Membership in a professional association has many benefits. According to the 2016 Power of Associations study from the American Society of Association Executives, in the US alone, associations hold over 315,000 meetings with close to 60 million people attending. That’s a lot of opportunities to get involved and a nearly unlimited network of professionals to tap into — so how do you choose which are best for you?
What’s your motivation?
Consensus is clear among executives actively involved in professional associations. Before deciding if an organization is right for you, 1. Define your goals and 2. Determine if an organization can help you achieve them.
“Consider what you hope to gain from the experience,” says Erik Tomasi, Managing Partner of Symosis Security and Chairman/Past President of the NY Metro Chapter of the Society For Information Management (SIM). “Expanding your network to other parts of the world and industries is the most obvious, but learning from speakers and peers — and hearing new ideas you can potentially apply — is surprisingly valuable too.”
Jonathan Friedland, a partner with Sugar Felsenthal Grais & Helsinger, LLP, who served as a board member for the American Bankruptcy Institute (ABI) and co-chairs the NY chapter of the Private Directors Association (PDA), builds on that, saying, “Some associations are going to be great for meeting other professionals who do what you, others may be better for meeting potential clients, yet others may be great for continuing education.”
People also seek out professional associations for CPE offerings, information access, training, speaking opportunities, advocacy, committee participation, as well as leadership roles and board experience.
They’re even helpful if you’re looking to make a change in your career. Georgia Galanoudis, Executive Vice President of Media for HIMSS and board member for New York Women in Communications (NYWICI), suggests, “Find an association that’s going to benefit your career trajectory. If you’re considering a career pivot, then it’s the best way to explore a new direction before making any firm decisions.”
Evaluate from every angle
Check out target organizations and be sure to speak with members and leadership and ask questions. “Attend several programming events (virtually or in person) before joining, but don’t judge on the subject matter alone,” says Galanoudis. “Look around the screen or room and ask yourself, are these the types of people I’d want to connect with?” Friedland agrees, asking about fellow attendees, “Are they nice? Are they smart? Are they people you enjoy being with? If the answer to any of these questions is no, then proceed with caution.”
When considering the networking potential of a professional association, remember that cultivating strong relationships requires effort. “Relationships take time and don’t happen after one exchange. At SIM, it has sometimes taken me months or years to really get to know someone,” Tomasi advises. Don’t expect game-changing results from a single meeting, but do determine if the sampling of people you meet seems like the right population for you to spend more time with (based on your goals).
It’s also worth finding out how you can pursue leadership or board roles, considering their positive career impact. “Even if someone doesn’t aspire to join a corporate board, the benefits of serving on the board of a professional organization are immense,” says Tomasi. “You’re interacting with senior leaders in a unique way and developing skills which are outside typical work responsibilities. Dealing with member issues, board structures, logistics, speakers, finances and various obstacles, once solved, leads to increased confidence, skills and contacts.”
To that end, researching and understanding governance is key, advises Friedland. “Not-for-profit associations vary greatly in terms of a member’s ability to rise through the ranks to a leadership position.”
What the organization does and who it cares about should align with your professional interests and values too. It’s inherently easier to maximize involvement when you’re personally invested in the association’s mission. “The inclusiveness of NYWICI really appeals to me,” shares Galanoudis. “Not only is the communications field broad and diverse, but being committed to helping women at all stages of their career ensures a wide spectrum of career types, ages and stages represented.”
Take full advantage
Once you join a professional association, it’s incumbent upon you to get involved and get the most out of it. As Tomasi points out, “While it is up to the organization to ensure the atmosphere is vibrant with strong programs and members, like most things in life you get what you put into it.”
If growing your network is the primary reason why you joined an organization, don’t remain a wallflower on or at events because you’re out of practice or uncomfortable meeting new people. Take advantage of the community around you. “The time to network is not when you lose your job,” reminds Tomasi. “Build your network continuously, whether you are exploring new opportunities, need to hire, or want to learn about evolving solutions or management techniques, professional organizations work. It makes you sharper, more informed, and increases your value.“
There are other ways association involvement can drive career advancement besides networking. As Friedland points outs, “By leveraging thought leadership opportunities, I was able to learn my craft a lot faster than billing hours alone would have accomplished. And, at the same time, putting myself out there allowed me to meet a lot more people than I would have met with client work alone. So, ultimately, my involvement in ABI (and several other excellent associations) has been a tremendous factor in my career.”
Not only does professional association involvement help you get ahead, you can pay it forward and help others too. Galanoudis shares, “During my involvement at NYWICI, I’ve personally had the opportunity to make introductions to hiring managers for committee members whose work ethic and smarts I admire. These connections have directly led them to their next dream job. So, get involved and make it a commitment, you may be impressing the person that holds the keys to your next great career move.”
Be smart and strategic
Choosing which professional associations to join is more than reviewing member benefits lists, comparing dues and completing online applications. Determine what you want to gain from involvement and then shop around for those organizations that are likely to fit the bill.
Avoid joining associations that ‘look good on paper’ but lack what you’re really looking for (or present consistent logistical challenges to attend). As Friedland advises, “Don’t join any association (or any non-profit board or engage in any activity) because you think it will be ‘good for business.’ Do what you enjoy. Life’s too short to do otherwise. Plus, people will see through disingenuity.”
Once you find and join the right professional association, really engage and get involved to reap benefits that will enrich your career in expected and unexpected ways.