Four Lessons From One Association’s Public Drama

In the past month a transit-industry association lost a key member and its CEO. That leadership challenges offer a few warnings for associations in terms of PR, governance, and membership.

An executive’s relationship with the board can often go awry. Mission and vision are hard things to build consensus around, and there’s often going to be dissent, healthy or not.

But when the conflict goes widely public, something’s especially off.

That appears to be the case at the American Public Transportation Association, which has had a rocky past few weeks. APTA president and CEO Michael Melaniphy abruptly resigned late last month, shortly after New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority announced that it was pulling its membership (and approximately $400,000 in annual dues). MTA voiced it grievances in a seven-page letter critiquing APTA’s leadership, executive committee representation, and more.

What follows is not an attempt to armchair-quarterback APTA, MTA, or anybody else involved in the kerfuffle. I’m writing about it because one upside (of a sort) to incidents like these is the trail of quotes and documents they leave behind, and how they shed light on leadership challenges in a crisis, and how other associations might get ahead of them. So here are a few lessons learned.

New York’s MTA transit system said its APTA dues were not commensurate with the level and quality of the services the MTA receives.

1. Representation matters. So does a conversation about what “representation” means. The chief grievance in MTA’s letter was that it didn’t have a seat on APTA’s executive committee—indeed, that no “Legacy Systems” (i.e., older city-based transit systems) or commuter-rail systems did. The letter also expressed concern that while the board was improving on the diversity front, it was lacking geographical representation.

Apart from what’s designated in the bylaws, no constituency is owed a seat at the board table. And every constituency within an association will argue for its own importance. But the letter does highlight the point that representation is important enough that it ought to require regular attention in a bylaws review. Who gets to participate? Do those requirements help present the association as one that’s on top of its industry? Acting CEO Richard A. White acknowledged the issue, telling Politico that “we got a little out-of-balance over the last few years, and we didn’t [do] so intentionally.”

2. How’s your membership model looking? For many large trade associations with relatively few members, the hefty dues paid by one or two of them can play a crucial role in the organization’s sustainability. That’s partly a matter of finances, of course—even the largest associations don’t want to see $400,000 vaporize over a leadership dispute. But it also makes a public statement about how unified—or not—the association is. So it’s worth asking every so often: What would you do if your largest or most prominent member pulled their membership tomorrow, and made a noise about it?

Naturally, MTA had a few ideas about how APTA could be more effective and more efficient. And it felt unheard enough that it didn’t feel particularly interested in being polite about enumerating them: “Frankly, our membership fee of more than $400,000 annually is not commensurate with the level and quality of the services the MTA receives,” the letter reads. If you’re piling on the meetings and services but not paying attention to how much value members are getting out them, you risk falling afoul of those important members. APTA’s White says it’s assembled a task force to address matters of dues and meetings, which will help. So will making those discussions a routine part of the membership department’s conversations.

3. Expect to get both barrels about your overall mission now, too. Governance, finance, and membership issues are mainly of interest to people involved in the association and nonprofit journalists. But public squabbles about those small-ball issues are also invitations to your critics to point out perceived flaws in your operation. For instance, the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, recently used the turmoil to fault APTA for pressing for unwanted and underused publicly funded transit systems. “APTA claims to be an educational organization, yet it hasn’t done much to educate Congress or the public about the long-term costs of rail transit and the need to almost completely and expensively rebuild those rail lines every 30 years or so,” Cato’s Randal O’Toole wrote. The validity of that argument is beside the point here. The question is: Are you anticipating the kinds of blowback that will come your way in these situations?

4. Use the change as an opportunity. APTA’s press release announcing Melaniphy’s resignation is largely thank-you-for-your-service boilerplate. But in a crisis, it’s not a small thing to announce that the door is open for a conversation about what needs fixing, which is a point board chair Valarie J. McCall made sure to include: “the change in leadership will spark and encourage all APTA stakeholders, from APTA members to coalition partners, to step forward with their thoughts and suggestions for improving the association at all levels,” the statement says. “She said APTA is welcoming constructive input to make the association as transparent and open as possible.”

What do you do as a leader to manage tense relationships and avoid having to go into damage-control mode? Share your experiences in the comments.

A New York City subway car. New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority recently left the American Public Transportation Association. (Kristin Wall/Flickr)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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