November 23, 2017
    Foundations for a vibrant association community

    An excerpt of remarks by the TRENDS 2014 Association Executive of the Year Susan K. Neely, CAE, CEO of the American Beverage Association, at the 2014 Salute to Association Excellence


    …For if we remember a few things, we can ensure that associations remain a vital part of America’s economy well into the 21st century.

    First, we must recognize reality. 

    Once upon a time, people felt an obligation to join a trade association or professional society. They don’t anymore. And the reasons people once joined our organizations are changing too. Once upon a time they might just want to network or have us kill a bad bill. Today, they also want access to information, news, best practices, communications support, representation with consumers and most importantly, leadership. (Photo by Charles Fazio,

    This new reality demands new approaches, which brings me to my second point. Associations and those of us who work in them must get outside of our comfort zones. 

    This thought hit home for me not too long ago, as I sat in a duck blind with a rifle in my lap early one morning. If you’re thinking I don’t seem like a hunter then let me congratulate you. You are very perceptive. I was never a hunter. But one day, an ABA board member invited me to join him and some friends on a hunt. At first I politely declined. But upon reflection, I changed my mind. This individual had reached out to me to join in a shared experience - one that, let’s be blunt, didn’t usually include women. And if he was going to be nice enough to allow a novice in his duck blind, I owed him the courtesy to see it through. So I went.

    I still wouldn’t consider myself a hunter. Though I did achieve my objective, which was don’t shoot a person or a dog! But who among us would turn down an opportunity to better know and understand our members. Because it’s the small moments that often lead to big truths.

    As associations, we must get outside our comfort zones - away from the “this is the way we’ve always done it” mentality. That doesn’t necessarily mean climbing into a duck blind, but it does mean trying new things. And an important part of this is pushing our own members outside their comfort zones. This requires a careful approach, as we all know. But it is essential if we are to provide members with real value.

    Third, we must be consensus builders. There is an old Washington saying, “The stranger the bedfellows, the stronger the coalition.” Our associations must seek nontraditional allies and build common ground. That involves a lot of listening.

    Early in my career, I worked for Congressman Jim Leach. One of my responsibilities was to answer the phone, talk to his constituents, explain his positions and answer their concerns. This was tough, especially when the callers were angry. I remember that Congressman Leach told me, “Susan, it’s easy to communicate with the people who agree with you. But you can learn a lot from the people who don’t.” Those are words we must take to heart in our organizations.

    One of our challenges in this country is that people increasingly aren’t talking to one another. They stake out positions, stand their ground, and refuse to back down. And oddly enough, social media is making this worse. Individuals now have the capacity to talk to the world, but so many use it only to talk to people like themselves. It’s an echo chamber - pulsing with the same talking points to the same people on a regular basis. But I believe associations are uniquely equipped to break through.

    To me, this is the real joy of association work. We represent memberships that are different sizes, come from different parts of the country, have different goals, and different business models. We represent companies and industries that are competitors. And on issue after issue, we must get them to agree. That isn’t easy. Take it from someone whose industry is known for the “Cola Wars.”

    But if we can do it, others can too. Associations can be an example in how to overcome disagreements and get things done.

    And that brings me to my final point - we must talk more about ourselves. We must talk more about associations as an exciting career opportunity. Our tendency is to self-identify within our own professions. We think of ourselves as executives, communicators, lobbyists, accountants or analysts. It’s true. We are all those things. We are also part of an association community.

    Every year, tens of thousands of young people move to Washington, D.C., hoping to make a difference. They pursue careers in government, politics, journalism, nonprofits or charities. Why not associations? If people want to be part of solutions, consensus-building and meaningful change, associations are one of the best places to do it. More young people need to hear about association work as a valuable career path.

    I think we must accept some responsibility for this. If we’re not talking about it, no one’s going to hear it. So we must be more vocal, and talk more about the work that our organizations are doing - and talk more about the work that associations in general are doing. We can’t wait for people to stumble upon us. We must reach out to them first.

    These are the foundations for a vibrant community of professional societies and associations. Recognizing reality, getting outside our comfort zone, building consensus and talking about our work. And if we lay these foundations together, our organizations and their effectiveness will only continue to grow.

    Check here for a video of Neely’s entire speech, which will be available shortly. Also, click here for a candid discussion between Neely and the TRENDS 2013 Association Executive of the Year John H. Graham IV, as they talk about consensus building and volunteering, among other topics.

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