How Can Professional Associations Sustain their Work?


Most professions have them, but associations—groups that represent their members’ interests in the marketplace—too often rely on their members’ generosity to stay afloat. Some associations are totally voluntary, with limited activities that require funding. Other associations have paid staff and a range of activities. But across the board, all struggle with how to remain sustainable—while continuing to advocate for their members.

Carol Yee, KANAVA’s Chief Operating Officer, has been looking into this situation, both in her role as Treasurer of the Small Business Association for International Companies (SBAIC) and as a short-term advisor to the USAID/West Africa-funded Trade Hub and African Partners Network project.

Established to promote the meaningful utilization of U.S. small businesses at USAID, SBAIC’s board and co-chairs are all volunteers. When membership dues were instituted last year, some members decided to drop out. But Carol and the SBAIC team have stayed focused on the majority who remained, offering membership benefits designed to add value and leverage the combined advocacy potential of the group.

That kind of value-added approach is also helping the West Africa Trade Hub foster more sustainable associations. In Accra, Ghana, Carol worked with the Borderless Alliance, which provides an independent, sub-regional platform for leading producers, traders, transporters and financiers to propose and advocate for systemic and practical improvements to the movement of goods, transport, capital and services across West Africa. Borderless receives dues from members and has grant funding from donors. As part of the Trade Hub project, Carol has been working with Borderless to increase revenues through dues payments and other initiatives—all with an eye to becoming self-sustainable.

As with all our learning experiences, we think that asking the right questions can be as important as having the answers. Here are a few questions any association can ask to kickstart a sustainability plan:

  • How are dues collections coming?
  • If they are lagging, do members see value in their paid membership? What items or activities should only accrue to paying members?
  • What non-dues revenue activities can the organization take on?
  • What fee-for-services activities can they implement, with a discount to members, such as training, publications, studies, subscriptions to data? Are there current trainings being done for a client that can be given in other venues?
  • Are there ways to reduce the association’s budget, by getting member sponsorship for a particular activity?

While associations will have different answers to these questions, they all need a strong management platform—including secure funding—to successfully advocate for their members. Although dues might not be enough to cover their budget in the short term, they will help place an association in a stronger position to seek donor funding or encourage other fundraising activities.

Kanava International