Know what your role is and ensure that your association runs well, explains Rhonda Scharf

An association runs on volunteer labour from its members, but there must also be a constant presence, a corporate “voice” of history, and consistency within the organisation. In many organisations, this division of labour occurs between the CEO and the Board of Directors; however, it is fair to say that generally the membership of the association and the Board of Directors don’t understand what the role of the CEO is. (I will use the term CEO, but the role is often referred to as Executive Director, Association Manager, or Chief Staff Officer.)

The Board of Directors

The Board of Directors (BoD) are often volunteers with a limited term and limited time to devote to the association’s business. If there is a problem with service delivery, it is the BoD’s responsibility to take care of it. That is what the membership expects them to do when the membership elects them to that role. The Board makes decisions that are in the best interest of the membership and association.

While some BoDs are highly efficient and get an incredible amount done during their term, some BoDs are not as productive and often don’t know what is expected of them. Many of these issues can be prevented by ensuring that there is a manual, available to each board member, which details their roles and responsibilities on the Board.


The CEO of an association is appointed to ensure the work of the Board is implemented and the Board’s mandate – whether that be education, conferences, advocacy, government relations, membership – is completed. The CEO could be expected to have a variety of responsibilities (all or any of the following): the governance portion of the association, Operations Manager, finances, governance, lobbying and advocacy, membership, etc., and potentially manage all the staff that are employees of the association.

The CEO can play any role and must know all the different pieces of what makes an association tick. They must be able to step in and ensure all aspects are operating at peak efficiency. They are the conduit between the Board and the team running the association.

Ultimately, the CEO works for and reports to the Board of Directors. The CEO doesn’t run the association; they run the association’s operation and execute the strategy and decisions made by the Board of Directors.

Association Management Companies (AMC)

In some associations, an association management company might be contracted to fulfil the CEO position and provide the required staff. As board members have finite terms and the members of the Board typically adjust on different cycles, an AMC can provide consistency from year to year. The membership and volunteer base are always evolving, but the association retains its institutional knowledge by having an AMC. This way, the association doesn’t worry about the day-to-day operations (and overhead and expense) of running the association. They pay the association management company a fixed monthly fee to run it all. An AMC ensures that the business of the association is running smoothly, professionally, with the best efficiencies possible, and legally.

Resolving Disputes

It is standard practice that the CEO or AMC is hired on a contract; therefore, there are performance expectations that are easy to measure, the same way there would be with any employee. Each contract should have a 60- to 90-day escape clause if there are issues. Since the Board is cyclical, personality issues are not long-term issues. If there are performance issues, the contract can be cancelled. This should be a positive experience for both parties, and if either side is unhappy, the continuance of the relationship should be reconsidered.

Running an association, large or small, takes a lot of work. Knowing what your role is, to ensure that it is running well, is essential.

With thanks to Shari Bricks, CMP, DES, from association management company Bond Association Management, for her input into this article.

Rhonda Scharf, CSP, HoF, GSF is a Certified Speaking Professional, Hall of Fame, trainer and author based in Ottawa. She helps organizations feel motivated and educated through her interactive, realistic and fun training programs and keynote speeches. If ... (Read More)

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