Who Does Your Association Conference Serve?


According to the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer, only one-third of Americans trust their government “to do what is right.” That’s a decline of 14 percentage points from the 2017 report. The report further reveals that trust is at an all-time low for other institutions — including business, NGOs, and the media — in the U.S. Outdated traditions, hierarchy, and bureaucracy can significantly contribute to lower trust.

This Year’s President
One of the sacred cows for associations and their annual conference is the office of the president or board chair. For most association executives, calling this out as a sacred cow that needs to be barbecued is a CLM (career-limiting move). But as a consultant, I can call ’em as I see ’em.

During some consulting gigs, we hear references to “Dr. Smith’s year” or “Sally’s year” when referring to past annual conferences. If that’s a common refrain at your organization, I feel your pain. This article is for you.

If your conference includes a presidential address, reception, or other similarly branded event, you probably need to make some changes.

Conferences are for the profession — not the elite leadership. They shouldn’t be a rite of passage or a way for someone to leave a legacy. Conferences are there to serve the paying attendees. Organizations that don’t put the attendee first in every conference experience they offer lose an opportunity to grow trust and loyalty.

Embrace Servant Leadership
In my opinion, the best path to growing trust — at a time when it has never been harder to do that — is to fully embrace the tenants of servant leadership.

In his book The Leadership Experience, Richard L. Draft defines servant leadership as an approach “in which the leader transcends self-interest to serve the needs of others, help others grow, and provide opportunities for others to gain materially and emotionally.”

When applied to an association, leadership should always strive to leave the profession and the organization stronger once they complete their service. Leaders need to be exceptional stewards, and most especially in high-visibility environments, like conferences. That could take the form of:

  • Not having a flavor-of-the-year presidential priority.
  • Yielding the stage to someone who can move the profession forward better, like a professional speaker.
  • Losing the teleprompter in favor of authenticity.
  • Being present and accessible during educational and networking sessions designed for the attendees.
  • Trusting staff to do what they were hired to do.
  • Bravely barbecuing legacy, as well as ineffective governance models.

Never a Better Time
The greatest obstacle for change in most associations is their own governance. If your organization has a house of delegates, outdated processes for developing resolutions, a large and/or ineffective board, or just governance members who spend a lot of time in the weeds, now is the time to push for change.

Need backup? Point to poor attendance or engagement for the presidential keynote. Cite Edelman’s findings about people’s distrust of institutions and other research or articles like this to drive urgency. It’s likely that changes are overdue — but only if you want to attract next-generation members and care about increasing participation in your organization and events.

Download and read Larry C. Spears’ paper on Character and Servant Leadership: Ten Characteristics of Effective, Caring Leaders at convn.org/Spears.