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Tuesday, January 23, 2018

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Seven Ways to Dig Yourself out of Association Overload
Robert C. Harris, CAE

March, 2006

In today’s environment of "doing more with less," many associations find their staffs working in overload mode. We are either required, or feel compelled, to get more done with fewer resources.

If you work in an association that asks you to do more with less, you may be able to improve your job with a few organizational basics. This is a look at how a well-organized office can lead to a better environment, improved work product and an enhanced confidence by staff and leadership. Try these seven tips to dig yourself out from association overload.


Take a day to clean out file drawers; some organizations call it a "file-audit." If you use a file cabinet that is stuffed to capacity, don't buy more storage space (or hide the files under your desk) --- clean them out. I often see file drawers overstuffed with hundreds of drink coupons from the 1983 convention and folders for every hotel proposal considered in 1990. I suggest you pull up a large garbage can and begin cleanout.

If everyone in the office participates in a file cleanout day, the task will be fun. You probably won't need more file space but rather bigger trash bins to haul off the junk you pull out of the drawers. While you’re at it, check those forgotten storage closets and shelves where someone stowed 500 copies of the 1972 membership directory!


Look at files and other information as "property of the association." Set up a central-file-system where everybody has knowledge of its contents and access. Avoid creating personal file kingdoms in which everybody has file cabinets and nobody knows where to find information.

A centralized file system begins by identifying the major working files, such as key bylaws, conferences, member benefits, etc. These are setup in an area with easy access by everyone in the office. Maintain a list of what belongs in the central files and discourage staff from setting up their personal redundant file folders --- other than current projects. Everything else (with exception of confidential records) should be housed in the central files. Be sure to clearly label every drawer and storage space.


Adopt a retention policy for association information. Know what must be kept, either for legal reasons or reference, and what can be tossed. An accounting professional can provide a recommended retention schedule. Have it approved by the board of directors and add it to your policy and procedure manual. Once it is an office policy, staff will know what they can toss without bothering the board with administrative questions.


Identify the processes that repeat themselves in the association. Then set up systems to streamline the work. For example, are new member packets assembled quarterly, or do you create a packet for each new member during the week? Are member address changes bundled and processed every other Friday to avoid the interruption with each day's mail? Do you have a quality and consistent system set for notifying directors of board meetings?

Association work runs in cycles, i.e. monthly newsletters, quarterly board meetings, and annual budgets. Start by using a calendar to identify the work projects and deadlines. Create checklists for responsibilities such as preparing for the board meeting (site, room set up, agendas, maps, etc.) or newsletter publication (ad sales, deadlines, text, proofing, blueline, etc.) No airline pilot would start a trip without a comprehensive checklist to be sure every operation is working and completed in order. The more streamlined your cyclical work, the fewer mistakes, omissions and interruptions.


As you set up systems for the recurring work, these form the annual operations of the organization. Few associations have an operating manual. Yet we know in the profit world that the best run and highest value franchises are those using operating manuals. Systems and documentation should be a goal for not-for-profit organizations.

There are five manuals that every association should maintain. These include a personnel manual, a policy and procedures manual, an accounting manual, a leadership manual and an operations manual. Though it may seem daunting to create manuals from origin, there are ways to formulate some of them quite easily. Once they are written, smooth operations lie ahead for your association.


Sometimes staff find themselves having to do nearly everything in the association --- from editing the newsletter to applying he postage. By outsourcing, you'll free up time that is needed for more important projects. You’ll also get a good idea of the real costs of projects rather tan have the staff squeeze in another project that keeps them at the office past closing. Finally, you’ll be gaining outside and creativity. You can outsource the basics (such as typing, copying, stuffing, mailings) to the critical (lobbying, planning meetings, newsletters.)

Strategic Plan

Some office distractions come from a creative idea thrown on the table by leaders who saw it somewhere else. Staff members, too, may be their own worst enemy as they find new things they try to squeeze into each workday.

Adopt and stick to a strategic plan (maybe you need to pull it off the shelf and blow off the dust). Use it as a roadmap for work. The plan should fit within the periphery of the association’s mission statement, set specific goals, and even offer action steps.

Adopt these seven ways to dig yourself out of association overload and the results will be a renewed enthusiasm for work, streamlined, easier operations, and fewer errors. Moving from association overload to association efficiency can be an awakening for staff, leaders and members.

Bob Harris, CAE, teaches organizational efficiency, leadership training, and conducts strategic planning for nonprofit organizations. He can be contacted at 850/570-6000 or His website is


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