AM) but for business management (BM) as well. Both AM and BM lack "...a well-developed, widely accepted theoretical base" as the authors of the essay I mentioned a couple of comments ago describe it. While association management may have 50 years of a knowledge base, we have been lax in driving meaningful theoretical inquiry into what makes our organizations work. As a result, we are constantly adapting our knowledge from other sources.

Which leads me to a second element of this point, namely that the knowledge of the association executive is increasingly interdisciplinary. It's not just about law, finance and management. It's about sociology, psychology, anthropology, biology, political science, technology, future studies and so on. We need theoretical work that seeks to integrate these disciplines with the goal of achieving a deeper understanding of what an association has been, what it is and what it can be. When we recognize the association management is a discipline worthy of its own theoretical underpinning, I believe we will take a major step forward in our growth toward becoming a true profession. And the CAE designation will grow in stature with audiences beyond our community.

3. You're right, I don't have the CAE and the reason why I don't have it (even though I contemplated taking the exam at least four separate times during the association staff phase of my career) is that I could never figure out how I would benefit from it other than having the letters after my name. (And by writing that, I don't mean to insult you or anyone else who holds the designation.) I simply was unable to uncover any meaningful learning benefit that would have advanced my career as an association professional. Perhaps the fact that I don't hold the designation diminishes the weight of my critique, but to extend your metaphor, I can look at a recipe and instantly recognize that without salt and pepper, and perhaps a little garlic, the dish is likely to be pretty bland. You can probably guess that I'm not very big on bland food, which is why I like to spice things up! :>)

Ben, it may not be necessary for us to ever be on the same page, just so long as we don't forget that we're both trying to write better chapters for the book going forward. (Hey, it's Metaphor Night here at Passed the CAE sure to tip your waitress!) Thanks for being a willing partner and colleague in this process of inquiry.

sue said...

I really don't know too much about the CAE designation, but after reading your post and comments, I wonder if the short-term answer (until a masters-level college degree becomes reality, that is), might be a two-tier system, such as we have for meetings/conventions professionals. The CMP is the logisitical level; the CMM is generally recognized as the more strategic level of designation. Or is that just adding more costs without adding more value?

Bob said...

Jeff and Ben,

Thanks for this beautiful conversation. I honor you both for the depth of the postings and for sticking with it in a respectful spirit of inquiry. Also, while I'm handing out kudos, congratulations on obtaining your CAE, Ben.

I agree with you both. There should be a masters degree in association management, AND the CAE credential does have value. But neither a masters degree nor a CAE guarantees much in the way of performance and certainly does not assure that a person will "do no harm."

What really hacks me off about the CAE designation is how little it takes to get it and keep it. In effect we buy the credits we need by registering (not necessarity attending) ASAE's educational offerings. In other professions, attendees sign in and sign out of sessions as a way of validating attendance -- some even require a post-test.

I have concern, too, about the validity of the test from a metrics point of view. I admittedly know little about test design, but some of our colleagues who do this for a living are appalled by the ambiguity of some of the questions and the process used to develop them. Maybe the latest revision cleaned this up - I don't know.

I took the CAE exam in 1988 (arrgh!). I wrote longhand in a little book for 6-8 hours in nearly illegible scrawl. I could never figure out how they could score what I wrote, but they said I passed, and I was as happy as Ben is now. I'm still glad I have it. The credential does not, in my opinion, say that I know how to masterfully lead an association, but it does say that at least I care enough to consider myself an association exec.

Maybe as "Sue" suggested, we need another level that would go beyond basic knowledge and self identification with the profession.

Thanks again, Ben and Jeff.

Anonymous said...

Ben and Jeff:
This is a great conversation. Like Jeff, I do not have a CAE, but have considered it several times over the years. One of the reasons that I have never gotten the CAE is that when I talked to people who do have it, they complained that the test questions were vague, and that the multiple choice answers could, many times, ALL be correct, depending on the situation. I also have been told that you have to attend the study groups to have any hope of passing because they tell you how to pass the test. This always made me wonder: are the CAEs being tested on their knowledge, or are they being tested on the test? Like others who have posted, I am not familiar with the revised CAE exam so maybe some of these issues have been addressed. To me, the CAE represents a commitment to doing a good job by taking the time and making the effort to study and perhaps expand your area of knowledge. I have never thought it was anything like passing the bar exam or the medical boards. It's not even close. Like Jeff, I believe that a masters degree in association management is a necessary step to demonstrate the many facets an association executive must have. Association management is interdisciplinary and we should have an advanced degree that demonstrates this.

Ben Martin, CAE said...

Is anyone familiar with GMU's Master of Public Administration degree? It has a nonprofit track and I considered going through it a few years ago, but ultimately decided against it.

Ben Martin, CAE said...

Failed to mention that I didn't do the MPA through GMU because I felt the CAE was a better option.

Anonymous said...

I got the CAE primarily for the free food in the CAE Lounge at the annual meeting. :)

Seriously, the benefits I perceive and/or wanted in getting the CAE are:

-showing my professional commitment to the field of association management;
-greater entree to volunteer opportunities at ASAE/Center;
-gaining a more broad-based knowledge of the field outside of the areas I have worked in directly.

That's about it. I'm not sure it will do much for my career other than through facilitating the benefits I listed above. I think those 3 are worth the effort to get the designation.

Jeff De Cagna said...

Sorry I've been away from this conversation for awhile. Many thanks to all of you for the comments you have posted recently, and I especially like David's "free food" argument for getting the CAE!

I can absolutely appreciate that passing the CAE exam and earning the designation offers a great sense of personal pride, satisfaction and accomplishment, as well it should. My core concerns with it are three: 1) there is a fundamental mismatch between how the CAE designation is presented and regarded in the community and its actual meaning and value, 2) the broad-based knowledge of the association executive acquired largely through experience, isn't evaluated in a more holistic fashion by this credentialing process and 3) that we lack a clear educational pathway for current and future association leaders to follow. I think we need to address these and related concerns if association management is going to avoid/overcome some of the challenges presently facing business management.

Ben mentions in a comment that he opted not to pursue the MPA program at GMU. Ben, do mind sharing more about why? My idea is that ultimately, if do we create a master's degree in association leadership, it really needs to take what I would described as the "executive" format. In this approach, I would have learners participating in once-monthly intensive weekend courses for a period of 12-18 months, followed by a thesis. It should be possible to complete this executive master's of science in association leadership within two years.