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The Association Community in Europe - Transcript from a Surge Talk

Written by Ioannis Pallas, ESAE Programme Manager

No matter where you are in the world, associations are encountering similar challenges and finding similar opportunities. Globalization presents us with opportunities to collaborate and flourish, but also has its own set of bottlenecks that aren’t necessarily seen locally. Differences can range from barely noticeable to rather remarkable from one geographical region to another, or even from one discipline to another, but one thing for certain is we can all benefit from sharing our experiences and learning from each other.

Running the Secretariat of the European Society of Association Executives (ESAE), based in Brussels, I am glad to share my observations and give you some local perspective.

ESAE is comprised of European and international Association leaders. Brussels is a multicultural, multinational region where over 2,500 associations are based. Many of those do advocacy and monitor the decision-making process and implementation of the rules of the European Institutions on behalf of their members. Others are based here because they can make good use of the abundance of knowledge produced, which is easily accessible, and the high quality of well-educated and experienced human resources. Some associations are large and highly professionalized while others are smaller with looser structures, but all those working for them face similar challenges.

The reason I find being part of an association important is that it is somewhat a lesson of civics for everyone involved. It’s an example of how society works on a small scale, and the way associations interact with each other is a prime example of multilateralism in practice.Associations serve as a kind of buffer zone between citizens and decision-makers, making sure the voices of smaller actors can be heard and, thanks to the equal treatment and transparency rules set by the institutions, this is often the case. 

What we see is that people, although they are concentrated in a small geographical location, don’t speak to each other all that much, often because they ignore the amount of help they can get. There is indeed a need to create a sense of community, and this is something ESAE has been working on. We create a framework where people can come together and exchange ideas and best practices on relevant topics. Training is at the core of our activities; we hold at least one event per month for our members, on different topics that might be important for association leaders, like how to use digital tools for governance and communication, how to better prepare for changes in the political landscape, how to lobby better and smarter, or how to listen more closely to your members and innovate. 

Training is a major way for us to bring our members together because, before and after the training, you have networking, which creates a sense of belonging, important in our profession. What we sometimes find difficult to tackle is how to communicate this to the members who are not able to be in the same place at the same time. As great as recordings are to share knowledge online, there are things you are better able to say in person than at a distance.

When it comes to learning, we have a large array of partnerships; we are partners with destinations and, of course, a lot of associations all around Europe, which help us create a network of engagement. We also collaborate with consultancy firms that sometimes help us bring in experts to our workshops. It also really helps to have their knowledge and global perspective to give advice to our members.

We also collaborate closely with a local university on an executive masters program on international association management, the first of its kind in Europe.

I hope this gave you an insight into how things work in the association community in Europe and allow you to find similarities to opportunities and challenges where you live and work. As we progressively go global, the more we communicate and collaborate, the more we will be able to achieve.


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