When I meet someone for the first time and I’m asked what I do for a living, the exchange usually goes something like this.
Me: "I manage associations."
Them: [confused look]
Me: "Do YOU belong to any trade or professional associations?"
Them: [nine times out of 10 they do]
Me: "Well, someone has to make sure the conferences are well planned, promoted and executed; the newsletters are written and distributed; the membership database is managed; the website is up-to-date; dues renewals go out on time; financial records are kept; and that the board stays on its strategic path. — That’s what we do."
Them: [clearly impressed] "Wow! I’ve never heard of that. How does someone get into association management?"
Me: "Well . . ."
It’s an excellent question — with answers as varied as the associations we manage. From my experience, there really is no direct entry into this profession. I mean, no career counselor ever looked me up and down and said, “Hey! You’re organized. You’re a great communicator. You like working with people and improving products and processes. You’ve got what it takes to be a great association manager!”
In school, when I was thinking about career goals, association management wasn’t even on my radar. I landed here out of chance. I wanted to be a journalist, so my advisor hooked me up with an internship at what was then the Wisconsin Innkeepers Association, managing their monthly magazine. That six-month internship turned into a full-year job. And that opened the door to my first “real” job out of college with Executive Director Inc., as a communications manager for the National Christmas Tree Association (proving once again that there really IS an association for everything!). Later I would go on to do communications and marketing work for the Pharmacy Society of Wisconsin and now AMPED.
Everyone else I know in this profession has a similar story. They had no aspirations to go into association work. By happenstance and good fortune, they simply fell into it.
I'm thinking about this now because my teenage daughter is exploring job options as part of her career planning class. As she shows me the top ten results from her career exploration exercise, I'm betting that nowhere in any student’s results did association management show up as an option. Which is too bad, because there is a great need for new talent and strong leaders in associations. The next generation’s skills in communications, finance, technology and governance will help advocate for and advance the careers of millions of professionals and academics around the world.
“To work for an association is to choose a varied, challenging and rewarding career path that will give you a chance to grow professionally while helping make the world a better place,” says the American Society of Association Executives.
Who wouldn’t want that?
Who do you know who would make a great association manager?
For more information on association management careers, see:
Through the Maze: Careers in Association Management; American Society of Association Executives
FAQs: Careers in Association Management; Association Forum of Chicagoland
Career Headquarters; Wisconsin Society of Association Executives