Money & Business

Time to Move? One Association Learned a Few Lessons

By / Dec 5, 2017 (Thomas_EyeDesign/Getty Images Plus)

The American Tinnitus Association is now in the DC area after decades in Oregon. A move can go smoothly, it learned—but take a close look at that copier lease.

The American Tinnitus Association (ATA) recently moved from Portland, Ore., its home since 1971, to the Washington, DC, area, to get closer to Congress and the federal agencies it works with. It’s a move that sheds light on some of the benefits—and challenges—of relocating cross-country.

Executive Director Torryn Brazell, CAE, said ATA had been contemplating a move since 2011, following the death of one of the association’s cofounders. But when Brazell came aboard last year, the board encouraged her to prioritize it.

“A board has a lot of ties to an organization, and there’s a lot of institutional knowledge of an organization [within] Portland,” she said. “So it just took a long time to finally get to that point where they said, ‘You know what? It’s time for us to move.’”

I knew not to do anything quickly.

To begin the process of finally bringing ATA to Virginia, Brazell did two things. First, she had one-on-one conversations with board members, staffers, and other stakeholders about the state of the organization. In those conversations, she said, the need to move continuously reemerged as a theme. ATA had been increasing the number of seed grants for tinnitus research it was providing to DC-based agencies like the Veterans Administration and National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, as well as medical associations. ATA also heard there was an increased need for advocacy to make the case for tinnitus-research funding, but its advocacy efforts had been dormant since 2008.

Second, Brazell looked at expenses, and discovered that moving from Portland to its current headquarters in Vienna, Va., would save ATA approximately $50,000 annually. That in itself, she said, was enough to persuade a reluctant board member. “We give multiple $50,000 seed grants every year for research for tinnitus cures, and he realized [a move represents] an additional grant that we could give,” she said.

Moving employees cross-country wasn’t a major issue because ATA had already been working with a largely remote staff. But Brazell recommends that any association that wants to pursue a cross-country move think about how the organization will operate in two places at once for a while, preferably with people in both places. “I knew not to do anything quickly, and I knew we needed a parallel process,” she said. “We knew our lease [in Portland] was ending in January 2018, but we needed to open [the Vienna] office in October so we can get all the material in here. It definitely helped that I was here and that I had Portland staff.”

ATA formally moved into its new headquarters December 1, and Brazell said the association is already reaping benefits in terms of contacts with Congressional members and federal agencies. But one issue still lingers back in Portland: Though ATA was able to end its lease on its old office space, it’s had a harder time getting out of its leases for heavy office equipment such as copiers and postage machines—it’s still covering the costs for a copier that’s now in the hands of another Portland nonprofit. If an association is seriously considering a move, Brazell said, “I would suggest having extremely tight leases, six months to a year at the max. Some of it can go month-to-month.

“It’s been a nightmare, and it’s something that I was completely surprised by,” she said.

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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