Those who have worked within, or with associations in the EU bubble will quickly agree that that experience can be as rewarding as it is challenging. Surely, for companies or national interest groups, having a voice speak on behalf of an entire sector will often increase the chances of their issues being properly addressed by policy makers. Yet the road to a clear joint position can be very long and winding.
Certain tips and tricks can make association life easier for its staff and more rewarding for its members. Here we take a look at the critical success factors for effective association management and the areas where involving external specialised support makes sense:
Three steps to success in association management
1. Communicate regularly, even in irregular scenarios: Effectively working across departments is always a challenge, particularly in associations that cover a large number of overlapping policy areas. Ensuring that all team members are clearly aware of their responsibilities is pivotal. Such co-ordination is often taken for granted, yet at times of crisis or sudden shifts in the external policy agenda, any flaws in this area will hamper an association’s ability to communicate effectively. To ensure that the members’ voice is clear, coherent and well represented – even in exceptional moments –regular and consistent communication flows across each level of an organisation’s hierarchy must be maintained. Failing to do so will not save time and will be more likely to create a tense atmosphere that may lead to mistakes. An easy way to avoid this is to ensure the weekly staff meeting is locked into everyone’s agenda at all times!​​
2. Bring the Board on board: While everyday activities, projects, and external liaison are conducted by Secretariat staff, the Board – generally composed of members’ representatives – has oversight of the association’s strategic direction. Although working to further a sector’s interests as a whole, Board members will also seek to ensure that their company’s or organisation’s priorities are duly reflected in the association’s strategic agenda. Striking a balance between overall objectives and individual members’ priorities is a delicate and occasionally difficult feat. Investing time in securing alignment “across the board” is worth the investment though, as Board members will often dictate the amount of time their company or organisation personnel can dedicate to association work – a much needed resource for many associations. Misalignment between Board and association staff puts any activities subject to risk, criticism, and could lead to a disgruntled membership.
3. Build and maintain member commitment: The concept of strength in numbers is applicable to associations in that more members equals more political leverage. By the same token, its high numbers are its Achilles’ heel. Divergent views, cultural differences, big versus small, conflicts of interest, limited support, lack of value attribution: they are all too common in large associations. In order to overcome these issues, associations must first and foremost work to emphasise their added value to members: this can mean filling the gap of a small or non-existent Brussels office, having strong relationships with policymakers, or serving as the missing link between political euro-speak in the EU and national considerations. In practical terms, association staff must recognise the sensitivities connected to a diverse membership. The resulting buy in will lead members to become even more willing to engage, provide information, and serve as a valued additional resource.
Three things associations should consider outsourcing
The expanse of ideas, challenges and opportunities that come through an association’s doors can often be overwhelming, particularly when the Secretariat is quite small or the topics it deals with are very diverse. Taking advantage of external expertise can help take the weight of an association’s shoulders. Here we explore some areas where associations can benefit from the expertise and practical support a consultancy can offer.
1. Reinforced expertise: Brussels associations are hardly ever overstaffed yet may suddenly be confronted with a major policy proposal or engulfed in a topical crisis. In such cases, quick, decisive and informed action is required. Consultancies can prepare for such events by offering training (media training, crisis training and management support) for an association’s management, spokespersons and other staff. Similarly consultancies can also provide their expertise and manpower in case extra hands are needed on deck over a certain period of time in terms of policy support.
2. Events: MEPs, EU officials and other EU policy audiences are constantly bombarded by hundreds of emails and telephone calls from external stakeholders providing them with endless amounts of invitations to events: breakfast briefings, luncheon debates and evening cocktails. Organising events that garner the attention of key audiences requires experience that must be paired with effective time management. Thinking creatively is not necessarily the key strength of an association, but it can be the role of a dedicated external events team. If an association does not have an internal events team, the effort needed to create one may not be a wise investment. Instead, working with external experts to develop the right event concepts and to manage the practical logistics can be a more fruitful and a less time constraining experience.
3. Full-fledged association management: Running an association includes lots of administrative duties (membership fees, accounting, legal compliance) in addition to policy work. Emerging issues, such as legal proposals in previously unregulated fields may necessitate the founding of an association or skills previously unavailable to the association. Internal developments such as a Secretary General leaving could spark the need for specialized support. In such cases, it may be worthwhile to consider outsourcing the entire association management to a consultancy. Such a move would allow members to focus on policy content work without having to worry about secretarial and administrative duties.
Brussels is home to hundreds of associations, each with their own interests and their own value proposition. Standing out in this crowd and cultivating member loyalty is a difficult feat. By striving for a smooth cooperation between Secretariat members, as well as across departments and hierarchical lines, an association stands a chance of survival. But coupling a well-oiled organisational structure with dedicated external support to achieve high impact results is what will differentiate one association from another and help to protect its longevity.
H+K also shares its top 10 Key Considerations for EU Trade Association Managers.
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Authored by: Mathijs Peters & Magda Kalata