Time for a Transition

Reprinted from Associations Now 2016 Guide to AMCs, July / August 2016 (page 11). Authored by Karla Taylor.

Five ways that your association could benefit from working with an AMC when your circumstances are changing your association must, too.

Faced with destabilizing industry consolidation, two related trade associations turned to an association management company for advice. Not only did the AMC already represent one of the associations, but it also had broad expertise in their food-related industry. What’s more, the AMC was plugged into an informed network of independent consultants who could provide analysis and support. The ultimate decision: Merge.

Once the decision was set, the associations needed a strategy. Again they turned to the AMC. The AMC’s governance experts helped reconfigure the board structure and offered advice on tough decisions about which trustees would serve and which would go. Its financial gurus created a dues structure that would be both equitable for members and effective at driving a new business model. The AMC even helped develop a new name.

Today, the merged associations have “a strong, combined voice to advocate for the entire industry,” says Greg Schultz, group vice president at Kellen, the AMC that structured the process and supports the resulting group. “They’ve got a larger base on which to spread the costs of running their organization, and the members are better able to advance their goals. The outcome was just terrific for their industry.”

If your organization is approaching a time of transition, you too may find that an association management company can help lead you to a stronger future. Here are five tips from AMC leaders who’ve helped associations pivot to new futures, whether because of mergers, reorganizations, or the departure of an executive.

1. Bring in an Outside Perspective
A transition is a natural time to step back and take a clear-eyed view of your goals and operations. “AMCs are like think tanks,” says Schultz. “We’ve seen many, many problems and challenges, and we can draw on that vast association experience to develop solutions.” As the merging food industry associations learned, an AMC can get you ready for a new future by deploying its depth of resources and specialty expertise.

This can involve creating a business model for mergers, facilitating a process for developing consensus, and envisioning the future. It can also bring about wake-up calls regarding problems that have either gone unnoticed or been actively ignored.

“We have a protocol we walk through with boards,” says Erin Fuller, FASAE, CAE, president of association management and consulting for MCI USA. “Is your membership database kept on somebody’s MacBook Pro? Are your funds comingled with another organization’s? Do you have a pension plan from 30 years ago with three people still on it?” An AMC can help you find out—and find a way forward.

2. Make the Most of your Money
An AMC can help you save during a time of transition, in several ways.

Flexible staffing. An AMC can scale up when you’re in the staff-intensive period of major change and scale down when you move to maintenance mode.

Shared staffing. Budget was a major concern for two associations that consulted Katherine Pankratz, senior account manager with VTM Group, about a merger. “When they looked at the cost implications of their previous staffs and overhead and then the shared services we offered at the rate we offered, there was no comparison,” says Pankratz. “The amount they saved was amazing.”

Economies of scale. “The purchasing power an AMC can offer, and the sheer volume of business we do, offers the lowest cost to all our clients,” says Pankratz. This is true whether you need help negotiating with print vendors or conference venues around the world.

3. Help your Board Grapple with Change
Risk management is always a chief preoccupation for trustees. Whether risks involve finances, political pitfalls, or new ventures with uncertain outcomes, AMCs have likely seen such challenges before. They can give informed advice on a process to plan for and manage risk.

During changing times, boards also need guidance on member communications and the feedback loop. Especially during mergers, “AMCs are expert at anticipating member questions on topics like dues, fielding the questions, and then funneling the concerns to the board,” Pankratz says. “It’s so critical to know what messaging is important and when you need to deliver it.”

An AMC can also help volunteer leaders focus on what volunteer leaders should do. “Our mantra is, leverage the highest and best use of everyone’s time,” says Fuller. “Many organizations come to us after abandoning a CEO search, meaning volunteer leaders may have needed to be in the weeds of tactical work. We provide board training for them and get them back up at the higher strategic levels where they belong.”

4. Weather Diplomatic Changes
One of Fuller’s clients had switched to an AMC model as its long-time CEO prepared to step down. By the time of his retirement dinner, a problem was clear to the new AMC staff: The CEO had been a great industry advocate but a terrible money manager.

Nevertheless, the staff knew from experience the importance of handling the transition professionally and solving the problems with utter discretion. “Keeping a good face is so important for so many reasons. We knew he might become a member or stakeholder, and we didn’t want our sponsors to think there was something wrong,” Fuller says. “We didn’t want the distraction that comes with airing dirty laundry about a CEO who was so valued.”

5. Gain a Full Partner
An unplanned merger, search process, or crisis intervention may make a volunteer leader feel like moaning, “This is not what I signed up for!” Nevertheless, this transition is likely to be the volunteer’s legacy. As Fuller says, “a smooth and successful transition is the greatest gift you can give your association.”

To make the change go smoothly, “Communicate well and communicate often,” Pankratz says. “We can’t help you if we don’t know what’s going on. Throughout the entire partnership, our job is to help you through this and to make it easier for you and your members.”

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