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Association Executive Directors Must be Entrepreneurial

By Ed Rigsbee, CSP, CAE

Some get it instantly, but it often takes people attending my seminars days, or even weeks, for my partnering concepts to sink in. And some never get it. Helping people to see value in changing their paradigm can be a thankless job. Why it is that people cling so dearly to the lifeline of their comfort zone? They do so simply because it is just that, comfortable.

Since 1988, when I Joined the National Speakers Association, I have regularly presented at association conventions, conferences and meetings. In that time I have met some stellar association executives and staff. And, I have had to work with a few that were less than optimal. While I’m sure the same can be said about speakers, this article is about association executives helping to deliver member value.

Recently, I was presenting to a room full of association executive directors on the subject of associations delivering value to their members—an important subject today. Unfortunately, only half of the executive directors registered at the conference even cared attended. That blew me away!

While a large number of the attendees were open to exploring methods of delivering high-level member value, still there were several "closed" people in the room. Forcing them to look in the mirror and deal with association survival issues was at best, difficult. This is part of the reason that today; so many associations are experiencing membership decline. Generally, it is easier to blame the problem on industry consolidation.

In the November 2001 issue of Association Management magazine there was an article about why members do not renew. The article stated that American Society of Association Executives’ research revealed the following reasons for association members not renewing:

·        Business closed/merged–12%

·        Change of profession-15%

·        Cannot determine-16%

·        Dues too high-17%

·        Not enough time to use member benefits-7%

·        Services no longer relevant-17%

·        Other-16%

In my opinion, the only “non-value” issue is the business closing or change of profession. All the remaining reasons loudly say, “Not enough perceived value!” Over 73% of the non-renewing members said, “Not enough perceived value.” Why are association executive directors and volunteer leadership not listening?

First, many Executive Directors still prefer to simply be administrators rather than entrepreneurs. A new breed of entrepreneurial association management executives is necessary for today's associations to survive and prosper. The old glad-handing at the annual meeting is no longer relevant to most members.

In an era when association executive directors must be part of the solution in showing value to members, at my recent presentation on the subject, a number of association executive attendees wanted to argue about insignificant points rather than to focus on the solutions offered, especially when I took them through the actual process of determining association value in real dollars—a process that each executive director should greatly desire to take back to their own association.

Second, if an association is only willing to pay for a secretary or baby-sitter, then the volunteer leadership should not, and cannot, expect anything more. Entrepreneurs, rather than administrators, make things happen, and want to be paid for their skill and results.

Third, change is difficult. Leaving one's comfort zone is, unfortunately for some, near impossible. These are the hard challenges that face today's association executive directors. The days of saying, “Volume solves most problems,” are gone. For additional association value related information, please visit

For association volunteer leadership:

·        Have a long-term strategic and review it yearly. Keep what is valuable and change what is not. Do not shift with the wind, meaning each president or chair must not select a new and different direction at the onset of his or her term.

·        With an executive director, you get that for which you are willing to pay.

·        The board should conduct a Relationship Value Update with its executive director at a minimum, yearly.

·        The board collectively should, at a minimum, each year speak to every member over the telephone asking about the value received the member that year.

·        Be true leaders. Don’t cop-out and say, “I’m just a volunteer, I’m too busy.” If you are too busy to be a leader in your association, why in the world did you accept a leadership role? Could it be ego? Why does your lack of planning have to become a crisis for your executive director? Do not expect your executive director and staff to do it all.

For association executive directors:

·        Rather than focus on job protection, focus on helping the volunteer leadership to deliver the highest level of real value to your association members. What is real value? The value they want. If you are delivering the necessary value, they will want you for life.

·        If you are regimented enough to be a superior administrator and flexible enough to excel as an entrepreneur, you will operate in that “sweet spot” where the two seemingly opposing circles of interest overlap. That where the organizational magic emanates from.

·        Is it your association? Or, does it belong to the members? That can be a much more difficult question than you might think. “Sure,” you say, “It belongs to the members.” And, do your actions say the same thing?

·        Executive directors must be skilled and seasoned politicians, a job I, myself do not do well. Yet, there is a time to collaborate, and there is a time to lead with a firm grip. Knowing which, and when, is the secret.

·        Like the board of directors, the executive director and staff too must yearly communicate with each and every member.

While the above is not a magic solution for the ills of many of today’s associations, the ideas will deliver a greatly improved perception of value from the eyes of your association members. And as I always say in my seminars, “The conversation I have with myself about you is my reality.” The same holds true with your members’ conversation about you...    

Copyright 2003-2012 by Ed Rigsbee

Ed Rigsbee, CSP, CAE, is the author of PartnerShift, Developing Strategic Alliances and The Art of Partnering. Additionally, he has over 2,000 published articles to his credit. Ed travels internationally to deliver strategic alliance keynotes and workshops. When you need him, Ed can be reached at or visit and 

To access helpful additional information from Ed Rigsbee at no charge, please visit


The Member ROI Guy: Ed Rigsbee, CAE, CSP

805-498-5720 or or Skype: Ed_Rigsbee

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