By Sammi Soutar, CAE
        Choosing the right partner to manage your association can start the countdown from lackluster performance to off-the-chart transformation. Some remarkable success stories in association management today are unfolding within the offices of vigorous association management companies that have bolstered their clients' bottom lines, raised the bar on standards, and cemented membership loyalty with award-winning initiatives.
  Yet many association boards perceive the search process for an AMC as a near Sisyphean ordeal - laborious, time-consuming and resource draining. That's a shame because, with a little planning and preparation, this critical task can become a board's most productive and profitable undertaking.
    Here are five steps to get a better return on your investment of time and resources.

Step 1:  Develop your short list

        Start by defining your organization's needs. This should prompt some tough questions. Does the organization need a change of management? Perhaps a realignment, negotiated with current management, is all that is required. On the other hand, there are times when an organization would benefit from a change in scenery. Do any of the following apply to your organization?
o       The organization has reached a point in its evolution when volunteers are looking for staff to replace the board's hands-on role for the first time
o       To minimize employer-related liabilities, the association seeks alternatives to hiring direct employees
o        The organization requires competencies and capabilities beyond the reach of current staff
       Many reasons propel a board to search for an AMC. Analyzing yours will lend direction to your selection process. The operative word here is selective. Your goal is to narrow the field of potential candidates to a manageable level by approaching the task with an understanding of your organization's unique needs.
        Think quality, not quantity. After all, do you really want to wade through a three-foot high stack of 20- to 200-page proposals to find the top candidates that meet your needs? You will save time by identifying the attributes that most matter to you and your organization and developing a short list of 7-10 candidates that provide a good match.
        Conduct a needs assessment. A question-and-answer format can help you to devise your ideal AMC profile, which includes "must-have" and "would-be-nice-to-have" capabilities you seek in your management firm. Here are a few sample questions to get you started:
o      Which management services are essential your organization? Meeting and conference management? Lobbying? Communications? Technological innovation? Executive initiative and idea exchange? Public Relations? Membership retention and recruitment? Financial and internal controls? Leadership development, orientation and recruitment? Membership service management and development? Other?
o  What management strengths would best align with your strategic plan and/or vision statement? An award-winning publication? State-of-the-art web site? Accreditation, standard setting or certification development and oversight? Industry surveys, statistical analyses, benchmarking studies?
o        Are any of the following factors important? AMC Accreditation? Management firm's location? Years in business? Staff size? Number or size of clients? Industries and professions represented by clients?
Once you have a clear AMC profile in mind, you can leaf through this directory or visit ASAE's online directory of AMCs (Select "Suppliers and Consultants" under the "Directories" link on ASAE's home page, http://www.asaenet.org), and search for AMCs that possess the characteristics you seek.

Step 2:  Prepare your RFP package
  A comprehensive RFP will garner comprehensive proposals. An added bonus: It will save you time! An RFP containing insufficient information prompts more questions than it answers. Avoid fielding repetitious queries by anticipating and addressing them in your RFP. A review of the form, "Association RFP Background Information," which you can download from the public area of the ASAE web site, will give you an idea of the type of information most AMCs will request when not supplied in the RFP. But don't stop there. Be generous and forthcoming in the information you share. Well-informed AMC respondents are better equipped to address your association's needs perceptively and thoroughly, or - an equally important timesaving consideration - to eliminate themselves from the field of competitors if they find your needs beyond their capabilities.
A well-outfitted RFP includes all of the following:
o    Association RFP Background Information form. Once completed, it serves as your FAQ sheet, addressing those frequently asked questions and providing an overview of the organization.
o   Your RFP process and time frames. Specify any requirements or preferred formats, as well as deadlines for submitting proposals (allow at least 45-60 days), where to send them, and the key contacts, including board officers and directors, that AMCs may call for additional information. Define your selection process and the time frame within which you expect to select a candidate and notify all contenders of your decision.
o        Scope of work. Be as specific and detailed as possible in spelling out the scope of work you wish the AMCs to encompass in their proposals.
o    Annual work program and calendar. AMCs need to know what needs to be done and when to ascertain how well the additional responsibilities will incorporate with their other clients' work flow.
o Governance documents, such as articles of incorporation, bylaws and policies and procedures. Job descriptions of officers, directors, and committees, if available, will also help AMC candidates determine the needs of your organization.
o    Financial reports, including year-end financial statements, tax filings, current budget, chart of accounts, accounting policies, and so forth.
o Planning documents, reports and summaries, such as executive summaries of membership surveys, the strategic and/or marketing plans, vision statements and annual reports.
o       Minutes and committee reports.
o Samples of your membership materials, including membership application, marketing brochures, new member orientation kits, and conference programs.
o     Samples of your publications.

