June 3, 2013

The nature of associations

I live in Austin. I work in the association industry. Almost everyone here has a connection to the association industry, because this is the capital of what is quickly becoming one of the largest economies in the world. There is a lot of trade in this state, there are a lot of decisions made here, so there’s a whole industry devoted to trying to get a place at the table when the decisions go down.

So, yes. I work for an association, I’ve worked with other associations, I know a lot of people who work in associations, and I’ve seen the way associations in general work.

So when I saw people getting very upset over the Bulletin issue, and then going on to decry the SFWA, I do feel a need to add my perspective on the matter, not because I am a member of that particular association, but because I’ve lived in the guts of associations long enough to have a somewhat good idea on how this might have happened.

Associations are, by nature, hugely uncoordinated, very messy, self-contradictory, and poorly organized. This is because they are lots and lots of people wanting lots and lots of different things. These people are also usually hard-working professionals who wish to see something get accomplished for their industry, but they have to volunteer their own time to do this, which is precious enough as it is.

This all means that it is not only hard to decide what to do, but it is hard to actually do it. Ever tried to put together a meeting or vacation with your friends and family? Try it with anywhere from 10 to 30 people who generally put your priorities on the low end of the totem pole, and remember that plenty of them won’t live anywhere near one another. How do you get them all in a room? Or do you try it by conference call (the sound of 30 people with their phone on mute) or email (ridiculously time-consuming) or by skype (good luck getting everyone to install it properly)?

So coordinating this vast morass of people with varying ideologies is tough. What happens is that 90% of the work done by associations is done by 5% or less (almost certainly less) of the members. They’re the Energizer Bunnies, the volunteers who truly care and have the time to care, who can take a year or two off of their jobs to be an officer, to chair a committee, to serve on the board. Whoever they are, the association will always ask more of them, more and more, because there’s always more to do. So they’ll be overworked, overstressed, hearing comments and questions and requests from the thousand-plus people out there who Want The Association To Do This, as if associations are an endless wellspring of time and money.

What happens is that it’s very easy for things to go rogue. The leadership structures in associations are frequently vague – everyone is kind of in charge, there are just some people who are more in charge – and things get “siloed off” very easily, where people can be working right next to one another and never know what the other person is doing. Duplicating work and hitting up the same people repeatedly (for money, for membership, for volunteer work) is very frequent – there’s a small pool of contributors for associations of any kind, so they tend to get overworked.

And communications are always a sensitive spot. What’s going out into the wide, wide world? What’s getting emailed, posted on Facebook, or tweeted by the dozens of people working for the association? You just assume that there’s a gatekeeper, a transmitter, but can you imagine that job? Boy howdy, if you can find someone who’s willing not only to monitor all the things already going out, but also to keep an ear to the ground in case some member says ,“Gosh I sure would like to make a Facebook page for this!” and then run out and STOP them, then damn, hold onto that person like grim death – and it will be death, because that sort of job is murderous.

An association is thousands of people talking at once. Thousands of very, very different people. Remember – most associations won’t turn down a member if they want to pay dues. Associations desperately, desperately need dues to function, so they’ll happily admit anyone – they might not ask them to serve on a committee or on the board, but they’ll take their money and give them the member benefits.

And last of all, Jesus, I can’t imagine a profession more fucked up and buckwild than writers. I’d rather work for the CPAs and the trial attorneys in a heartbeat – those guys are guaranteed to be at least a little professional. But writers? Who the hell knows. You’ve got to be out of your goddamn mind to try and be a writer in the first place! This is a job where most of the work occurs in your head, where you can do it naked, if you like. Writers can’t even coordinate their own damn thoughts, so can you imagine trying to get them to coordinate with each other?

So the real question is – why don’t associations screw up more? The answer is, because there are committed members keeping it from happening.

If you’re mad at your association, the first question you need to ask yourself is – when’s the last time you were at a meeting? When’s the last time you checked in with your committee? When’s the last time you volunteered? You want it to do This Thing, but just writing a check isn’t actually doing anything. If you don’t have the time, then you’re not actually doing anything at all.

So if you’re in that sort of situation – where you’ve given dues, but no time – then ending your membership is not the answer. If you’re a member who sees something going wrong, get involved and try and fix it. And if you try, and the committee and the leadership and just the whole setup just seems like shit, and you waste your volunteer time and genuinely, genuinely don’t think there’s any sliver of light in the clouds, then it’s perfectly reasonable to end your membership.

But don’t just write a check and assume you’re buying a bill of goods – you’re not. You’re buying the opportunity to speak on behalf of and support your profession (or whatever it is).

So as I said in the last post, yeah, I’ll totally consider being a SWFA member in the future. There seem to be some good people working there who have done the right thing with the situation. I’m currently an HWA member, because that kind of fits me more, and also because Joe McKinney is a friend, and the treasurer, and he’s also a cop and he probably has a gun around whenever I see him. But the very first thing I did when I signed up to be an HWA member was look at opportunities to volunteer. Because volunteering is the lifeblood of everything an association does.