Framing the future of association leadership

Associations in Canada contribute billions of dollars to the economy each year. From one-staff shops to organizations with tens of thousands of members, from sports organizations with voluntary membership to regulatory powerhouses that steward skilled professions, the sector operates quietly while having a wide-ranging impact as an employer, producer, advocate and influencer.

Recognizing the importance of the sector, a group of chief executives from national trade associations pulled together a collective in 1951 that would evolve into the Canadian Society of Association Executives (CSAE). With a commitment to fostering excellence in the sector through knowledge exchange and education, CSAE drew membership from across Canada and created a fulcrum of expertise. A certification program, an annual conference, and local “networks” provided touchpoints from coast to coast. 

Almost 70 years following CSAE’s inception — given the pace of change and the headwinds faced by member-based associations in Canada — it was time to reassess. Increasing competition and declining membership, relentless technological shifts, and questions of sustainability became more and more relevant to CSAE (not surprisingly, as consultations with CSAE members have indicated, these factors were certainly not unique to CSAE).  A new president and CEO, Tracy Folkes Hanson, took the helm in 2017, bringing a background in big-brand advertising, not-for-profit leadership and public service. Folkes Hanson cut through the proverbial resistance to change discussed in the classic association book, Race for Relevance (Coerver and Byers), and, after a short orientation period, began pulling down the walls, both literally and figuratively, to frame up the foundations for a resilient CSAE that is robust and relevant for the future. The loose, quasi-federated organization with independent, disparate regional activity and operations needed to transform into a strong and unified national organization. And, as a member-based organization, CSAE needed to be driven and shaped by its members.

People, processes and priorities were all scrutinized and adjusted. Using leasehold improvement funds, office renovations were made to mirror the culture being built at CSAE: open, inclusive and collaborative.

“There’s an incredible team in place at CSAE. Everyone works hard so we integrate fun and celebration into our work week . Being playful and appreciative makes us more creative and effective.”

The strategic plan became a blueprint for the future of CSAE, drafted around three fundamentals: the brand, learning and innovation, and stakeholder engagement. Creating a relevant organization meant repositioning the association’s membership philosophically and operationally. For the first time in as long as anyone can remember, a satisfaction survey was disseminated. Members were asked to provide input on their needs and perspectives, to establish benchmarks for the future and, most importantly, to position members as the engine driving CSAE. A member driven CSAE would be relevant, meaningful and able to pivot as needed.

CSAE’s business transformation has been ongoing and significant. As a national organization, with seven regional networks (think division or chapter) across Canada, it has historically operated loosely as a sort of federated model (though not strictly speaking, from a governance perspective). What does this mean? Simplified, a “head office” handled certain responsibilities, and each network largely did its own thing. At CSAE, the networks were typically run under the direction of a “council,” independently delivering programming and working their own budget.  The goal of the business transformation was to align operational practices with the governance model allowing for improved efficiencies and a strengthened brand. And that’s just the beginning.  

Since she assumed her position, the central office under Folkes Hanson’s direction has been working closely with the regional networks to unify operations and budgets, and bring everything into an integrated whole. Avoiding duplication and brand confusion are essential considerations, with the local networks needing to deliver opportunities and events that best resonate in their markets. The council leadership and network management were reconfigured to help establish priorities and inform strategy and an annual Leaders Forum now brings together the key players to talk shop — synergies, sustainability and next steps. With the silos dissolved, CSAE is ready to move forward in other operational areas to ensure it operates as a strong and finely tuned association from coast to coast.

In the second year of the three-year strategic plan, the organization is currently in the midst of a fundamental retooling of all of its technologies — from its database to its website to its e-commerce storefront — with the goal of providing members with the user experience they want and deserve. Automating repetitive functions, streamlining communications and simplifying processes will create efficiencies so that staff can focus on providing better, more personalized service to members. Thanks to innovative partnerships and solutions to the challenges faced by associations, CSAE is setting a high standard for itself, as it strives to serve as a gold standard for member associations. 

“CSAE is in the middle of an incredible time of transformation right now,” explained Folkes Hanson. “Change isn’t always easy, but I’ve benefited from the tremendous vision and support of a board of directors many can only dream of. And the whole team — staff and volunteers — and I daresay members, can see the positive outcomes that happen with each adjustment and tweak. That creates momentum that we are excited and fueled by.”

Establishing a cohesive organization nationwide has meant building collaboration, supports and structures while dismantling many of the outmoded foundations that were no longer propelling the organization forward. CSAE is now well positioned for the future.

Penny Tantakis is the Director of Marketing and Communications for the Canadian Society of Association Executives (CSAE). Find out more by visiting


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