Management challenges for associations: are we families or businesses?

Watercolor painting of a chameleon
Illustration: Watercolour by Laura Otýpková (Czech Republic). All rights reserved.

While some translation companies have adopted practices borrowed from the association world, such as corporate social responsibility, democratic governance, social and community goals, etc., nonprofit associations are being managed more like businesses, with budgets, tax issues, and divisions of labour. Association-businesses and business-associations are like chameleons in a complex environment where everything seems to blur the line between financial performance and social value.

Businesses have long used our cherished association language to suggest that they, too, are “one big happy family”. Meanwhile, associations are increasingly embracing the idea of leveraging management practices to maintain effective budgeting, foster member (customer) loyalty, and promote a business sector that has become a product and service industry.

While there are some similarities between these two legal entities, there are also significant differences separating them, especially in terms of objectives, bylaws, and operating procedures. At the top of the list: associations’ collegiality and not-for-profit approach. The foundation of democracy underpinning all professional associations, as well as the commitment to volunteering of their members – who join a veritable community of values, donate their time, and pool their knowledge, skills, and contacts –make them no less complex. In fact, it is precisely what makes associations so rich for all of us. There is management, development, and expected results, and then there is a force in action embodying the ethical and human values that form the very foundation of associations.

This energy – built through volunteering, trust, mutual aid, and regional and inter-institutional cooperation – reinforces values that we easily and unhesitatingly adhere to. It is the responsibility of both our boards and our members to promote them by putting engagement strategies in place that strengthen what makes our associations so special in the first place: the desire to be and work together.

That said, considering just the human dimension, which is the very essence of the association as an institution, for all of its collegial and convivial qualities, is not without risk. In these new and challenges times, we need to activate the basic principles of business management so that we can tailor them to our values and mission.

While we don’t use profit to measure the success of our associations and instead look to the positive impact they have on society in general and the community in particular, associations need financial resources to promote their causes, as well as competent and committed people, visibility to be able to engage their supporters, and financial and operational transparency.

Maximising our collective spirit through effective, tailored, competent, sustainable, and selfless management is a delicate balancing act in which we all have a role to play.

Nathalie Le Coutour – ACOTIP, SFT, ANTIO

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