Your organization is coming together, growing, and it’s time to make some serious decisions about how it will be run. Whole books could be, and have been, written on deciding the best management option for your association, but let us assume that, if you had time to wade through those, you wouldn’t be here.  What you want is an overview, a guideline, an Association Management for Du…um…Novices, if you will.  You are in the right place!

            There are four basic options for managing an association:


- All volunteer

- Volunteers with minimal staff support

- Association management company

- Stand-alone association


            Each of these options has pros and cons and what is “right” for your association may be totally un-doable for another group.  There is no “one, true, right and only” answer, only what makes the most working sense for the association in question at the time. 

            The all-volunteer option is where most associations start.  In possession of more members and enthusiasm than money, you can’t afford to pay anyone and you need people who know your field’s needs and issues. Still, this is the least desirable option. The downside is often volunteers are simply unable to give the full amount of time needed to really grow and support a new organization, no matter how strong their commitment.  Volunteers can also be problematic in being occasionally inconsistent and in areas of accountability; it’s hard to fire someone you don’t pay.  Oversights in dues invoicing and processing, bank account signatory changes, bookkeeping and member services can be catastrophic for a new, small organization. 

            The next-best solution is volunteers working with a small paid staff. Often this means just one full-time, paid administrator who may work in an office or from home.  This administrator may be brought in from outside or a retired member of the industry or profession may be recruited.  The drawback here is that while the administrator may well have considerable industry-related experience, he or she may have absolutely none in actual association management.   In addition, the administrator is still heavily dependent on the efforts of volunteers for things like newsletters and meeting planning.  Finally, such administrators are human, with human tendencies to biases and allegiances that may or may not be in the best interests of the association as a whole.

            A very desirable possibility is the association management company.  Some organizations don’t know such beasts exist, but they do, and most decent-sized cities have at least a few.  The American Society of Account Executives ( can assist you with finding who’s in your area and the Association Management Institute ( will be happy to help you create a Request for Proposal (RFP) to locate the best management company for your needs.  There are numerous benefits to engaging an association management company for your association.  You will have access to a fully equipped office without having to pay rent or leasing large equipment like copiers; a staff with training and experience in the specific issues of managing associations, without the worries of payroll, benefits, and training; overhead costs are shared with other clients of the management company so your administrative costs are reduced.  You also have access to specialty knowledge like meeting planning and newsletter creation, as well as allowing your association to leave the daily operations, bookkeeping and dues invoicing in capable, trustworthy hands, while you focus on the association itself, its needs and growth. 

            Some larger associations opt, at some point in their life, to become a “stand-alone” operation, with their own full-time paid staff.  An association management company can assist with that transition too, but many groups decide to stay with the outside management company because of the many benefits offered.  On the up side of having a stand-alone staff, you do have full control over who does what, you know your staff works only for you, and you have a visible office presence.  The drawbacks include large initial expenses to find, lease and set up an office, expenses for equipment, interviewing and hiring a staff executive, and dealing with payroll, taxes, and insurance.  You may also have to pay for additional staff, such as a meeting planner, year-round even if you don’t need them full-time, or outsource the project on an as-needed basis, limiting continuity and consistency.  Other expenses include finding or commissioning systems for accounting, data base, and dues invoicing, as well as website creation and maintenance.