When it comes to executive leadership opportunities, associations and nonprofits clearly are where the action is.

Don’t just take my word for it.  Look at the data. 

2013 Labor Department statistics showed more than 66,000 trade and professional associations in the United States – and well over 1.2 million, if you count charities, foundations or religious organizations. Meanwhile, new applications for association status with the Internal Revenue Service number in the thousands each year.

American Society for Association Executives (ASAE) data shows more than 1.6 million people employed by associations across every state of the union, working to advance the interests of their members, enrich the public good, enhance professional status and spur economic vitality across the country. 

It’s no surprise to anyone to learn that in my hometown of Washington, D.C., nearly one of every 10 workers is employed by an association. After all, that’s to be expected in the unquestioned center of government and regulation. But even more association employment can be traced to areas outside Washington – in states such as California, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Texas to name a few, where associations and nonprofits offer lucrative jobs for hundreds of thousands of talented men and women. The community demands leadership across the country – leadership of the same caliber as that sought by any commercial enterprise.

Executive Careers: The Association TrackTop associations and nonprofits boast annual budgets measured in the hundreds of millions of dollars, with memberships ranging from small, elite groups to multi-millions. No matter the size, each organization requires leaders with the same skill sets as any successful commercial entity – chief among them such capabilities as strategic vision, business management expertise and exceptional leadership qualities. But they also demand more. They require the additional skills and qualities needed to attract and retain members who give freely of their time, energy and money. They must know how to persuade, to build commitment and incite the active engagement on which associations and nonprofits depend. 

They also must survive and thrive in a highly dynamic, competitive environment. Current and potential members most often have multiple options for investing their time, energy and money in pursuit of their interests. Members, once recruited, must be maintained with timely, effective products and services. Successful associations and nonprofits provide the resources and expertise needed for professional growth and development, for establishment of standards, for effective advocacy and reputation enhancement and myriad other tools important to advancement of membership’s best interests, now and into the future. 

The association and nonprofit community recognizes the unique mix of skills and qualities needed to accomplish all these leadership duties, and is prepared to compete for the top talent capable of doing the job. Salaries and other compensation in the community increasingly match the best offers of the commercial world. Indeed, ASAE figures show average gross wages for professional and business associations substantially above those for private industry and government. Overall, membership organizations in 2013 reported a total payroll of over $51 billion. In the same year, trade and professional associations generated over $142 billion in revenue.

Equally important, associations and nonprofits offer a unique opportunity to marry professional management and leadership skills with the personal values and commitment to serving interests beyond a quarterly earnings report or share price. The community embodies a growing public interest in truly making a difference in the world – to meeting the most demanding financial performance goals, certainly, but also to accomplishing something more

Recent ASAE statistics indicate more than 63 million Americans devote time and energy to a cause or interest through a membership organization. The Millennial generation – with its strong orientation around personal values and societal improvement – now makes up more than half the U.S. workforce, and all its eventual senior leadership.

Top leaders increasingly embody that spirit. They know not only how to tap into that desire to help with services and resources that match their members’ interests. They also are driven by a desire for professional accomplishment and personal satisfaction – a combination that offers a compelling advantage for associations and nonprofits in the continuing war for talent.

So the next time a career advisor starts talking about the commercial world and its opportunities, expand your horizons.  Ask questions about the world of associations and nonprofits, and listen carefully to what you hear in response.  You – and your career – may be the better for it.


Copyright © 2013-present BlueSteps, Inc. All rights reserved. The Executive Job Search Engine for Professionals | Bluesteps