State of the Association, FY 2020

These remarks were presented at SAA’s Annual Membership (Business) Meeting, held virtually on Wednesday, August 5, 2020, 2:00 to 3:30 pm CDT.

Good afternoon, everyone.

Like all of you, I practice a profession that is not broadly understood. My profession is association management. My professional association, the American Society of Association Executives, has 46,000 members. My profession has a body of knowledge and best practices. It has areas of specialization – like Finance and Administration, Education, Publishing, Government Relations, and Governance. It has a certification process; I became a Certified Association Executive in 1993.

Like archives management, association management requires much more than standard operating procedures and manuals. It’s guided by principles and best practices, and it thrives with strategic thinking, understanding the marketplace, fostering engagement, bench-marking, knowledge-based decision-making balanced with creative thinking. As they say, it’s an art and a science.

Associations also differ from other types of organizations. They are made up of people who come together—voluntarily—to solve common problems, meet common needs, and accomplish common goals. What’s unique about associations is that their members are the owners, the customers, and the workforce of the organization.

Common sense tells us that associations thrive when many voices are heard. My experience—and that of many of my association management colleagues—tells me that the partnership between member-volunteers and paid professional staff is the secret sauce that makes or breaks associations. 

In my “State of the Association” remarks in past years, I’ve typically reviewed long lists of accomplishments. Today I will share a shorter list – along with a promise to provide a more detailed report in a future Archival Outlook column. (Treasurer Amy Fitch will give you a nice overview of our FY 2020 financials in a few minutes.)

For many years, SAA’s member-volunteers and staff have punched above our weight. Here are a few examples of that in the past year.

I know of no other professional association of our size, or even close to it, that produced seven new books in a year—books ranging from our first-ever consumer publication in Creating Family Archives, to three volumes in the Archival Fundamentals series, two books of essays in honor of thought leaders in the profession, to A Matter of Facts, our first venture in the new Archival Futures series published in collaboration with ALA.  

Publications Editor Chris Prom, with the Publications Board, our authors, and two staff members (Teresa and Abigail), made it happen. Chris’s 6-year tenure was remarkably productive for SAA.  And we were delighted to welcome Stacie Williams as SAA’s new Publications Editor as of April 1. She has a busy year ahead, as we have seven more books slated for publication!

In all, more than 280 members contributed content to SAA publications in FY 2020, including those books as well as articles in American Archivist and Archival Outlook, the Journal Reviews Portal, and cases in our seven open-access Case Studies series.

Another example of punching above our weight comes from our Education program. We started the year with an enthusiastic Committee on Education and DAS Subcommittee, some seasoned and some new instructors, an ambitious schedule of in-person courses, a dream to launch the much-needed and long-awaited Management Track, and three staff in our Education Department (Rana, Akila, and Taylor).

By December, several in-person courses were cancelled due to low registrations. But we had applied for grants from the SAA Foundation and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission for development of Management courses, and things were looking okay.

By March 16, we were down to 2.5 staff members and had to re-tool existing courses for online, AND launch several free webcasts to help members during the pandemic, AND continue with Management Track development (because both grant proposals came through!).  From April to June, we offered 11 online courses with 384 attendees. During the same period, 1,727 archivists attended a free or paid SAA webcast, including those on Best Practices for Team Management in a Crisis, Financial Planning in Uncertain Times, and Salary Negotiation 101.

We are now just 1.75 Education staff (Rana plus Akila in a consultant role), with no plans to fill Taylor’s position. And we are now fully committed to online education. I suppose that if there is a silver lining to this pandemic, it may be that we had to rip off the BandAid. Professional development at SAA will now be more affordable and accessible than ever before.

The Archival Workers Emergency Fund is a favorite example of the volunteer/staff partnership this year. You’ve heard the story:  A committed group of members brought to the SAA Foundation Board an idea to establish a fund to support archives workers who were unemployed or precariously employed due to the pandemic.  Amy, Peter, Felicia, and I worked with the group to develop a proposal for the Foundation Board’s consideration. The Board enthusiastically supported creating the fund and provided $15,000 in seed money to establish it.  The review group was established. Turns out that part was easy.

The hard part was developing a rubric for evaluating applications, promoting both the availability of the fund and donations to it, compiling applications, doing the emotionally challenging labor of evaluating them weekly, and then figuring out how to get funds into the hands of individuals experiencing precarity—all in the midst of a pandemic.

I logged the first message from lead organizers Jessica Chapel and Lydia Tang on Saturday, March 21. The fund launched on April 15. To date, some 840 donors have contributed more than $107,000 to assist 144 of their colleagues at a difficult time. That’s just plain awesome! 

It pretty much does take a village, in this case the ad hoc organizing group, the review group, Felicia and Peter—and, of course, our many generous donors.

To the extent possible, we made a lot of strategic decisions after the pandemic struck:

  • We temporarily lifted the embargo on the six most recent issues of American Archivist, through August 15.