Step 3:  Shorten your list
        If you've made the comparatively small investment of time to execute steps one and two, distributing your information-packed RFP to a carefully selected short list, now you will reap the harvest of quality proposals from AMCs that met your prequalification requirements. Evaluate them with additional winnowing in mind.
You are now looking for the best of the best - the top three to five AMCs that, on paper, at least, have the "right stuff," - that combination of energy, experience, and resources essential to your association's needs.
      Factors to help you determine who makes the cut might include:
o Relevance. How well did the AMCs do their homework to prepare their proposals? Do their proposals accurately reflect your submission specifications. Do they address the scope of work in clear detail? Which AMCs appear the most intuitive, to know the organization as well as you do, or to have a sixth sense when it comes to anticipating future needs or challenges the organization may experience?
o   Flexibility and adaptability. Do any of the AMCs exhibit a willingness to adapt their procedures to accommodate the special needs of your association? To fit in with your culture? How well will they be able to accommodate the association's changing needs? Can your organization grow with them. Can they grow with you?
Presentation. Assuming the proposal reflects the AMC's best work, how does it compare to the other proposals in your short stack? Is the proposal packaged professionally? Does it "read" well?
o        Contract. Has the AMC provided a sample of its service agreement? Does the contractual relationship spelled out in the service agreement sound "customer friendly" and straightforward? (For guidelines on what AMC contracts should include, check the "Contractual Arrangements" section of the resource document, Guidelines for Working with an AMC, at the ASAE web site.)

Step 4:  Meet the candidates
     Once you have compressed your list to the top three to five candidates, you can schedule onsite visits and presentations. Don't skip onsite inspections to cut corners. These visits will deepen your understanding of the AMCs' facilities, staff, and other resources.
        Schedule AMC presentations at a time when both your search team and the top candidates can meet. Space presentations at least two hours apart and don't schedule more than three in a day. Otherwise, you risk exhausting your search team's concentration, and presentations will start to sound alike.
        Assuming that you have already clarified the finer points of the written proposal and service agreement, use the interview time to get a better sense of each company, to learn more about their mission, individuality, service philosophy, and values. Chemistry is important, the final distinguishing factor to weigh before you choose from among the top qualified companies to manage your association. Good questions to pose during the interview might include:
o      Why are you interested in our association?
o     How would our association fit in with your other clients? Are any of them potential competitors to our association?
o    How do you address conflicts of interest, legislative or otherwise, among clients?
o     What professional development training do you provide your staff?
o      What are your policies and procedures for upgrading your technological systems and for protecting clients' data?
o       To what extent, if any, would we have access to your senior executives and the owner or principal of the company?
o      Have there been recent changes in ownership or are there plans for changes in the near future?

Step 5:  Make the call
    Now that you've completed steps 1-4, addressing any remaining questions about the proposal or contract, make your selection and notify all parties. Stick to the time frames you spelled out in your RFP. Contact the winning candidate and prepare to execute the agreement by an authorized signatory. Also, communicate your final decision to the other candidates and be sure to return all copies of proposals to AMCs not chosen. Finally, be prepared to offer honest feedback to all who made presentations. Much thought and planning went into their proposals and presentations. Your insight as a prospective client affords more than a courteous gesture. It gives them valuable marketing information.
        Choosing the right AMC is a crucial step toward realizing strategic goals, financial longevity and, most importantly, a loyal membership. Since your decision could well be the most defining and far-reaching one you make as a board member, it makes sense to plan and prepare now to ensure a richer return from your RFP. Follow these steps, then make that decision with confidence.
        By Sammi Soutar, founder of Able Management Solutions; first published in the 2002 AMC Directory by ASAE