I recently attended the annual meeting of the AMC Institute in Long Beach, CA. For a west coast venue, there was good turn out and Long Beach Convention and Visitors’ Bureau rolled out the red carpet.
There was a program this year that resurrected an old topic: “Trusted Development as a Client Partnership Strategy” presented by Michael Reed of Bloch and Reed (Association Advisors). Bloch and Reed is not an AMC, so in defining their role with clients as a “trusted partner”, I have no issue. I continue to have an issue defining the AMC-Client relationship as a “partnership” for the same reasons I did back in April 2009 when I first posted on this topic. (“AMCs More Like Agents Than Partners”)
But rather than using the word “agent” in place of partner, as I did in my 2009 blog post, I now prefer “trusted professional.”
A true partnership involves two or more parties that share risk and reward for their joint activities. Partners also share in decision making. And while AMCs and their clients each derive value from the association’s successes, and loss or costs from failures, the relationship is more of a transaction than a partnership.
AMCs do not, and should not, share in decision making for the association’s fundamental decisions, like:
- Who is eligible for membership
- Membership dues
- Association programming (e.g., what to deliver, what to charge, etc.)
- Fiscal policies
- Public policy decisions if the association is involved in governmental affairs
- Strategic goals and priorities
The above decisions belong to the board of directors and have a great deal to do with defining success for the association and how successful the association will be even if executed by the AMC staff flawlessly.
In the role of trusted professionals, the association board of directors should expect their AMC to bring the AMC’s knowledge and expertise to bear on their advice and counsel during the board’s deliberating process. However, the board of directors should be free to accept or reject that counsel if they choose to. Similarly, the AMC should feel free to support or not support the board’s choices, especially if their choices are not consistent with applicable laws or otherwise unethical.
At L&M we ask our clients to consider our advice. If they do not accept our advice, we’ll support their decision to our fullest abilities as long as the actions are within the boundaries of the law and ethical. Fortunately, we’ve had very little experience over the years with clients asking us to support them in ways that would have, in our professional judgment, been inappropriate.
I spoke recently with a board member from a prospective client who was looking for their next AMC to be their partner. Best as I could discern from her statements, their board was looking for an AMC that would deeply committed to their mission and their membership. They were looking for an AMC that would treat them as “not just another client”, but to recognize their uniqueness.
That seemed reasonable to me. Here at L&M, and most AMC principals I know, lose sleep over client issues and certainly do not “turn it off” when leaving the office. That’s a deep commitment. But caring a great deal does not make the relationship a partnership. I decided not to ask a follow up question, which would have been: “If your association is our client and we’re partners, what would your association do on behalf of our AMC, over and above paying the retainer fee on time?” I didn’t ask that question because it was clear that the well-intentioned board member only saw the relationship in terms of what the association would get out of the arrangement. And she should have… because it’s really not a partnership. What I think she meant, but couldn’t find the words is: “We want an AMC that will be more vigilant about our mission than our board may be as it evolves and changes over time.” If this was not on her mind, it should have been, because that’s what often happens. It’s an important issue for all association boards to address – but expecting staff, AMC or otherwise, to be more committed to the mission than the board of directors is a challenge addressed in other ways.
In conclusion – words matter. We should not use the wrong words for a situation simply because the words make us feel better.