Pt. 2/2 What should I look for in an association management company?

What should I look for in an association management company?

  • CAE and ASAE

First, they need to subscribe to professional standards of the industry provided by the American Society of Association Executives, which is a clear list of professional attributes that any association manager ought to have. Next, a designation of  CAE, a Certified Association Executive, showing that person as knowledgeable and understands the legal and other ramifications of managing not-for-profit organizations.

Most people have never heard of a CAE, a Certified Association Executive. That’s probably because there are less than 3000 of us in the world! It is a certification awarded by the American Society of Association Executives and has been for 59 years. Association managers don’t have to be CAEs, but those that have chosen to earn their CAE designation have shown years of professional development, must have had a college degree, must serve as a CEO or COO of an organization. Having taken the time to become a CAE shows that an association manager has prioritized the professional association management field as their specialty and field of knowledge.

Some larger organizations and not-for-profit membership and other organizations, particularly in the United States, don’t often see very many CAEs, and this is because they are large enough to employ people who have their own designations in their own specific field of endeavor. For example, perhaps the Red Cross national headquarters has five CPAs in their accounting department. They may not have any CAEs on staff. But their CEO or COO could be a CAE, and that’s reflective of the breadth of knowledge in running an association, versus the narrower field which is included in association management.

  • Errors and Omissions insurance

Next is insurance. Your association needs to be covered. Does the association management company you are considering have an errors and omissions insurance policy? Is it large enough for your association?

If you hire an independent contractor, they may not have any insurance. They may oversee all your funds, your reputation, your website as an asset, and they may make mistakes. They may abscond with all your funds. They may not renew your website domain, and you’ve lost that asset. You have no assurance that your association is going to be covered for any of those items, and you may have no recourse, versus an association management company that does have an errors and omissions policy that covers you.

  • Size of company

You’ll want a company that’s big enough to handle your needs, big enough to have a variety of specialists. One person simply can’t be good at everything. One person can’t be a great financial manager, people person, event planner, writer, et cetera. You also want a firm that is small enough, or focused enough, on your association so that you get personal service, and you’re not just a number in their list of clients. This is a matter of personal preference, but we recommend a firm with at least 5 team members.

  • Dedicated executive director

Another question to ask when you’re looking at and weighing various association management companies against one another is asking the questions, who will be my executive director? How long will I have that executive director? May I choose my executive director? What happens if our executive director isn’t working out?

When not-for-profits choose to partner with an association management company, it’s a long-term relationship. It’s difficult to make a switch. It’s time intensive to develop the RFP and develop the new relationship and get it into top notch working order.

You are entitled to choose your executive director and to make sure that that relationship is working for all parties involved. It’s important to note that, of course, the contract is with the association management company, not the individual who may be serving as your executive director. Your executive director becomes a keeper of historical data and develops a relationship with your members and your leaders and becomes essentially the face of your organization. It’s essential that that relationship last as long as possible. Having an executive director for any less than several years is not good for the organization. An association management company ought to be ensuring you that, to the best of their ability, that is their intention.

  • Employee quality

Of course, the quality of a good association management company is the quality of its team. Some questions that might help you understand the quality of the team you’re thinking of hiring are: Where do you get your employees? How much do you pay their employees? What skill set do their employees have? What does your hiring process look like? How long does your average employee stay with your firm?

  • Ownership quality

Who are their owners? How long have they been owners? Are they building a business to sell or are they in it for the long run?

Look at the focus of a company and why they’re in business. Are they in business to serve the organization or to serve themselves? Does an association management company that you’re considering take pride in the industry and try to provide the best service honestly and transparently? Or is it difficult to get answers and interact with their staff?

These are all questions you can ask current customers of an association management company. Or as questions for an interview. The reason an association management company is in business sets high-end association management companies apart from those that are not concerned with professional management, but perhaps simply administration.

  • Quality of their intake process and questions

Most association management firms have a list of specific questions to ask a client so that we have a great idea of exactly what needs you have, how often events occur, and what your expected outcome for all tasks are. This requires the association leadership to reflect on how often do we want to do newsletters? How long will those newsletters be? Will there be advertisers? And SO much more!

Going through the process of hiring an association management company, or sometimes switching between association management companies, helps a board and the leadership clarify their needs and where they want to take the organization, and what the membership needs.

If an association management company doesn’t ask you in-depth questions about every facet of your organization, whether its governance, membership recruiting, membership retention, communication, technology, et cetera, then there is no way for them to understand prior to contracting what your organization is focused on or what it needs.

Personally, I like to look at a budget. Some prospective clients think that association management company simply want to look at the budget to see how much an organization is paying for management services, but in my opinion, a budget is the spine of the organization. By looking at your budget, an association management company can make sure that the scope of the work they will be doing is totally accurate. A budget is totally reflective of what an organization is doing, and to what level they’re doing it.

  • Available list of happy clients

Be sure to talk to your prospective associations existing clients and find out how satisfied the leaders of the organizations are. Do they get reports when they request them? Is all the communication clear and transparent? Or are they told, “No,” when they ask for special reports or special services?

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