Family Feud Meets the Vatican at City Hall: Challenges in Association Management

By John Butcher

January 2010

This article is not about the techniques of association management. There are hundreds of management theories, gurus, books, articles, how-to manuals and consultants. Most are useful. Instead, these remarks focus on the internal context or "environment" of association management - that rich, bubbling stew of relationships among volunteer leaders, staff and members which constantly flavours association life. Here we examine the challenges raised by those relationships which can help or hinder associations in setting and achieving their mandates.

Those challenges seem to fall into four broad themes:
volunteer leadership; staff/volunteer relations; internal communications; and, achieving results.

No prescriptions are provided here on how an association should address such challenges: the first step in resolving them lies in understanding and confronting them in ways appropriate to the culture of each association. Only then can we tailor effective ways of working together. In other words, we need more self-awareness, not more bromides.

Volunteer Leadership

Leadership by volunteers is the dominating characteristic of almost all associations. As such, it is the single most important issue in association management. Such leadership brings with it a host of challenges.

a) Turnover

Turnover among volunteers can mean regular infusions of fresh ideas and energy into the association. It can also mean lack of continuity in vision and leadership style. Every organizational "personality" eventually finds its way into any association. As a result, associations can veer from one leadership style to another. It can be hard to achieve long-term consistency in management approaches, or in the very priority accorded to management within the association.

b) Comfort Levels

Many volunteers have difficulty grasping their associations' "business lines" and operating environments. These volunteers find association management difficult. They have little comfort with what they find to be a complex managerial environment. Other volunteers, in contrast, find association life refreshingly uncluttered, the issues straightforward, and the paid staff a valued resource. For these volunteers, association management is easy - a welcome relief from the daily crises and complexities in their home organizations.

c) "Revealed Truth"

The overwhelming majority of volunteers come to association leadership with a sincere desire to help and do good. Many have strongly-held views of what the association should achieve. They are high-minded people, who sacrifice both personally and professionally in the service of their association. And in their high-mindedness, they can become intensely focused on what they consider to be the "revealed truth" of how their association should operate. Yet, as we know from the experiences of organized religion, when high-minded people come into contact, there can be conflict. And conflict over principles and the "revealed truth" is usually noisier and bloodier than conflict based on expediency and political maneuvering. In the latter, compromise is always possible.

d) "Leaving a Mark"

Many volunteers want to "leave a mark" on their association and its environment. Such aspirations can be a useful prod to the association to think big, to move beyond its history. But they can also be beyond the association's grasp. The resulting frustrations often lead to tension, as other volunteer leaders and staff are branded "obstructionist" or "small-minded". That tension is made worse by the pressure to be a "family" within the association. As police and social workers know, family feuds can be very intense.

e) Volunteer Workloads

Competing personal and professional workloads can place great strains on volunteers to find sufficient time for their association responsibilities. The burden is especially heavy on the self-employed, who have both more control over their time and a greater need not to become distracted from their principal business. Volunteer leaders can become frustrated and impatient to make quick progress in the limited time they have available. As a result, complex issues are often over-simplified. Many managerial responsibilities, such as long-range planning and resource allocation, become exercises in wishful and superficial thinking, rather than hard-nosed and comprehensive assessments of the association's vision and the means to achieve it.

Staff/Volunteer Relations

Managing the relationships between an association's staff and volunteer leaders requires a deft and delicate touch.

a) "City Hall"

Association staff are continuously adapting to the challenges posed by volunteer leadership. Each of those challenges affects how staff organize their own workloads and where they focus their time, intellect and emotional energy. Senior staff must adjust to each new wave of managerial style and personality among the volunteer leadership.

In this way, association staff are much like public servants, who must also adjust to a constantly shifting cast of elected leaders. But associations more closely resemble "City Hall" than provincial or federal bureaucracies. In some associations, staff have as many "bosses" as they have directors. The lack of party discipline in municipal politics makes "City Hall" an especially fluid and unpredictable environment. Staff are frequently thrust into roles that can bring them into direct conflict with elected representatives, without the buffering that the Cabinet system provides.

b) Boundaries

Much of the tension between association staff and volunteers centres on the difficulties in setting and respecting boundaries between their roles. In many associations (as in many City Halls), there is no consensus on what those boundaries should be or how to establish them. Many volunteer leaders simply import their own mental models and assume they are shared. Senior staff often do the same thing. This lack of clarity inevitably leads to miscommunication and tension.

Some senior association staff informally stake out boundaries with their volunteer leaders. We know of association CEOs who simply threatened to resign on the spot if their new Presidents moved into the associations' premises for their terms of office. The volunteers felt they were being helpful. The association CEOs saw the problems that such arrangements could generate. The resulting "show-downs" enter association lore.

Other associations take a more systematic approach to boundary-setting. John Carver is the best-known North American guru in this field. Carver's governance model is a highly-disciplined and formulaic protocol which uses a series of policy statements to explicitly define the responsibilities of boards and staff. Implemented effectively, the Carver approach addresses many of the challenges which bedevil association management.

c) Attitudes

Volunteer leaders often experience difficulties in their attitudes toward staff. Some view senior staff with suspicion and resentment. For many volunteers, senior staff are entrenched, obstructionist and too high-profile for comfort. Not surprisingly, staff often return the compliment: they find many volunteers narrow, self-important and uninspiring. Many of these perceptions originate in the absence of clear boundaries and spheres of responsibility between boards and association staff.

