Mar 18

Becoming an Executive in the Nonprofit Sector

jgrahamJohn H. Graham IV served the American Diabetes Association for 24 years, the last thirteen as Chief Executive Officer. Today, John serves as the President and Chief Executive Officer of ASAE, the center for association leadership ( www.asaecenter.org )  ASAE includes more than 21,000 association executives and industry partners representing 10,000 organizations in the United States and around the world.

I asked John to provide his perspective on the association/nonprofit world for those considering a career transition into this sector.

VSB: John, what do you see as the key skill sets needed to be a successful association executive?

Graham: Association management is not rocket science.  To be proficient, it requires knowing a little bit about numerous areas including public affairs, communications, non-profit finance, sponsorships, meetings, tradeshows and technology.  However, the most important skill is a high EQ and being able to be a servant leader putting volunteer leaders first.

 Association management is not rocket science…the most important skill is a high EQ and being able to be a servant leader putting volunteer leaders first.

VSB: Those new to leadership in the nonprofit sector may not realize there are many different types of organizations. What are some of the important distinctions between leadership of a membership association versus leadership of a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization? Are there any similarities of note?

Graham: There are broadly three types of volunteer organizations:  charitable (American Red Cross), individual membership (American Bar Association) and trade associations (American Plastics Council).

  • Charitable organizations usually focus on a specific cause and tend to be dependent on, and engaged with, volunteers in addition to maintaining a paid staff. They typically rely on contributions from individuals, foundations and other grants for support.
  • Individual membership or professional societies focus on a given profession and rely on active volunteer leadership to ensure the organization is as effective as possible. Membership and event dues often provide the backbone of financial support.
  • Trade associations generally tend to focus on advocacy for an industry and require little volunteer engagement other than around governance. Financial support is provided by the companies that belong to the trade association.

Each of the three types have boards of directors and committees that focus in on specific areas of importance to the organization.


VSB: What additional guidance would you like to share with senior leaders retiring from military service who are thinking about a second career as an association executive or perhaps taking on a volunteer role as a nonprofit board member?

Graham: Serving on a non-profit board and being as staff member are two very different paths.  Becoming an association executive is a career choice that can be very rewarding but it is a definitive career path.  Board service is an avocation and, within the nonprofit sector, is typically an unpaid opportunity.


VSB: Does ASAE Center offer any resources that might be useful to military leaders exploring a transition into the nonprofit sector?

Graham: ASAE has a micro site called Career HQ which helps interested people navigate jobs in associations.  http://www.asaecenter.org/Career/careerhq.cfm


VSB: What about getting a Certified Association Executive credential?

Graham: Among association leaders, the CAE designation has become known and appreciated as a mark of distinction that offers a wide range of benefits.

Individuals pursue the CAE for a variety of reasons, including professional development, career planning and professional pride, dedication to their career, a personal belief in the association profession, and self-fulfillment.

At the same time, individuals cannot sit for the CAE exam until they have five or more years of experience as an executive working in an association.

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