AMC’s vs. stand-alones: The same, but different
In our last conversation, we chatted about the origins of our company name and the definition of an AMC (aka – Association Management Company).
Nothing pleases me more than a great segue so I thought that this would be a nice jumping off point to discuss the nature of the work we do and the expertise required to do it. I will call this segment “Not all AMCs are created equal.”
Essentient is a bit of a rare breed given that the majority of our staff have worked for a stand-alone association before they joined Essentient. Doug, you and I have been in the chief staff officer role for previous associations and we have also been senior staff in a variety of roles. We have a combined 50 years working in the sector even though amazingly, I am a youthful 39.
Working for an AMC is very different from being staff at a captive association. There is much more variety in the work we do across our client base simply because we get involved in every aspect of our association’s business as opposed to just one segment. But at the end of the day association governance is at the core of what our clients need and want, no matter their size.
You can’t fake governance expertise. While the internet can be very helpful in a pinch for searching things like templates and best practices, you really have to have a practical understanding of how associations function in all kinds of scenarios. Good governance requires knowledge gained from years of experience. Gosh, picture one of us sitting at the Board table responding to a governance question and responding by saying “Let me Google that!” Ain’t going to happen.
Governance expertise is one of the value-add features we provide to our clients and we don’t need an app to resolve issues.
I think the other factor that distinguishes us from some of the competition is that we are an AMC first. When Essentient was first established our goal was not to become an event company that just happened to provide admin support to its clients as a secondary service. We intentionally and strategically built a foundation of high-level association management support to volunteer led trade and professional associations. We have not changed this approach in 13 years and we probably never will even though at last count we averaged 55 to 60 client events per year. Oh yeah, we are pretty good at events too!
So, I am curious Doug, how do you think the AMC model is different from working at a stand-alone association?
That’s a great question, Constance! And it’s one I’ve given quite a bit of thought to over the last ten months since my arrival at Essentient.
I have been working in the association realm for 15 years. Now I’m no math-magician, but according to my calculations, that means you were just four years old when you began working in the association sector. That’s pretty impressive C! But I digress …
To your point, most of my previous experience has been with ‘stand-alone’ associations as chief staff officer (CSO). And while the goals of associations in general are pretty consistent, the approaches taken to reach those goals can be vastly different with unique sets of priorities. Some associations are focused on professional development, some on business to business networking, some are big into government or media relations and others give a lot of attention to awards programs or some kind of certification or standard. Let’s face it, all of those things are about creating value for members and raising profile for the industry or sector.
Irrespective of in what order an association lists its working priorities, I have long found the most meaningful skill in an association expert’s toolbox to be the ability to approach things professionally and tactfully, using thoughtful language that is sensitive to multi-stakeholder group environments. In short, you have to be able to maintain a smile while walking a tightrope and keeping everyone as happy as possible. That’s not always an easy task when you’re dealing with squeaky wheel sponsors, rogue volunteers, mysteriously absent leadership and committees that want to wade into the weeds.
In both the AMC model and the stand-alone working world, that unique skillset is critical. Relationships matter to the association executive and honest-to-goodness people skills and emotional intelligence are required by every senior level association management professional.
So where are the big differences?
I would say that they’re found primarily in the difference between how CSO’s and AMC executives are viewed by volunteers. In the AMC world, it can be easy for association board members and volunteers to treat AMCs as ‘guns for hire’ or ‘service providers’ as opposed to association staff. As a result, the relationships can be a little trickier to navigate and that aforementioned tightrope-walking skillset becomes all the more important.
AMCs and stand-alones … in the association management realm, it’s the same, but different.
C-Says/D-Says is a regular blog column created and written by Constance Wrigley-Thomas and Doug Duke of Essentient Association Management, Burlington, ON.