Useless desires

Waiting a long time for an answer

I recently attended the annual meeting of the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE), an event that took place this year in Los Angeles.

Although we’ve been members of Association Media and Publishing for some time, this is only the second ASAE annual meeting that I have attended.  We joined ASAE a couple of years back after Amy Lestition, executive director of Association Media and Publishing, recommended doing so.

Membership has given us an opportunity to broaden our understanding of challenges and opportunities in the association space.  The organization provides an almost overwhelming opportunity to learn and become engaged, particularly in the Washington, DC market.

ASAE’s abundance can also be a challenge.  In the end, we are looking to work with associations on their publishing and media efforts.  Necessarily, ASAE wears many other hats all the time, and a fair share of what comes across my in-box is “nice to know” but not really “need to know”.

Internet access at the annual meeting was pretty good, especially given the sprawl of the Los Angeles Convention Center. As a result, there was a pretty robust stream of comments and links to blog posts, collated under the hashtag #asae10.

While not a comprehensive round-up of summary posts, this cross-section proved helpful and illustrative:

• A new blog, Association Advocacy Chick, offered her thoughts on “What ASAE10 meant to me

• At One-Girl Wolf Pack, Teri Tally provides her perspective as a first-time attendee;

• At The Wobbly Jelly Theory, Robert Barnes offers “Learnings, musings and afterthoughts”;

• At Socialfish, Prolific association blogger Maddie Grant offered her cons (“Has ASAE lost its mojo?”) and pros (“Top ten things that rocked my world at ASAE10”); the cons post was extensively re-tweeted;

• Also at SocialFish, Jamie Notter wrote about “Social leadership” as informed by his experiences at ASAE10;

BlogClump, written by Matt Baehr, added to the work done by Maddie Grant;

• And Toni Rae, who was featured in the somewhat controversial “Guilt by Association” video that popped up in general sessions throughout the meeting, provided a couple of windows into how much work (and how little gratitude) can affect perceptions of meetings like this one.

The ASAE blog, Acronym, also covered the meeting.  If you’re interested in a reported view of the event, it’s not a bad place to go.

Reading the tweets and blog posts, a couple of themes emerged for me:

There is a tension, perhaps not always healthy, between the exhibition and education parts of the annual meeting.  As leading sponsors of often large annual meetings, associations are heavily courted by exhibition venues, and there is some main-stage competition to appear as showy as possible.

The other is a desire on the part of ASAE members to be included – a number of the posts talk about finding a home (both at the meeting and within ASAE) that is of greater value than the association itself.

The second observation got me thinking about the nature of participation.  Larger, established organizations can be slow to change, and even when they are faster, they move on a limited number of fronts at once.

With 22,000 members from 11,000 organizations, ASAE is hard-pressed to “represent” all the interests of its members.  Borrowing from Patty Griffin, hoping that ASAE will come to embody my interests is a useless desire.  I need to advocate (if I care deeply) for my objectives, or move on.

This point was illustrated in Maddie Grant’s lament that a conference flashmob didn’t get much attention in ASAE’s show daily.  If the interest is the experience – a surprise event at a scripted show – then it was a great success.

But if the interest is official attention for an experiential moment, I think we’ll all be waiting a long time for an answer.

Posted by Jeff Hurt
Sep 01, 2010  at  10:04 AM

Awesome insights.

I think you have clearly articulated the tension that large associations like ASAE deal with when trying to design a conference for multiple audiences. I’ve been in those shoes and learned how difficult it is to navigate those white water streams with success.

One of the core principles of a professional association is that membership if for the members, not the organization. The association is there to serve its members needs. It is supposed to be a place for the members to have a voice and a vote. When both of those are removed, you have an institution that is self-serving its own agenda to keep the revenue coming. That’s where the rubber meets the road and if a membership organization does not allow its members a voice or vote, there is really no reason to join.

This is the sole reason for committee and board structure in the nonprofit association world. a systemic method to get advice, input and expertise from members. What’s unfortunate is that something is askew when it comes to the conference. The association does not even seek advice from its own membership through its committees on conference topic selection or schedules. This is a problem that was evidenced by the social stream.

I know that ASAE is listening. This is a great time for ASAE to step up and make some major changes for their future events. The opportunity is now. I wait with excitement.

Posted by Stefanie Reeves
Sep 01, 2010  at  03:48 PM

Great post Brian!  I definitely agree with the tension theme and it does seem very evident at ASAE more so than other organizations I belong to.  I don’t mind being entertained as long as it’s not cheesy.  Unfortunately, cheesy seems to dominate the general sessions.  I hope ASAE can find a suitable balance between providing quality educational programs with a bit of glitz.  Thanks for the mention!


Posted by Brian O'Leary
Sep 02, 2010  at  03:48 PM

One of the things that struck me in reading the various posts, pro and con, was the articulated hope that things would get better.  A colleague, Hugh McGuire (, recently sent me a link to Carl Malamud’s talk, “10 Rules for Radicals” (you can read the full text at

One of Malamud’s ten rules is “Get standing.  Have some skin in the game, some reason you’re at the table.”  In this context, he uses “standing” in the legal sense - you are engaged in a way that gives you a right to file a grievance.  I think effective advocacy depends on standing: you have to argue in a setting where you may lose.  There’s risk in that.

I say (occasionally) that intelligence can be a light or a sword.  I attended a couple of breakout sessions in which the presenter used his intelligence to belittle some association practices.

These practices probably do need updating, but the approach taken in the sessions I have in mind was just as counterproductive as ASAE’s somewhat clunky general sessions.  We all need to improve, in different ways.  Starting from a position of humility, with a willingness to engage, brings a lot more people on board (that applies to all parties, including me).

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