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I had a short correspondence with an association exec the other day. Part of his note said, “Many associations are now struggling to get through the recession, and losing members and sponsorships.”

I know many contractors and sponsors who’ve joined associations. Contractors drop out of associations when they don’t get the help they are looking for. Sponsors leave associations when they don’t realize enough business from the association members.

My first involvement with a trade association was in 1973, and over the years I’ve joined or worked with dozens of different associations. I would classify associations in two categories, and I believe the execs who are hired to run the association determine that classification. Execs are either dedicated to helping their members by providing education, training and a host of other business and social activities, or they are busy empire building.

Those that are dedicated to helping the membership stay focused on their members. They understand that members will only stay in business, and continue as members, if they are operating a profitable business. They understand that one common thread among successful business owners is education. So an exec who is focused on the membership is intent on providing as much education as possible and hounding members to attend those educational events. An empire builder focuses on committee meetings, social activities and hiring more people to “help provide more services to the members.”

Associations are valuable, if you aren’t part of one you should be. The education available and ability to network with fellow construction business owners will easily pay your membership fees. But make sure your association is focused on education, not just on having fun or hiring more employees.

If you want to know what kind of association you have, ask them, “When can we bring in a speaker to talk about _____?” If they are dedicated to helping members, they may ask for your help in putting a class together, or even appoint you as committee chair. That’s fair and it gets the project started. It also gives them a chance to see how serious you are about the class or seminar.

If the answer is, “We can’t afford that,” you have the wrong association. There are classes available on DVD that can be watched by your group at little or no expense to the association. It might not be as exciting as a live speaker, but it’s still education and it is valuable.

If you are a member of an association that isn’t focused on education, look around for a new association. Associations are invaluable when they have the right focus. They are a waste of money when they don’t.

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