Lynne McNees is vice president of the Lexington-based Associations International and president of one of its member organizations, the International SPA Association. She talked with Tom Martin about the business of servicing associations. This interview with Stevens has been condensed. You can listen to a podcast of the entire conversation.
Q: What fields are represented by the organizations operating under the umbrella of Associations International?
A: We manage nine distinct associations. Everything from finance, spa owners and operators and dog trainers to volleyball and professional coaches.
Q: What are the challenges of managing such a variety of interests?
A: Actually, the challenges are opportunities as well because we are nine very different organizations and we’re all governed by a volunteer board of directors that hired Associations International to manage the day-to-day operations of their organizations. But because we’re all under one roof with all 120 employees based here in Lexington, we can collaborate. We all have membership. We all run events and education. There are things that we all do. And even though the industries are very different, the day-to-day operations may not be as different. So, the spa industry can learn from the tech industry and the tech industry can learn from volleyball coaches. It’s a wonderful partnership.
Q: I wonder if many in Lexington realize that these national and international associations are headquartered here?
A: Most of our members within the organizations don’t even know there is an association management company behind them. They just think of us as being their staff and that really is by design. Through the 9 organizations, we touch 110,000 members in over 120 countries; touching them by providing them education, resources, research, membership. The American Society of Association Executives is the governing association in our profession. The number one reason people join, based on our research, is for networking and education. So, all of us collectively, provide that everyday.
Q: The “association” has been the single best resource for everyone in a particular field; the go-to for information, data, and ideas. Has the internet changed this in any way?
A: I think it’s given associations more of a voice to get their messages out. We really do need to have that voice or that industry expert and associations still provide that today because that’s who is really driving a lot of the education and research within specific industries.
Q: I assume that for most associations, membership is key to revenue. Is there a challenge presented by social media?
A: Social media has been a great way to actually grow membership. For most of our organizations, it is a wonderful vehicle to get the message out. For a lot of organizations now, conferences, events, and education are their top revenue drivers. Membership is always critical. That’s Associations International’s claim to fame: that we grow membership and we grow conferences. And if there’s an association out there that wants to be under the A.I. family, they have to want to grow.
Q: Do you run an association like a business?
A: It has to be a business. And it’s owned by the membership. So, the board of directors has a fiduciary responsibility. It’s a misnomer to think that nonprofits don’t make a profit. You do make a profit. You spend it back with the membership. You just don’t pocket it. It’s the members’ money. So, whether you’re putting it into reserves for a rainy day or you’re reinvesting in education, you have to run it like a business.
Q: In this era, we hear a lot about collaboration versus hierarchy and top down, vertical leadership. Do you see that happening in the association world?
A: The members all collaborate. And whether it’s the traditional task force model or it’s think tanks that we put together of special interest groups within membership, it is what drives the industry. Within the spa world, for example, we really tried to define an industry, so people didn’t think we were hot tubs. That was a big challenge for us. And the members helped us do that by educating the consumer and really collaborating. We also do that in-house within our own employees. That collaboration across industries is what makes us better. I learn so much from the coaching industry, the technology industry, and finance industry. If I was by myself as a single association executive with a small staff, I wouldn’t have that bench. So, there’s collaboration at every level.
Q: What’s your view of professional development for staff? Do you offer opportunities for staff to learn, and grow?
A: As I mentioned, ASAE is our governing body — our association. And with education and networking the top two reasons that people join we think it’s important that our employees are also well-educated not only within the field where they’re assigned — whether it’s finance, technology, or even spas — but also their professional growth, what they want to do. That’s really the beauty of working in an association because you’re kind of a “Jack of All Trades.” You get to dabble in PR and marketing and writing for a trade journal or doing events. If you’re not sure what you want to do when you grow up, it’s a great gateway to come in and learn a little bit about everything. We also support locally. A lot of our staff have gone through Leadership Lexington and have participated in Commerce Lexington’s Emerge Conference. We invest heavily in our employees. We have been one of Kentucky’s “Best Places to Work” for 4 years in a row. Our employees fill out those surveys and they decide that we’re one of Kentucky’s best places to work.
Q: Among the services A.I. provides to various organizations, are there some that are adopted by all of the groups under your umbrella and some that are specific to a given association?
A: Absolutely. The International Coach Federation for example, certifies coaches. That’s what they do. So, they run the certification program and certify hundred thousands of coaches around the world. So, that’s specific to their industry. Each one of us has something. As I mentioned, we’re governed by a board of directors who really set what is it they want us to focus on. For example, ISPA focuses heavily on media and consumer awareness. Sometimes you’ll find a really great massage therapist who decides to open up a spa, but may not have the business tools to do it. So, it’s our responsibility to help educate them on how to run a profitable business. It depends on the industry, but what we do across the board is grow membership, really execute world class conferences and events, wonderful trade publications and magazines. That’s really the staple of all of our associations.
Q: I want to touch on something in your history that I think our readers and listeners would find interesting and that is that you spent some years on the White House staff. Can you tell us which president you served? And do you to this day sometimes look back on those experiences and draw on them in some way?
A: I was privileged to serve George H.W. Bush for 4 years in the White House. And I draw on that a lot — mostly group dynamics and as I mentioned, being a “Jack of All Trades” because running an association is very similar to being involved in a campaign or being in the White House where your staff is very lean. You do everything. It’s hands-on. You do it all. And no day is the same as the next. I was so young. Right out of college. And I’ve taken a lot of that with me.
Tom Martin’s Q&A appears every two weeks in the Herald-Leader’s Business Monday section. This is an edited version of the interview. To listen to the interview, find the podcast on Kentucky.com. The interview also will air on WEKU-88.9 FM on Mondays at 7:35 a.m. during Morning Edition and at 5:45 p.m. during All Things Considered.