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Associations: 10 Years, 10 Truths

Associations: 10 Years, 10 Truths

This past January marked my 10-year anniversary with my association, and it's led me to reflect on how those years were spent and how much I've learned in that time. I came into my position with some previous association experience, but the environment was new to me, so I had to learn. Since then, I've been involved in a variety of projects and initiatives, ranging from member outreach to governance, which is my current focus. I've had the opportunity to work with a large number of interesting people from across Canada. And while our association has had its share of ups and downs, I enjoy my job and what I get to do.

When thinking about how to organize this post, my thoughts began to sort themselves into a set of clichés. Over the past 10 years, I've come to appreciate the truth behind every one of them. I'm sure that these may ring true for you as well, as you recognize experiences from your own work environment.


1. “Change is constant.”

Our association has a transient membership, as it represents resident doctors while they are undergoing their specialty training. This means we have a high turnover in our membership and in our volunteer base every year. We're constantly working to mitigate the impact by ensuring we have solid orientations for each role and by capturing our various policies, processes, and procedures in writing.

But all change isn't inevitable. Just because our board changes every year does not mean that issues disappear or projects cease. It's important that volunteers and staff remain conscious of the association's priorities and past approaches, and think about what's to come, even after the volunteers have moved on.

Change also has its advantages. While we're sad to see good volunteers leave us as they enter practice, we're lucky to have new people coming in with new ideas and fresh interests. It helps prevent us from becoming stale.


2. “Time is money.”

My association is funded by member dues and is always vigilant about how they are used. But time, for our volunteers, is often more valuable than the dues they pay, so we are obliged to make sure their time is properly valued. This is particularly important when it comes to holding meetings. Our volunteers come from across Canada, and we know the association is just one of their priorities. It's critical that if we bring them together for a face-to-face meeting or a teleconference we use their time as effectively as possible.

Our teleconferences with volunteers tend to be in the evenings and face-to-face meetings are typically on weekends. So, we also need to be mindful of the impact this extra time has on the staff who support these gatherings. Taking time in lieu is standard practice in the office, but it needs to be managed well so the association's work can continue while people get their time off. A way to mitigate this is to discuss staff support ahead of time and determine who needs to be at that meeting or on that call.

The meeting agendas also need to be nimble enough to use the time appropriately. More often than not, tasks like detailed document review are best left to online discussions, using Google Drive or Dropbox or other tools of that kind. Chairs should keep discussions focused and outcome-based, rather than leaving them open-ended.


3. “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”

There are few experiences worse for a staffer than sitting in a meeting and discovering that you've forgotten to share a key piece of information. Or that your presenter needs a projector but their laptop won't connect properly. Or that discussion on an agenda item is veering off into irrelevance because no one had time to read the background material. Meeting attendees can get frustrated, which can impact the meeting's tone (and possibly the outcomes).

Good meeting preparation generally helps to prevent catastrophes. Having preliminary discussions at the start of the year about what will happen at specific meetings helps staff and volunteers think ahead. Establishing timelines and checklists with tasks and specific responsibilities for specific individuals makes it easier to keep on target and also ensures there's a record for how to approach the project in the next iteration. Allow plenty of time for document preparation and review by attendees ahead of the meeting.

Of course, no one can anticipate everything, and deadlines may not be as set in stone as you've planned. But this is an area of association work where you can make concrete changes and see immediate results.


4. “Under-promise, over-deliver.”

It's good to have high expectations, but they need to be realistic, as well. The focus should always be on output quality and not output quantity. In the past few years, we've restructured the office to expand our staff capacity. But that doesn't mean that our ability to take on new work has no limit. Because of our frequent volunteer turnover, we have to temper their expectations by ensuring they understand what work needs to carry over from one year to the next while accommodating their desire to make a mark during their term.

One way we mitigate this is by striving to ensure our volunteers, in particular, the board and its leadership, receive a thorough orientation on the work we do. Staff is involved in planning discussions at the board, committee, and office levels. We've also begun encouraging staff and volunteers to think about the resources projects will require, and how that will fit within our current priorities, as articulated in our strategic plan. We also encourage our volunteers to think about what they can reasonably take on within their assigned roles.

An area where we continually have to be careful is our commitments to our stakeholders. As resident physicians, our members are often sought out to serve on committees related to post-graduate medical education. The list of these positions has grown exponentially since I began, so we've had to think strategically about what positions we choose to dedicate volunteers to and why. We no longer accept positions based on a fear of potentially missing out, but base our decisions on the value that involvement will bring to the association.


5. “Imitation (can be) the sincerest form of flattery.”

