Tomayto, tomahto. Trade association, professional society. How different are the two types of membership organization? A pair of association pros who’ve worked in both share their thoughts.
Outside the world of associations, most people probably couldn’t tell you the difference between a trade association and a professional society. Even some people inside associations might not know the distinction.
But it’s not terribly complicated: Though they’re not hard-and-fast terms, a “trade association” generally has member companies, while a “professional society” has individual members. (“Individual membership organization” is a common term for the latter, as well.)
They’re both, of course, still associations. The difference is material to the workings of either organization and yet doesn’t vastly change what they are. The best analogy I can muster up is that of the choice of transmission in a car: Driving a manual stick shift is a much different experience from driving an automatic, and yet in either case you’re driving an automobile.
While I have driven both types of car, I have only worked at a professional society. So, I’ve always been curious how much the fundamental difference in the type of member an association serves actually changes the nature of the work to be done. And who better to ask than association pros who have worked in both settings?
I posed a few questions on this subject to Kim Lawyer, QAS, manager of association operations at the North Carolina Nurses Association, and Liz Peuster, director of membership at the National Wood Flooring Association. Each has previous career experience in the opposite type of association, and they offered some interesting insight into how the jobs compare and contrast.
Both Lawyer and Peuster say the focus of the member value proposition is the key factor in how a trade association or professional society operates.
“In the professional society, we prioritized the value to the individual member first and the employing company second,” says Peuster. “Within the trade association, the prioritization of the value proposition is much more focused on benefiting companies. … The challenge is different in that we are working to influence the key decision maker in the company and justify the line item. Our association does offer services to benefit individuals; however, the communication of those services focuses more on improving the company as a whole as a result of enhancing the individual’s skills.”
That difference in appeal influences the level of engagement among individuals within the membership, Lawyer says. At a trade association, “while the company paid the dues and we had more individual members because they were automatically a member, not all were truly engaged. On the other side, for a professional association, when the individual pays their own dues, they have more buy-in and are more invested in what they are paying for,” she says. “Between the two, I would say individuals who choose to be a member of a professional organization have more buy-in from the early stages of their career throughout their entire career.”
For Peuster, making the switch from the Missouri Society of CPAs to the National Wood Flooring Association required a mental shift.
“My mindset had to adjust to the inverse of how I communicated about the association,” she says. “Career development and local networking are not necessarily valuable to a flooring contractor who has been installing wood floors for 20 years. He is not looking to advance his career, like a 30-year-old CPA may be, and he is not necessarily interested in sharing best practices with a like-minded individual in his area because they are competitors. We have to position NWFA as a means to add credibility to the contractor’s business in the eyes of his customers.”
What’s the Same?
Lawyer and Peuster noted, though, that many of the core skills of a successful association membership pro apply in both types of association.
“I think in either type of association, the best skill is relationship building. The nature of that relationship makes the members’ decision to join or renew much easier,” Peuster says.
Lawyer, meanwhile, cites attention to detail, effective communication, and strategic thinking, and she says such skills are universal because the goals of any association, trade or professional society, are much the same.
“The association was created to be a resource for the member,” Lawyer says. “Often we provide professional development opportunities, networking opportunities, advocacy support, and often we are the resource to be researching into the future for our members.”
And the membership experience matters in both settings too, Peuster adds: “We strive to promote our benefits and services and insist that engagement in the association will enhance our members’ businesses, but, at the end of the day, we know that we need to leave the member with a positive experience and a good feeling about the association.”
Making the Switch
Because many of those skills transfer easily, Lawyer and Peuster say changing jobs from a trade association to a professional society, or vice versa, shouldn’t be a challenge for anyone dedicated to serving members. In offering advice for someone making the switch, their suggestions echoed each other (despite the interviews being conducted separately).
“Remember to take time to get to know the new industry and the key players in your new association. The type of work can be similar, but the way you execute or communicate may change based on an industry or individual’s needs,” says Lawyer.
“Get to know your audience, learn from them, and deliver services in a way that works for them, even if that is different than how you’ve always done it,” Peuster says.
I’m curious about others’ thoughts on this subject as well. What has been your experience with trade associations and professional societies? How does the work, particularly in membership, compare and contrast? Please continue the conversation and share your thoughts in the comments.