Moving From Association Member to Staff Member

An association executive shares his story on making the successful leap from member to employee at the National Investor Relations Institute.

After years working in corporate communications and investor relations, Matt Brusch, CAE, stumbled on a unique opportunity to work at the association that he had come to rely on to help do his job.

Through a connection he made while leading a group of Cub Scouts, Brusch learned of a communications opening at the National Investor Relations Institute. “I thought, well, that’s my association, so I can probably do that,” said Brusch, who is now NIRI’s vice president of communications and practice information.

There are definitely unique aspects of association management that you need to learn in order to be successful.

While it’s ultimately been a successful and rewarding transition for Brusch, who recently got his CAE—ASAE’s Certified Association Executive designation—the move was not without some adjustments.

“Some of the underlying elements, like leadership, are transferable,” Brusch said of transitioning into an association management job. “But there are definitely unique aspects of association management that you need to learn in order to be successful.”

For example, getting used to idea of servant leadership. Although it may seem obvious that you’re making the jump from member, or customer, to staff member, Brusch said, actually getting into the mindset of now serving members can take some getting used to, especially if your previous job experience did not encompass customer service elements.

“The reality is that the successful executives in association management find that there’s a delicate balance you have to walk—on the one hand nurturing members and meeting their needs and helping them be personally successful, and on the other hand, trying to help guide them to create successful organizational outcomes.”

Jumping into the association world from the corporate or for-profit arena may also require an adjustment to more fluid reporting structures.

“I was always in the model of having one boss, and in the association world, at least from what I’ve experienced so far, I still have one boss, but I have a lot of dotted-line relationships,” Brusch said. Whether that’s working with board members, ad-hoc committees, or volunteer groups, association professionals are often interacting with many different people and groups that can have an influence on their work.

A third unique aspect of association management, at least as it compares to the for-profit world, is the business model, Brusch said. “In the corporate world, you’re very attuned to revenue growth and earnings growth, but in the nonprofit world it’s more about the member benefit.” He added that it takes some getting used to the idea that operating at a net loss isn’t necessarily a negative for associations when it means being able to provide a worthwhile member benefit.

A Fresh Perspective

Having come in with a more corporate mindset from the world of investor relations, Brusch said he’s been able to counsel NIRI board members as to the benefits of operating at a net loss for a period of time. He’s also been able to provide perspective on the day-to-day aspects of members’ jobs and schedules to the benefit of the association. “It can be as simple as timing our asks for them to coincide with their work cycle,” he said.

As a former member, Brusch was also well aware of a silent, yet highly qualified, majority lying within NIRI’s membership. He used that knowledge to breath new life into the association’s editorial advisory board, for example, by proactively recruiting members with broadcast and journalism experience.

“My 10 years as a member made me aware that there’s this other group out there—high-quality potential volunteers that just haven’t been asked,” Brusch said. “And quite often all they’re really looking for is someone to ask them and someone to lead them. I’ve found that’s it’s helpful to find ways to reach out and bring those folks in.”

Did you make the transition from member to staff? Please share your experience in the comments.


Katie Bascuas

By Katie Bascuas

Katie Bascuas is associate editor of Associations Now. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!