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Finding Value in Professional Associations: Management and Membership Issues
Volume 39, Number 3 - May/June 2015


Several library and information industry associations recently parted ways with their executive directors (EDs). Both MLA (Medical Library Association; and NFAIS saw long-time executive directors retire, Carla Funk at MLA and Bonnie Lawlor at NFAIS. MLA took the opportunity to re-examine its mission statement and rewrite the job description. The new ED, Kevin Baliozian, who started work on Jan. 15, 2015, is an experienced association executive, having done stints with several associations in health-related fields, although not with librarians. MLA kept its membership apprised of the hiring process via its blog, to which its new ED is now a prolific contributor.

At NFAIS, the new ED, Marcie Granahan, in the position since February 2014, likewise comes from association roots. Her path to the ED’s position began with a recruitment firm that reached out to her. She was one of nine candidates who were narrowed down to six, and then to three. The NFAIS board made the final choice. The process began with a series of interviews and completion of a written assignment to outline a proposed strategic plan for the next 6 months. This process enabled candidates and NFAIS to understand each others’ thought processes and mutually decide if employment of the candidate was in the best interests of both parties.

NFAIS took approximately 4 months to fill the position. A key element of this process, according to Granahan, was interacting with the board. “The board needs to be transparent,” she said. Under her tenure, NFAIS has enjoyed a successful annual meeting, is publishing a new and improved newsletter, has an active job board, and has moved the organization’s office to the D.C. area to be closer to lawmakers.

SLA took a different tack when replacing its CEO, Janice Lachance, at the conclusion of her contract. The outgoing executive received a CEO emeritus title and, according to a press release, “will continue to provide special advice and counsel to SLA as it transitions to new leadership and beyond.” Instead of immediately hiring a search firm to find a new executive director, SLA chose first to name its two highest ranking staff members as co-acting CEOs and, later, to have two current association members act as “change agents” to aid the organization in finding new leadership in the future. Some SLA members have used SLA discussion lists to express concerns about the process and its lack of transparency.


A business colleague of mine is a senior executive at a medical association for physicians. She has been there for more than 17 years and has seen many changes during that time period. She told me that a doctor heads the association but its day-to-day operation falls to a person with a law degree and an M.B.A. Running a nonprofit association is akin to running a business. In the rapidly changing pace of today’s workplace culture, the organization needs at its helm a person with a keen business mind who is both a visionary and an astute businessperson.

When asked about the organization’s strategic plan, she explained that it is comprised of three parts: membership input, examining industry trends and adjusting to those trends, and keenly understanding the ever-changing governmental rules and regulations that affect their members. That’s not so different from our LIS world.

She also shared her view of her association’s staff leadership: “You need smart people to head the organization who have an awareness of the history of the association in addition to having a vision for the future.” Integral to the success of the association is its program of continuing education (CE) courses, which are widely used by its membership and mandated for people in the medical profession.


Seth Kahan is an acknowledged change agent. He has focused extensively on innovation and change in the three books he has authored —  Building Beehives: A Handbook for Creating Communities That Generate Returns (2004), Getting Change Right: How Leaders Transform Organizations From the Inside Out (2010), and Getting Innovation Right: How Leaders Leverage Inflection Points to Drive Success (2013). In an article for Fast Company, titled “3 Pillars of a Successful Nonprofit Strategy” ( leadership-now/the-3-pillars-of-a-successful-non-profitstrategy?partner=rss), he states that for nonprofit associations to be successful, their strategy needs to be built on three pillars: market, customers, and capacity.

In the Fast Company article, Kahan says “market conditions play a role in the success of every organization.” He cautions that it is critical for the success of any organization to understand whether its market is expanding or contracting. He suggests that outside experts need to be called in to assess the nonprofit market because “[a]n independent view ensures the whole picture is presented [to the board] without an organization-centric basis.”

In relation to customers, he says there are two fundamental questions to answer: “Who are our customers? How are we doing at serving them?” He describes capacity as “taking a hard look at the culture, functions, and roles required to design and deliver value successfully.”

He cautions, “Nonprofits usually look to their board to create strategy, [which is] most often a serious mistake.” In his opinion, “The board does not have (a) the requisite broad market intelligence, (b) the ability to collect impartial data from those the organization serves (the customers), and (c) comprehensive understanding of the organizations’ capacity.”

“It is the board’s place to ordain strategy, not create it. It is the CEO-executive director’s (ED) job to bring potential strategies before the board for its consideration” he says.

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Michael Gruenberg is president, Gruenberg Consulting, LLC. He previously had a distinguished sales career spanning more than 30 years with a variety of companies including ProQuest, CSA, OneSource, Oxford Analytica, and Disclosure.


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