NFPs Moving Back to an All-Volunteer Model? AMCs Are A Great Alternative.

Danielle S. Russell, CAE

In the Spring of this 2016 a large and well known Not-for-Profit  that had seen rapid growth, announced without much warning that they did not have the cash flow to continue operations, 5 staff were laid off, offices were shuttered, and the board of directors went to work at finding a way to resuscitate the organization.

This theme continued, a few weeks later when I received a letter from an organization I had previously donated to – which continues to do great work overseas – informing past donors (or presumably their entire mailing list) that they too were, letting go of staff, shuttering their office, and returning to a volunteer driven organization in order to continue to fulfill their core mandate.

Now of course I understand that two instances, even those just days apart, do not make a trend. But, without much empirical evidence to back me up – I believe that these are not isolated incidents. In time such as these when mergers, cutbacks and donor fatigue continue to be part of our lexicon it would be foolish to assume that all NFPs that find themselves in financial troubles simply cease to exist – there are far too many dedicated individuals out there who would be willing to put in the work to keep well-meaning and impactful organizations running.

As someone who has spent the entirety of their nearly decade long career in the Association Industry working for AMCs (Association Management Companies), I was struck by how drastic these events were. Association Management Companies allow smaller organizations to get great bang-for-their-buck, and in my mind are a clear alternative to going it alone, even in a circumstance where staff and an office simply cannot be maintained.

I haven’t seen the financial statements for either of the organizations referenced above, and for all I know drastic measures were only taken at the 11th hour when the reserves had been too far depleted, emptying the tool-box of options such as partnering with an AMC. But, I still wonder, if they had known there was an alternative, might they have been able to maintain more organizational function by turning to an AMC?

So what would I recommend as a long-time AMC staffer to an organization that is feeling the pinch?

Well first, let me be clear, I am not advocating that Associations go laying off staff without any consideration – in fact in some cases organizations maintain one or more stand-alone staff or consultants when engaging an AMC, individual AMCs differ on their policies around this, so it should be part of the discussion if an Association has existing employees.

Second, an AMC can help an Association deal with some of the non-salary hard costs, these include; rent or taxes on office space or storage, purchase or provision of technology, etc. This is done through the cost sharing that comes of paying (thorough contracted fees or other mechanisms) for a portion of the AMC’s existing infrastructure. Boards should evaluate if easing some of this financial burden will allow them to reallocate funds to continuing popular products and services.

Finally, AMC staff can help Associations refocus, set strategic goals, and balance member needs against available resources. Maybe what your organization really needs is an experienced Membership Director, through a contract with an AMC you can access .5 (or less) of an FTE with specific experience in enhancing Member Engagement and Value. Or perhaps, you just need access to an Executive Director or other staff who have worked across industries and have first-hand experience in applying best practices to an organization’s unique needs.

While I have seen an Association scale all the way back to Volunteer-Only and then come back strong and re-hire an AMC to run their Association, and I acknowledge that sometimes the hardest of decisions needs to be made – I would urge Boards of Directors to explore the AMC Model. The team at Association and Events Management are happy to consult with your Association’s leadership about how the AMC Model can work for you, additional resources can be found through AMCI (the Association Management Company Institute) and the AMCI Canada Chapter.

Danielle S. Russell, CAE is a Senior Association Manager at Association and Events Management, a full service Association Management Company (AMC) based in Toronto, Canada. With nearly a decade of experience working with AMCs, Danielle has worked on teams managing Associations in, Fashion, Consumer Goods, Public Affairs, Health Care and Financial Services. Follow Danielle on Twitter @Dani__Russell or email her at drussell@aemanagement.ca.