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Big Transformations for Small, Professional Associations

Big Transformations for Small, Professional Associations

Small professional associations can face big challenges, such as:


  • modest budgets
  • high member expectations on the value of membership
  • increasing competition from larger international associations
  • heavy reliance on busy volunteers


The Canadian Association of Research Administrators (CARA) has over 1,000 members at academic hospitals, colleges, universities, and government. We are volunteer led and driven and have 1.67 staff. In the past four years, our membership has increased by over 25% and our revenue by over 40%, although membership is not required for any license. As such, we wanted to share some of our expertise with fellow association leaders.

Here are some of the changes we made that contributed to our success:


Plan Strategically

CARA has a 3-year strategic plan developed by the Board with member input via survey results, and program and service metrics. It builds on the success of previous plans and is reported on at our annual meeting and in our annual report. The strategic plan overarches all activities and keeps the Board, staff, and volunteers on track toward clear goals despite the business of day to day tasks.


Formally and Consistently Survey Members


  1. We introduced our annual membership survey in 2014 and generally repeat the same questions to make straightforward year by year comparisons.
  2. We made some changes to increase the quality of the responses (for example, no more anonymous participation), and include new programs and services as they are implemented.
  3. Our Board and staff carefully review the results and then report them back to members with information on how we are using the results to improve the association.
  4. Our survey response is about 40%, and we enter respondents in a draw for a free webinar to encourage participation.
  5. In addition to our annual membership survey, we have surveys after every event (webinars, conference), and also seek feedback from specific stakeholders. For example, stakeholders in a particular demographic: volunteers, new research administrators, members of particular special interest groups.
  6. Our exit survey for non-renewing members has been valuable and allowed us to connect with the small percentage of those who do not renew. Sometimes these conversations lead us to address a previously unvoiced concern that leads to renewal.


Track Retention Rates

It is widely accepted that retaining a member, customer, or employee is more economical than finding a new one, but it can be something associations are not strategic about. CARA has included questions in our annual membership survey to learn why people joined and stayed in our association. We also focus heavily on making the membership experience as positive as possible. This means our staff takes the time to quickly respond to all members and offer solutions for any issues they bring forward. With a busy office, this commitment to member service is an important way to keep us focused on why we are here: for our members.

By tracking retention rates, we can see if our strategies, programs, and services are fulfilling membership needs.


Ask All Staff for Ideas to Save Money

The Board can often see big picture issues about membership, opportunities, and competition relatively easy. However, there are often significant ways to save money by having staff work more efficiently. For example, how many hours does your staff spend following up on unpaid invoices or reminding members to renew?

We saved a lot of money by investing in credit card payment options for our website and restricting invoices only to large groups rather than offering them to individuals. We remind members to renew two months in advance and provide some modest incentives. This year one of our business partners kindly provided some movie passes as an incentive, which helped.


Get Members Engaged Quickly

We have a "Welcome to CARA" webinar to provide all new members and anyone else interested. We also offer an overview of all our programs and services with an invitation to get involved and information on how to access all resources. We have a mentorship program, certificate programs, and other professional development offerings for new and established professionals. We have a volunteer recognition program that includes a special event, two complimentary webinar registrations annually, awards specifically for volunteers, and other incentives.


Leverage Your Website

Four years ago, our website was outdated, and most of the information on it was only available to logged-in members. We invested in a new website that is updated at least once a day and includes all the information members need. We outline the value of membership and link to the relevant pages. Our strategic plan, policies, events, career centre, resource library, and news are all there with links to other social media. It saves us a lot of time responding to member requests or educating people about opportunities, as staff and volunteers can quickly provide links to current, detailed information in both languages.

As CARA continues to increase membership value and grow, our expertise will need to, as well. Being a small, professional association means constantly innovating, continuously improving, and ensuring our members are not only heard but aware of how important they are to our community.



Sarah Lampson is the Executive Director of CARA and provides transformational organizational leadership to implement the association's strategic plan. Sarah's key achievements include: significantly increasing services to members, which resulted in a 25% increase in membership and a 400% increase in volunteerism in 3 years; turning an operating deficit into a surplus in first 12 months; increasing revenue 43% and stewarding the international partnership that resulted in development of Canada's first professional qualifications in the profession. You can connect with her via LinkedIn or follow her on Twitter at @lampson_sarah.



As Sarah points out, organizations operating in the association sector can face a number of challenges while facing transition. Beyond what Sarah directly addresses here, transitions cause disruptions due to change, concerns due to growing complexities, and so on. In their book, 20 Tips for Surviving and Prospering in the Association World, Bill Tholl, George Weber, and Ron Robertson may help associations better weather the obstacles that arise while their organization transitions to a bigger organization, as well as cope with a broad range of other issues that can arise.




Sarah Lampson, Associations, Troubleshooting


Guest Contributor, Governance / Leadership



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