  • We went green with American Archivist and Archival Outlook. We’ve been promoting online-only access as a conservation matter, but then made a business decision not to mail periodicals to addresses that were closed during the pandemic.  Archival Outlook will be digital-only through at least the September/October issue, and we will be phasing out print entirely by June 2021.

  • We’re eagerly awaiting a major upgrade to the journal’s online platform, and we’re looking at alternatives for a more interactive platform for Archival Outlook.
  • Speaking of the Journal, we also conducted a search for its next Editor while under quarantine.  An announcement will be forthcoming soon.  But I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Cal Lee for his work as American Archivist editor as he completes his three-year term this December. Two statistics of particular interest, I think, are that journal submissions have increased significantly during Cal’s tenure, and 138 additional people volunteered to serve as peer reviewers in response to Cal’s invitation in September.
  • The gorgeous new Dictionary of Archives Terminology went live in April and already is one of the most trafficked areas of the SAA website. You’ll be hearing a bit more about the Dictionary Working Group today.

  • On April 11 we submitted an IMLS grant proposal for conduct of A*CENSUS II—and on July 23 we learned that we got it! $249,500. Work begins on September 1—and that, too, will take a village! 
  • We appreciated your patience—and that of the 2020 Program and Host committees, some 350 speakers, and our industry partners—as we negotiated a release from our Hilton Hotel contract, issued an RFP for tech vendors, and retooled the Joint Annual Meeting for a virtual environment, with an eye to giving all accepted sessions an opportunity to participate and to meeting the needs of our 46 sections and 16 appointed groups. We were able to make the square peg fit in a round hole this time.  Going forward, however, we really must rethink the conference in light of the likelihood of a fully virtual or at least hybrid annual meeting.  But first – let’s get through this one!

We’re grateful to several industry partners and the SAA Foundation for making it possible to reduce conference registration fees significantly. Keep in mind that, although we might not be enjoying $130-a-gallon hotel coffee (thank goodness), virtual conference technology platforms are certainly not free. As of an hour ago, we have 2,470 registrants for this meeting, the second highest attendance in SAA’s history. There were 2,488 attendees at the 2018 Joint Annual Meeting in Washington, DC, but we’re likely to beat that number before this virtual conference is over.

Gosh, I promised you just a few examples of the member/staff partnership at work—and here I’ve gone on and on….and haven’t even mentioned the three Council listening forums that have been conducted since June (the Community Reflection on Black Lives and Archives, the Investing in Your Membership Forum, and the Diversity Committee-led Black Lives and Archives Listening/Strategy Session). Stay tuned for more of these opportunities in the coming year.

And now, I’d like to share a few reflections.

On display in a corner of my office are some artifacts that mean a lot to me. There’s the bottle of The Archivist wine, a gift from an archivist friend. (It’s getting a little long in the tooth at this point.)  There’s “We Believe in Miracles,” a gift from my journal editor at the American Physical Therapy Association.  I learned there that it’s not about the big, earth-shuddering miracles, but the small ones—those good things that come from thinking big, planning well, surrounding yourself with good people, working hard, and, yes, having some good luck and fun along the way. And there’s the print, which says “Most people don’t know that there are angels whose only job is to make sure you don’t get too comfortable… and fall asleep… and miss your life.”  That’s my reminder that, in this line of business, those angels are our members….

As I’ve informed the staff and the Council, I do not intend to seek a renewal or extension of my current employment contract, which ends on June 30, 2021. I want to make space for someone who will see SAA through its next phase of development. And I need to make space in my life for the many other things that I would like to do. And so this is my last opportunity to provide a “State of the Association.”

SAA punches above its weight. Its volunteers certainly do. I could give you many more examples—but I’ll use this opportunity to call out the 2017-2020 “class” of the SAA Council:  Steven Booth, Brenda Gunn, Audra Eagle Yun, and Meredith Evans. As a class they seemed to have a unique bond. As a class they were supremely creative, initiating work, doing work, taking on any project thrown their way and acing it. As individuals, they are simply remarkable.  And, of course, Meredith—as I’ve often said to her—is a force of nature. Thank you to these wonderful individuals for their many contributions to SAA and the archives profession.

SAA punches above its weight. And so does its staff:  Matt Black. Teresa Brinati. Peter Carlson. Abigail Christian. Felicia Owens. Akila Ruffin. Carlos Salgado. Rana Salzmann. Michael Santiago. Lakesha Thaddis.

To the SAA staff:  You’ve been a joy and an inspiration to me. The lessons I’ve learned from you have everything to do with intentionality, empathy, kindness, and grace….  I hope I get to see you in person sometime soon—we have a conference to celebrate!

It has been my privilege to serve as Executive Director of SAA. Be assured that I will always be an Archives Advocate. Please be safe; be well. Thank you, all.

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