Other volunteers simply defer to senior staff on all issues of importance. Such volunteers are intimidated by staff's experience, administrative control, knowledge of the issues and contacts. Senior staff, in turn, can come to believe that such deference is appropriate. Together, these attitudes inhibit good management by failing to balance the perspectives of volunteers and staff - each of whom brings needed insights to the table.

Finally, there are the ambivalent volunteers. They ricochet between suspicion and deference. They want to exert leadership and achieve results, but are unsure how to tap staff expertise or to share credit for success. Staff find such volunteers unpredictable. Boundaries are hard to define and maintain. Organizational direction suffers.

Internal Communications

Everyone says that we can never over-communicate. But there are many challenges to building and sustaining effective and open internal communications.

a) "Who's in Charge Here?"

Most volunteers and senior staff see themselves as knowledgeable and "tuned in". They understand the issues. They have the long-term perspective and the necessary political instincts. They are the leaders and spokespersons of the association. These sentiments can lead to a reluctance to communicate, to set up dialogue within the association. Such dialogue is considered redundant. Besides, who wants to be contradicted?

b) Members' Credibility

Many association members have little credibility with the volunteer and staff leadership. Members' responses to issues are often seen as reflex and short-term, symptomatic more of indigestion than of sober thought. Their comments connect neither rationally nor emotionally with the association's leadership. The time and energy required to garner and assess such input are seen as a waste. Gradually, the communication channels narrow and close - at great cost to the association.

c) (Dis)Respect

As every elected official and public servant knows, respect can be hard to get and easy to lose. One day you're a valued member of the community, the next you're a "politician" or "bureaucrat". Many association members display just such disrespect. They resent what they see as the power, perks and status of the association's leaders.

Those leaders, in turn, can soon feel unappreciated and misunderstood, set upon by ignorant and ungrateful members who do not realize the pressures and responsibilities of running the association. Self-pity and resentment can soon follow. The lack of respect becomes mutual. Communication suffers.

d) Expectations

When members are asked for input, they expect to see their comments reflected in association policy and operations. When they aren't, members can become frustrated. There are accusations of "old boys' club" and "in group". Trust and confidence can break down. It becomes harder for the association's leadership to get ideas from the members.

e) "Reading the Tea Leaves"

When members do provide input, how should it be interpreted? Few associations spend resources on truly scientific surveys of their members' opinions. So the leadership is left trying to "read the tea leaves". Are these responses representative of the majority of members? Are opponents to an idea more likely to comment? It becomes even trickier when members do not respond. Does silence indicate support? indifference? opposition?

In all this, it can be hard for association leaders to maintain a feel for where the members want the association to go. Members may transfer the optimism, fears and frustrations they feel in their own work or businesses on to the association. Association leaders, in turn, may resist what they see as short-term, anecdotal and highly-personal input from members. This can be even more difficult when board members are seen bringing such perspectives to the table. Senior staff are then placed in the awkward position of pushing back against elected representatives.

Achieving Results

Associations exist to achieve results. Even if the association has worked through its other internal challenges, achieving results remains the key test of association management.

a) Priorities and Resources

Resources migrate to priorities. Just ask anyone who still smokes. "We don't have enough resources to do this" is often code for "This is not a priority". Resource shortages are usually symptoms, not causes, of an association's inability to pursue clear and widely-supported initiatives. Typically, the association has been unable to reach consensus on its priorities. How does an association engage and animate its members to participate in setting priorities and to provide the resources necessary for their implementation? How can association leaders best educate members about long-term needs and the "big picture"? How do members come to feel that the association's work directly aligns with their own priorities?

Only when an association has gained such alignment - between itself and its members - will common priorities emerge and resource allocations flow willingly. Governments grapple with this issue every day. Associations do so as well - without the legislative "hammer" governments can use.

b) Staying Power and Resources

The time lines of much association work often seem long to people impatient for results and accustomed to controlling their own fate. The "staying power" to patiently pursue priorities through to achievement is difficult to maintain.

Such staying power indicates that the association has successfully addressed many of its challenges. Continuous two-way dialogue which educates both the members and the volunteer and staff leadership is essential. From that grows understanding of the association's potential and constraints, along with realistic expectations and priorities. Only then will members willingly resource the association, through quality volunteer and staff leadership, material and financial support, environmental intelligence, and public affirmation and credibility. Those are the crucial ingredients of effective associations in which all their members can take pride.


Associations are wonderful organizations in which to work. They are not merely the "sum" of their members. They are different. Their dynamics are unique. Associations have their fair shares of intrigue and soap opera. But they also present unmatched opportunities to pursue collective accomplishments beyond the scope of individual members.

Associations enable us to reach beyond short-term and personal interests and stake out broader and better ambitions. The challenges to doing this are often immense. But the sustaining vision of any successful and credible association - making society as a whole a better place - ultimately animates and guides the management process. In this light, all of our challenges are surmountable.