Moving From Free Rider to Engaged Member

The Senior Executives Association, which dedicates itself to serving federal leaders, is refocusing its membership strategy. That transition involves a new strategic plan, chapter growth, tiered membership, and partnerships to grow nondues revenue.

The biggest thing keeping Bill Valdez up at night: money.

Like any association leader, Valdez is responsible for “keeping the lights on” at the Senior Executives Association, which represents the senior executive service (SES) and equivalent ranks of career government leaders who are above the GS-15 level on the General Schedule (GS) payscale.

While Valdez is new to the job, he has a long history of working inside SEA. He became a member in 1999 and joined the board of directors in 2005, eventually becoming chair in 2012.

Throughout his leadership, he saw a fundamental issue in how SEA served members. The association advocated for its members’ interests but did very little when it came to actively engaging its members.

“For years, we were the voice of the SES,” he says. “But really, what we’re trying to do now is have the SES be the voice for the association.”

This membership shift is being ushered in by a strategic plan that Valdez outlined when he took over as president in September.

SEA has a lofty goal: to expand membership to all 7,200 employees in the SES. At the same time, the association wants to develop new member categories and build a chapter structure that expands its reach beyond Washington, DC. The plan is impressive, especially for an organization with a full-time staff of six.

“We used to have this phenomena of the ‘free rider.’ That was a nonmember who benefited from our advocacy work but didn’t pay a dime,” he says. “Now, we’re in the process of growing revenue through membership and partnerships. What we’ve learned is that any association that’s purely an advocate is setting itself up for a world of hurt.”

Currently, there’s no set path for government professionals looking to advance their career into the leadership ranks, and that’s an issue, says SEA’s Executive Director Jason Briefel. In the not-so-distant future, there will be a likelihood for budget cuts, as well as a need to recruit and retain the next generation of leaders.

These are challenges that most SES are now talking about, but there’s no central place for them to collectively engage on the issues. It’s also why SEA is preparing for a future of aggressive growth amid leadership and membership transition. Here’s a closer look at how it’s planning for the years ahead.

Expanding Chapters

During SEA’s early years, there were as many as 40 chapters representing membership, but that number has declined steadily, especially with the career pressures that SES leaders now face.

The association is in the process of talking to and surveying members in order to better understand the current work environment. SEA hopes to build an expanded chapter structure that can adequately tap members’ experience without losing their interest.

SEA is modeling its approach off other professional societies, including ASAE, Valdez says. The new chapter structure will be cultivated around “communities of interest,” and SEA is using membership feedback to form the basis of these committees.

“Chapters need to fit the membership, and not the other way around. We will have communities that focus on acquisitions, cybersecurity, fiscal accountability, leadership, and national security—these are some of the hot button, thematic areas of importance that we heard from SEA members,” Valdez says.

In addition to forming communities around interest areas, SEA is planning for agency and regional chapters, where membership is particularly strong.

Tiered Membership

New members are another area of growth for SEA. The group is hoping a tiered membership model will help to recruit the next generation of civil servants. To help with that, SEA is in the process of creating an associate level of membership, targeted to aspiring leaders who come from both inside and outside government.

Currently, SEA’s membership structure is limited to current and former SES and their equivalents, or those with some degree of executive responsibilities. Overlooking younger talent is a missed opportunity for growth, Briefel says.

“The best way to get people to stay with a professional community is through a membership structure that allows us to capture those who are climbing the career ladder,” he says.

The tiered membership model will follow a civil servant as he or she advances. These nonvoting members will have access to career networks, events, and professional development opportunities. Briefel says it will take some time to update the bylaws and vote to approve this category, but already he’s anticipating the change.

SEA’s plan also calls for the creation of a junior board or the possibility of a junior representative on its existing board. In addition, SEA would like to develop an associate mentorship program and a credentialing program for government leaders.

“Unlike other professional societies, there’s really no clear or set standard for someone entering the leadership ranks of government,” Briefel says. “We see this as a great opportunity for change.”

Do More With Less

So far, the most valuable lesson learned from SEA’s membership transition has been that a lot is possible, even for an association with limited resources and staff. Briefel says his mantra is similar to what most of his government members are faced with daily—”do more with less.”

The success of its plan also relies a great deal on outside partnerships. There’s a renewed focus on growing nondues revenue, which is a critical difference from how SEA used to operate, Briefel says.

“By looking around, and seeing who’s working alongside you, you can form partnerships that lead to opportunities,” he says. “It’s something known as ‘collective impact,’ and it happens when groups are working together on issues.”

Some of those bigger issues ahead include government performance and accountability, workforce efficiency, and federal pay and benefits. SEA is in the process of building strategic partnerships with like-minded universities, professional associations, foundations, affinity groups, and government bodies for events, professional learning, research, and content that could also serve as nondues revenue streams.

“The hard reality is that membership dues do not pay for the extra things that you want to offer your members,” Valdez says. “There’s a cost to chapter development, membership growth, and member services. I think we’ll be successful if we correctly balance our mission with these strategic partnerships.”


Tim Ebner

By Tim Ebner

Tim Ebner is a senior editor for Associations Now. He covers membership, leadership, and governance issues. Email him with story ideas or news tips. MORE

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