Our association is not unique. While there are certain aspects that make us distinct, the problems we face are common with our stakeholders and with the non-profit world at large. There's a measure of comfort in knowing we're not alone. More importantly, it means there's probably the solution to 'that problem' out there—it just needs to be found.

Traditionally, we've looked to our stakeholders for inspiration but, more recently, we've looked beyond to see what other organizations offer. For instance, if we need examples of a particular type of policy, we can conduct an internet search and see what is available. If we want to know how other organizations manage volunteer performance, we can conduct an environmental scan to identify best practices.

That doesn't mean always duplicating what others are doing. When it comes to certain projects, other stakeholders may have something solid already in place, so why re-invent the wheel? In other cases, what's applicable to some environments may not be appropriate to post-graduate medical education. Knowing your mandate and priorities is always helpful here, so you don't end up with scope creep.


6. “The devil is in the details.”

I'm a firm believer in ensuring our volunteers are provided with all the information they may need to make good decisions, but I've learned over the years the importance of packing this information in a digestible manner. For example, the number of documents produced for our board meetings can be staggering, and if each is more than a few pages, it places a heavy burden on meeting attendees. One solution we're currently trialing is keeping our nine committee updates to two pages with detailed attachments as needed. We're also working on keeping to a submission deadline ahead of board meetings so attendees will have time to review everything.

I've often been asked to track down a past decision or position on an issue. Thankfully, most of our documents from the last 15 years are digitized, making these searches easier. But looking at different approaches to maintaining various records is frustrating. The level of detail can vary widely depending on the time period being examined. And if it's not in the minutes, it can be hard to say for certain what the actual decision was.

For quite a few years, we've ensured our board meetings are recorded so we can always refer back to the recordings if we can't find what we need in the written record. More recently, we've worked to standardize the motion process to ensure we have a written copy of the exact wording used in any board decision. Any motion brought to the floor should have a completed form that outlines the background and any considerations for the motion.


7. “Many hands make light work ...”

Since joining my association, staff size has grown from three to nine full-time employees. This has enabled us to spread out the workload and take on new initiatives. It's also meant we've been able to focus on specific areas. For example, I can hand over meeting logistics to one of my colleagues and focus on policy creation and revision. Or we can designate one individual to be responsible for the many volunteers who attend stakeholder meetings on our behalf.

Our volunteer base has also grown. We currently have 122 resident doctors who volunteer on the board, on a committee, or as a liaison representative. A fair number of these individuals (board members in particular) serve in multiple roles. Often, though, we try to engage as many volunteers as we can to provide leadership opportunities to as many members as possible. It doesn't hurt that having a good volunteer base boosts our credibility with our members and stakeholders.


8. But, “Too many cooks spoil the broth.”

Not everyone needs to provide feedback on every issue. Otherwise, you're placing an unreasonable burden on staff and volunteers to keep track of multiple issues, many of which may not be directly relevant to them. You can get stuck in the wordsmithing cycle, which can delay projects. And it can also muddy the waters as to who the decision-makers are. At the same time, it's important to make sure the appropriate people have the opportunity to weigh in, as needed.

When requesting feedback, it's always good to have a clear sense about who needs to chime in. It could be our subject matter experts. Or board members who will champion the issue at the board table. Or staff who will help implement a decision. Or our provincial counterparts, who can provide regional context. So, I tend to double-check before hitting send.


9. “The medium is the message.” (sometimes)

Technology has evolved in leaps and bounds since I began, and so has social media. Since our members are young professionals, it's important that we keep step with their expectations about how and where we communicate our message. In the past several years, we've devoted a lot of resources to making sure we have a strong social media presence and an appealing website. We now use standard templates for committee reports, briefing notes, and Powerpoint presentations. We budget resources to ensure all of our public-facing work (press releases, position papers, etc.) are also branded.

But, in the end, we know these are tools to be used to support of our work, and not just because they're cool.


10. “It's not the end of the world!”

Like any workplace, there are great days and not-so-great days. Occasionally, there may be really bad days. At those times, it's really hard to not descend into a spiral of anxiety and doubt as we try to prevent catastrophe.

Keeping things in perspective helps. Our members, as resident doctors, deal with far worse situations in their clinics than we ever will in the office, and still they carry on as best they can. We owe it to them and ourselves to show the same grace under pressure. In our line of work, even if something bad happens, it will blow over in time. And then we'll take the opportunity to reflect on how to do better in the future.



Are you ready to begin the next step in your not-for-profit career in pursuit of your own truths? Do you represent an association seeking fresh talent or depth of experience to fill an open position? Whether you are looking for a change or to hire someone new for your team, is the Canadian not-for-profit resource you need.



Elizabeth Sneyd, Professional Development


Guest Contributor, Governance / Leadership



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