What Does It Mean To Be A Strategic Association

Editor’s Note: This entry is part of an occasional series of posts from the ACRL Board of Directors.  In this post, Vice-President/ President-Elect Steven J. Bell discusses the strategic association.

Part of the process of becoming ACRL president is learning how to be an effective association leader. Familiar with Encyclopedia of Associations? Then you know there are thousands of member associations, all of them waiting to be led by practitioners who have limited association leadership experience. That’s why attending the American Society of Association Executives’ Leadership Symposium is an essential part of the learning process for an ACRL president. I attended the Symposium in November 2011, and found it a most worthwhile experience. The big takeaway for me is that the role of the president and Board of Directors is strategic in nature. Another way to put this is ACRL’s member-leaders need to focus their energies on establishing the direction for the association, and planning the course for how we’ll get there. What we also need to do is be careful to avoid becoming to deeply involved in ACRL operational matters.

I learned a helpful way to think about this. Every association goes through seven stages of development:

  • Conception – people come together to start an association
  • Infancy – founders struggle to keep it alive
  • Puberty – steady growth but lack of internal and external coordination
  • Young Adulthood – accepted management practices are implemented; little bureaucracy
  • Adulthood – Management is secure; adding new services and new functions
  • Late Adulthood – Complacency sets in; enthusiasm for the association diminishes
  • Old age – Managers and leaders losing control; falling apart but no one cares

The Symposium faculty asked us which stage was the most difficult one. I thought it was late adulthood, when things start to go downhill. Turns out the most challenging stage is adulthood. That is the most effective phase when the association is operating on all cylinders and achieving its primary goal – to return maximum value to the members. The associations that sustain the adulthood phase are those with strategic-minded Boards. What makes a Board strategic? Here are a few qualities that I picked up on during the workshop:

  • Focuses on setting and achieving outcomes
  • Focuses on making a difference for members (understands WIFFM Factor)
  • Focuses on being value and vision driven
  • Focuses on establishing a trusted governance model
  • Focuses on the long-term direction of the organization
  • Focuses on success being defined by value that accrues to membership

As one of the newest members of the ACRL Board – I have yet to attend a regular, full Board meeting which I’ll do at ALA Midwinter – I bring a novice’s perspective to what it means to function as a strategic Board. I don’t doubt that more experienced Board members could further elaborate on how ACRL acts strategically to sustain ACRL as an “adult” association. Despite my lack of experience even I can understand the importance of a strategically-focused ACRL Board. Attending the association symposium helped me to fine tune my sense of the responsibilities I’ll bear as ACRL president, the relationship between the president and association CEO and the importance of being strategic in order to deliver the greatest possible value to the members. For an ACRL vice-president/president-elect, getting there is a learning process.