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Establishing an Affordable and Accessible Professional Development Program

Establishing an Affordable and Accessible Professional Development Program

By Sarah Lampson

The Canadian Association of Research Administrators (CARA) created a robust webinar program that provides convenient, affordable and accessible education for all members across Canada. With a modest, volunteer-initiated beginning, the program has grown to 75-100+ webinars annually. 

In the past three years, the number of webinars and registrations has steadily increased, both for paid registration and free webinars. The program is crucial to the success of the professional qualifications the association offers, and it is a vital and significant source of non-dues revenue. Most remarkable of all, the majority of the program was established and developed in three years!

Here are some pivotal moments in our program development:

  • 2011: CARA volunteer Laurie Vaughan-Evans organized free webinars for CARA members on key topics with the goal of re-offering the core content annually. The webinars were moderated and run by an external professional facilitator hired by CARA. As Chair, Professional Development, Ms. Vaughan-Evans created a series of webinars for which attendees could earn a certificate of attendance upon completion of the introductory, intermediate and advanced levels.

  • 2013: Sarah Lampson (this post’s author) was hired as the association’s first full-time Executive Director (ED) and only staff member. Lampson proposed that the ED moderate all webinars to eliminate the increasing costs of third party moderation and address concerns speakers had reported about their experience. The ED also proposed charging a fee for webinars to move from a deficit model to cost recovery and then profit. The Executive Committee accepted these proposals and they proved to be successful. The ED began presenting webinars and recruited new speakers from the membership and her large external network.

  • 2014: CARA offered 100 webinars; about 25 per cent had free registration for members.

  • 2015: CARA hired a part-time program coordinator for the ever-growing webinar program. In partnership with its UK sister association, the Association of Research Managers and Administrators, CARA established professional qualifications, the first of their kind for Canadian research administrators. All the formal learning required by the association may be completed via webinar with an alternate option of conference attendance for some of it. Underpinning the success of the qualifications is CARA’s high quality webinar program.

All of CARA’s webinar presenters are volunteers, and they are all committed to advancing the profession. Their leadership is recognized through CARA’s volunteer recognition program and its awards program – both of which have been expanded as the webinar program has grown.

CARA has 1000 members, and membership is individual and not required by any licensing body. As a small professional association, CARA is volunteer led and committed to providing excellent value to its members. Because no one is required to join CARA, the association must also ensure it is responsive to members’ feedback, proactive in programming and excellent at communicating its membership value. Membership dues are the primary source of revenue, and like many other associations, CARA relies heavily on non-dues revenue. Offering online learning opportunities provided CARA a new, non-dues revenue stream, and enhanced the return on investment of membership. 

The webinar program has also provided many new opportunities for members to be involved by sharing their expertise, recruiting speakers, attending webinars and continuously improving their skills and knowledge. With 40 to 45 per cent of CARA members not able to attend the conference, webinars afford them another way to connect with colleagues and build community. The program has also allowed international speakers to connect with CARA members and provided members access to new perspectives and educational opportunities to the benefit of their careers.


Sarah Lampson is the Executive Director of CARA and works with the Executive Board to provide organizational leadership and develop and implement its strategic plan. Sarah’s key achievements include significantly increasing services to members, a proven track record of strong financial management and stewarding international partnerships that have resulted in the development of Canada’s first professional qualifications in research management and administration. Since Sarah was recruited to CARA in 2013, membership has increased 15 percent and the number of members volunteering with the association has increased 400 percent. Sarah has co-authored two books and published and presented on various areas of her professional expertise, including research administration and association management, over 100 times in the past 10 years. You can follow her on Twitter at @lampson_sarah. 

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