The Dilemma of the Association Sales Professional



Associations are getting serious about business development right now. I’ve been working in association sales for the better part of 20 years and have begun to see a few things happening. Today there is a real need for biz dev talent, and people are having trouble finding membership sales professionals, in particular. So much so, for the first time – we had a great association ask us to help them recruit a membership director last year.
I believe one of the reasons is that sales positions are more highly compensated in the for-profit area than in the association space. Our status as nonprofit entities and our focus on government relations and advocacy (appropriately so) have made sales and biz dev work a secondary priority.
Several things have happened: we are competing with for-profit thought leaders, and we’ve seen an increase of mergers and acquisitions in the industry. Associations are competing with each other for time and money, so organizations must be outstanding at not only selling but in engaging current members.
And, traditionally we have not built much capacity, bandwidth, or even succession plans for people who do this work. If you look at the typical association and review their website and the staff, it pretty easy to find who’s in charge of government affairs. But when you search for who is in charge of membership recruitment or sponsorship sales, that person is hard to find.
It’s not unusual for associations to have difficulty recruiting the types of professionals needed to grow their membership. In the next few of years, I anticipate a couple of things happening:
#1  We will come into an era where biz dev and revenue generation will be led by a chief commercial officer or chief revenue officer. These titles will be more commonplace as membership sales is becoming a bigger priority than it used to be.
#2  Associations – especially more advocacy-based organizations will be more willing to outsource sales work.
#3  We are seeing a growing trend with associations that have sales operations kicking it up a notch and adopting the tools now available to all businesses – sales CRMs for example. Going forward, successful associations will be utilizing email marketing platforms, training association staff on how to use these tools, developing a solid sales process, and putting forth the effort required to run a better biz dev engine.
If your association is not actively developing plans to generate revenue in a more proactive way my sense is, you will be very soon.
For a fantastic resource on association membership, sponsorship, leadership, communications, and advocacy strategies, I’d love for you to check out Association Hustle – my first book brimming with actionable takeaways to grow various aspects of your organization.


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