What are the roles within an association?

After completing this lesson, you will be able to:

  • Explain the different roles and responsibilities within an association
  • Describe the working relationships between volunteers/members and staff

As Amith shared, there are many different roles that make an association work. Paid staff members and volunteers are vital within an association. 

It’s important to remember that there is no “typical” formula within an association’s organization. Each association has key components like the Board of Directors, an Executive Director or CEO and other C-suite executives.

Boardable lists eight responsibilities of an organization’s executive director:

  1. Leadership
  2. Board development
  3. Public relations
  4. Financial management
  5. Liaison between stakeholders 
  6. Technology growth and development
  7. Organizational development
  8. Upholding legal compliance and ethical standards

Within the C-Suite, larger organizations can include structures with many different roles, all dependent on the association and its size. The possible roles are:

  • Chief Operating Officer (COO) 
  • Chief Financial Officer (CFO) 
  • Chief Information Officer (CIO) 
  • Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) 
  • Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO)

Just like the CEO/Executive Director, the C-Suite executes what the Board of Directors decides on for the association. 

Under the C-suite are the directors and/or managers who oversee the different staff departments. This includes but is not limited to:

  • Events - the event staff plan and execute different events throughout the year for the association. This can include conferences and networking events. These events provide opportunities for the members of the association to network with each other.
  • Advocacy - this staff advocates in support of the profession or industry to influence public policy; depending on the organization, the staff may advocate at varying levels of government including local, state and national. 
  • Content - the content staff is responsible for developing continuing education courses and materials, social media content and much more. For example, The American Association For The Advancement of Science publishes Science magazine, which is consumer-level content, but it also publishes peer-reviewed journals. 
  • Membership - these staffers support membership needs and retention. 

Volunteers and volunteer leadership are also pivotal within associations. As Amith stated, an association can have a small paid staff but a very substantial volunteer base. Volunteers within an association can help create the content for the profession, industry or group. 

There are many roles within associations that are similar to for-profit businesses, but there are many key differences, too. A big difference is that some roles are paid and others are volunteer positions. 

One important group of volunteers is the Board of Directors (BOD). One of the BOD’s main responsibilities is governance within the association. Effective governance provides the vision and direction to ensure an association is on the best path. According to ASAE, the responsibility for governing an association typically rests with a volunteer board of directors, operating according to a set of bylaws and working in close collaboration with the organization’s chief staff executive to set strategic direction, provide necessary resources and make key decisions that association staff then implement to meet member needs. 

The BOD, which is elected by the association members, has fiduciary responsibility for the organization. Done successfully, that means the BOD is key to guiding the association into a sustainable future. The board makes decisions on adopting sound ethical, financial and legal policies while making sure these policies adhere to the association’s mission and goal. 

Board members typically serve two to three year terms. Some boards are volunteer positions, some are paid and some offer stipends — it all just depends on the association. 

The board of directors also has the important task of finding and hiring the CEO/Executive Director. This highly-regarded position oversees the C-Suite and works directly with the Board of Directors to build the association’s future. 

This is why all roles within an association, staff and volunteer are crucial. 

Now, let’s take a look at some example organizational charts to get a better understanding of how all of these roles work together.

This organizational chart of a smaller social association shows how the executive director and association staff are connected with the association’s volunteer leadership. 

Org ChartThis is a local chapter of a larger national professional association that serves dental professionals.  

Staff and Volunteer Org Chart  This is a larger social association that is composed of approximately 2.2 million members and approximately 800,000 volunteers. 

 As you can see, just like Amith said, there is no “typical” structure. Associations, the staff and volunteer leadership, do amazing work and people within the association must work together to complete their mission and vision. 

Committees and volunteers

Associations cannot function without volunteers. At every level within an association, volunteers are key and comprise committees, which play advisory roles within the organization.

Volunteer Org Chart

This organizational chart from a small medical association illustrates how different committees play a role in all areas of an association, like membership, finance and professional development. 

Most committees are volunteer or stipend positions. The members of a committee can serve a two- to a four-year term, depending on the association. For example, committees can influence the content, make recommendations about key hires, provide crucial support in hosting conferences and events and provide deep research and guidance. In return, committee members get professional networking opportunities, which can influence the election to the Board of Directors, and they have a say in how the organization functions. 

Each association has its own guidelines and committee roles. For example, here are the Bowling Proprietors' Association of America(BPAA) guidelines for committee chairs and members. Some committee guidelines include:

  • Use well-placed questions, seek points of information and clarification, and periodically summarize to keep the discussion focused.
  • Keep the group focused on the central question and moving toward a decision.  Call on the least senior members first to express their views; discussions tend to "close down" after senior members express strong views.
  • Seek consensus, but unanimity is not required.  Sometimes an idea is compromised by trying to get every last person to completely agree.
  • Close the meeting by noting achievements. Check at the end of the meeting to see if members feel that all relevant subjects have been adequately covered. 

As stated by the BPAA’s committee guidelines, the guidelines are there to help each committee within the association run an effective committee meeting. Effective committees don't just happen.  They are a combination of the right individuals, a mission, good leadership, [and] good staff work. (Source: BPAA)