If you work for an Association Management Company (AMC), you are sure to work closely with at least a handful of associations every day. Some of these associations may have been around for several years, some for decades. But have you ever wondered how associations came to be, and how they became what they are today? Understanding what associations are and why they exist is essential when working with any association. In this article, I explore the history of associations, how they came to be, and why they are what they are today.

Definition of an Association

The Canadian Society of Association Executives states, “When individuals come together to discuss mutual concerns, no matter what the common element is, the nucleus of an association is formed.”¹ Associations exist for a variety of reasons, but they generally exist for the collective enrichment and growth of their membership. They can be devoted to furthering a social cause or providing services to their shareholders, leaders and members, and can operate in educational, scientific, research or religious settings.

While associations are organizations with a defined membership, there are various criteria that are considered when identifying an association as such. Membership can be defined by a certain industry or profession, by the provenance of funding, by the purpose of the organization, or by the size and the geographic area the association provides services in. Associations may have mandatory or voluntary membership, voting or non-voting members, and various types of membership offered. Further, an association may be called something other than association, such as council, federation, institute, society… and the list goes on. In a word, associations can be very complex.

A Brief History of Associations

While associations have existed in one form or another for centuries, in North America during the First World War, associations as we know them today began forming and the demand for their services increased. Between 1914 and 1918 particularly, the need for associations arose along with the need for volunteers. In order to support the war effort, charitable and service organizations became very active. The National Food Administration in the United States, as well as the YMCA, played important roles in ensuring that all members of society were raising food and not wasting it.

By 1930, the Great Depression had caused social and economic hardships for Canadians. Millions were unemployed and hungry. The need for organized volunteer efforts was essential during this time. Many church organizations opened soup kitchens and provided much needed social supports during this time. In 1940, the Métis Association of Alberta was founded and in the 1940s the Saskatchewan Government provided support for the Saskatchewan Métis Association, which was originally founded in 1935.

Reforms initiated after the Great Depression included the “Work and Wages” program of J.S Woodsworth, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, as well as the Union Nationale in Québec, led by Maurice Duplessis. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s there was an increase in the amount of non-profit organizations along with the number of people volunteering for them. People felt the need to give back to their communities. The Cancer Care Society was officially formed in 1938 and the organization responded to many concerns by doctors regarding the public lack of knowledge about cancer.

Associations in Modern Times

Fast forward to the 1990s, and we see big changes happening in associations. New social issues were arising, and technology was changing rapidly. Existing associations had to adapt to societal changes and membership expectations, and ultimately offer improved services to their members.

It became very important for associations to offer services at the member’s convenience rather than simply at the association’s. Members also began to demand a wider range of services from associations, like networking, professional development and the continuous research and advancement in a professional field.

Many new associations were created in the 1990s that responded to evolved needs of society. The Canadian Association for Biological Safety is one such example, which was founded in 1980 and in 1990 became affiliated with the American Biological Safety Association. Another example, the Association for Manitoba Archives, was created in 1992 to merge the Association of Manitoba Archivists and the Manitoba Council of Archives together as one. These mergers allowed for the associations to deliver better services to their membership and make associations more well known to the general public.

The Evolving Association

Associations today focus on many different things than those established 100 years ago. We now see trends of continuous growth and opportunities emerging. Associations need to adapt to the changing times to focus on the future. One way they can do this is by reviewing their strategic plans and re-evaluating their mission, vision and goals. This can be a great way for the Board of Directors to ensure an association stays relevant and focused on their mandate. For more on strategic planning for associations, read my colleague’s blog article, Incorporating a Strategic Human Resources Plan into your Association.

Another way associations can stay relevant is by exploring what they need to do in order to attract new potential members, while also retaining the members they currently have. Associations may need to look at expanding “value added” offerings to the membership, including advocacy activities, accreditation or certification, networking opportunities, educational programs, and more. Today’s association member has evolving needs, and associations need to keep up with them. Members are demanding return on investment and are comparing their benefits to what they would receive at competing associations. For more on member retention and attracting new members, read this article.

There is no doubt that the number of associations and the relevance of associations have both grown immensely in the past century. It is now up to associations to find ways to stay relevant in the ever-changing society we live in to ensure their survival into the future.


  1. Batten, M. C. (n.d.). A History of Associations [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://www.csae.com/About/A-History-of-Associations