Over my career I have had the opportunity to work with dozens of associations as an association manager, signature event consultant and volunteer.

I have observed that association leadership models fall into one of three categories:

1) Volunteer led
2) Staff led
3) A hybrid where leadership is shared between the volunteer Chief Elected Officer (often called Chair) and a paid Chief Staff Officer (often called Executive Director or CEO)

So Which Model Works best?

The Contingency Theory of Management states that there is never one universally best answer to all leadership scenarios. The best leadership structure will depend on the dynamics of the organization, expertise of volunteer leaders and staff, as well as the internal and external variables at play around the organization.

Where the problem lies is when there is a disconnect between what the volunteer leaders need and want from staff and what staff expertise is available.

Volunteer leaders who are overwhelmed by their personal and professional responsibilities need the Chief Staff Officer, along with other staff, to be leaders or at least be leadership partners. If they don’t get that leadership support they invariably feel let down by staff who are purely administrators. Conversely some volunteer leaders want to only show up to a meeting to act as chair and have staff do all of the work.

The most effective associations are those who clearly understand the roles of both volunteer and staff leaders and respect those roles. The relationship between the key volunteer leaders and senior staff is integral to success.

Most of our clients work with a hybrid where the Chief Elected Officer leads certain aspects of the association while the Chief Staff Officer leads others. This allows the best person to the do the most appropriate work. To ensure clarity and ownership of responsibility we invest time with our clients making sure they document who is responsible for what and to make sure they understand the strengths of all of the leaders around the table.

A good example of this is that many governance experts previously taught that the Chair of the Board had to be the organizations spokesperson and no one else could fill this role. In today’s complex media world this does not have to be the case. Clearly identifying who your spokesperson/people will be and ensuring that they are well trained and understand their role is more important than choking down the responsibility to only one person.

As an example, for one of our clients I act as the spokesperson to industry partners and stakeholders while the volunteer leader, coming from the profession, acts as the spokesperson to media. This uses my strengths as a communicator and partnership builder and uses the volunteer leader’s expertise about the profession to answer technical and sector specific questions from the media.

Don’t assume that leading an association has to fall on one person. Volunteers and staff can successfully share leadership responsibilities. As the models of the past are disappearing as organizations evolve.

So which model does your association use – and is it the most appropriate model? Are you happy with the model you have?

Take the time to consider the daily issues facing your organization and consider which is the most appropriate person to lead– volunteers, staff or both?

Having the right model for your organization leads to happier volunteers, better utilized staff and better outcomes for members and stakeholders.