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Rising Dues, Static Income, and Diminished Free Time

A strategic approach to association membership

In 1831, French aristocrat Alexi De Tocqueville observed a paradox about the United States less than sixty years after independence: citizens verbally espouse individualism as a philosophy yet they aggressively accomplish goals through mutual association. De Toqueville was so impressed with American collectivism, he called professional and trade associations the unofficial fourth branch of the American government.

Professional and trade associations continue to exert powerful roles in shaping decisions. The issue facing our clients is balancing individual and corporate membership in the face of rising dues, static personal income, and shrinking free time.

Why Join?

People with externally-oriented jobs are paid to develop business relationships. Association membership is core to the job. Classic examples would be a “Rainmaker” partner at a law firm, Director of Business Development at a CPA firm, or an insurance producer. Many of the professionals and leaders we work with, however, work in internally-oriented jobs. If 75% or more of your professional time is spent with people from within your own company and within the offices of your employer, then you have an internally oriented job. Examples might include a project manager, HR Director, law firm administrator, division controller, social worker, university administrator, etc.

If your job is internally-oriented, membership in a professional association provides the following advantages:

  • Credible professionals outside your company who know how good you are and thus can serve references and leads for opportunities.
  • Perspective about how problems in your company might be similar to problems faced by other firms.
  • Perspective about what is “cutting edge” in your profession.
  • Industry gossip about opportunities that might be good for you or companies you might wish to avoid.
  • Confidential place to inquire about job opportunities.

In return for these personal benefits, you are expected to provide money and time. But there are also benefits for your employer. Make the case to your boss why your employer should pay for your membership dues and consider time spent at associations as leadership development.

Be Strategic: Join Two

The first association you join ought to be industry focused. Examples include the California Hospital Association, Massachusetts Bankers Association, or the Austin Biotech Council. These organizations provide exposure to a cross-functional section of colleagues with similar concerns. In some cases, your employer may already be a corporate member of an industry-focused association and you need only get permission to represent the company on a committee. Sometimes the employer hasn’t taken the time to join the industry-focused association and may pay the dues if you volunteer to be the company representative.

The second association might consist of people who share similar functional responsibilities but work across industry disciplines. Examples might include the Project Management Association, New England Association of Applied Psychology, New York Society of CPAs, the Denver Chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsels, etc.

Avoid joining two associations with overlapping membership. You are wasting money. Join the best association from each category. If you are not sure which local associations are best for you, check out this free gateway to associations published by the American Society of Association Executives:

“Breaking In” Versus “Showing Up:”

Association calendars usually are mailed to members at the end of the summer or early fall. Jot down meeting times ten months in advance on your calendar. Once it is in your calendar be faithful about attending meetings. Saying, “I’ll go if I have free time” is the equivalent of saying, “I won’t go.”

Association meetings often involve cocktail parties followed by a dinner and a speaker. The pre-dinner activities may be the more important for you in terms of generating new contacts.

We often recommend to our clients that they show up for the cocktail party 20 minutes prior to the published start of the party. In this way they can stand in the middle of the room facing the entrance. When people arrive and see your smiling face, they will come over and start talking with you. All you have to is “show up.”

On the other hand, if you come in 20 minutes after the start of the cocktail hour, the cliques are already formed. You are the stranger who must politely “break in.”

The object in cocktail party chatter is to make 1-2 good connections. That is it. Your goal is not to make a friend, a lover, or even a sale. Making connections is a two-way street. You are asking questions to find out the type of work your new colleagues engage in. You are seeking to find out what on-the-job problems they have. You want to be helpful. Starting the conversation by focusing on problems related to the topic of the evening's speech is a painless way to begin. Try to get a business card from the two people you meet that night. Jot down some key details on the back the card. The best details are those that lend themselves to follow-up by you later that week. Do not waste time continuing to chat with an individual once you have concluded that there is little mutual benefit. One-sided relationships are not real business relationships. One graceful way to exit a one-sided relationship: I excuse myself by saying I just got a mobile phone call and need to find a quiet spot in the hallway.

Committee Memberships:

If you are raising children, you can trade off the Join Two concept. For example, Sam has two small children in elementary school. Sam can drop membership in the functional association for membership in the school’s Parent Teachers Association or Education Committee for where your children attend to religious school. This provides Sam an external network while he is dong something positive for his children.

Paying dues and faithfully attending meetings is not enough. The goal is to know industry leaders well enough so that you can tap into their network of contacts when the time comes that you need assistance. Getting well known involves volunteering for committee assignments. Look for externally focused committees that provide you with a platform to meet other people. The following committees are often found in associations and are excellent externally facing bodies: membership, program, government relations. Be careful about being drawn into inwardly focused committees. Association politics can get nasty and time consuming. Examples would include Committee to draft the new Constitution, Award Committee, Christmas Party Committee, etc. We know someone who joined a town committee exploring how the community could find ways to finance under-funded pensions of retired town workers. This is an example of an inwardly focused negative sink hole for time.

The more internally-oriented your job, the more you want to spend your time with committees that are externally-oriented.

The Association Dilemma:

The association dilemma is about balancing rising association dues, static personal income, and shrinking free time. It is too easy to say “No Thanks” as a way of resolving the dilemma. That answer is not in your interests. It is not in your employer’s interests. Be strategic about membership. If you have people reporting to you, show them this article. Ask them to be strategic.


  1. DeTocqueville. DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA. New York: Perennial Classics, 2000.


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