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Volume 25 - March 2009

ASAE/CAL: Associations Across the Atlantic

Is there a world of difference between U.S. associations and their counterparts in Europe, or are we more alike than we are different? You may be surprised.
By: Peter Rush and Alfons Westgeest

Learn how EU and U.S. associations are different-and, in some cases, very much the same. 

For years now, associations in the United States have been exploring the possibility of expanding their operations internationally, whether that entails holding a meeting outside of the United States, opening offices abroad, or just encouraging international members to join the U.S.-based association. 
But when you're looking to grow abroad, it's important to remember that the United States isn't the only country with associations. Europe in particular has its own association sector with its own practices and traditions, all of which can be very different from what an American association professional is used to.

Industry Representation
According to Thomson Gale, the United States is home to more than 123,000 national, regional, and local trade associations and professional societies (a number that does not encompass philanthropic or charitable organizations).
The numbers are smaller in the European Union, where slightly more than 12,000 EU-level associations are found. The many national-level associations within EU member states bring the total number to more than 100,000. Within the United States, associations range in size and scope but may be broken down to represent even the narrowest of niches. In Europe, however, associations tend to operate on a smaller scale and with a broader business sector focus. Because the EU-level association is a relatively young phenomenon, you will find more niche associations operating solely on a national level.

In addition, many European-based firms are only active in one or two EU member states, meaning they often don't see the need to directly join an EU-level association. Instead, smaller companies tend to join a national association specific to their industry. As a consequence, the European association landscape is less concentrated than in the United States and features layers of national and EU-level associations.

The level of concentration, integration, or consolidation in the association landscape varies significantly between sectors, or even within a sector. For example, there are few global manufacturing companies that specialize in car and ship paint, but hundreds of firms produce decorative paint, and European associations in those sectors are affected accordingly.

In a number of cases, different levels of membership have been created and hybrid organizations formed that include both multiple national associations and direct corporate membership. The European Manufacturers of Expanded Polystyrene is one such example, encompassing more than 20 different national associations related to construction and packaging. In addition to the federative structure, the association also has direct corporate membership.

Regulatory and Legislative Variations
U.S. associations often work with Congress, regulatory agencies, and health and scientific organizations to represent member interests. In the European Union, there is less of a distinction between legislative and regulatory affairs than in the United States. Also, lobbying techniques employed by European association professionals often differ from those of their American counterparts. On an EU level, influence is not determined by how many postcards or emails are sent to a lawmaker but rather by how an industry's facts, statistics, and proposals can improve draft legislation and boost an official's image.

While legislative lobbying has been around longer in the United States, association professionals say it has taken on a highly increased importance in the EU political realm. The main reason is because the European Union initiates, decides, or recommends the vast majority of all legislative or regulatory changes in most sectors or professions.

The EU level is not the only one worth watching, however. Although 80 percent of national legislation in Europe is decided on the EU level, member states still have the ability to add their own "national flavor." The national link is very important in the early decision-making process of any lobbying strategy. At the same time, while the American political landscape tends to be more polarized and adversarial, Brussels politics draws on a wider array of parties and specific national issues that are often deeply rooted in countries' governance cultures.
European legislative initiatives always involve three different entities: the European Commission, which writes the proposal; the Council, which represents the different national governments; and finally, the European Parliament (EP). The EP's power, which has increased following recent reforms of the EU Treaties, ranges from an advisory role to a full fledged co-decision maker. Members are directly elected by the European citizens. There are now 27 member states, each featuring multiple political parties. EU-level groups are then formed out of convenience, such as the Liberals, Socialists, Christian Democrats, and Greens, but they are not true EU-level parties.

With all of that in mind, associations must strive to please many stakeholders, national interests, and political factions. An effective association government affairs staff must be multilingual, culturally sensitive, and diplomatic as well as skilled in alliance building to play an important role in the representation of an industry sector. Why is alliance building so critical? In all EU institutions, the decision makers prefer to meet with an association rather than with many individual members. In that respect, a powerful tool in any lobbying strategy is to form an alliance with other associations, a type of coalition-building program, which allows the decision makers to meet with even fewer groups while gaining information on a broad sector of stakeholders.

Meetings Management Disparities
When members of the European Portable Battery Association meet, they often gather within the walls of Kellen Europe's Brussels office, rather than at an offsite hotel or meeting facility. And while a nice dinner may be organized before or after the meeting, the event is definitely one of the fly-in-and-fly-out variety.

While not all EU-level associations operate this way, meeting planning across the Atlantic tends to involve less fanfare than similar events in the United States. Hence, there are fewer dedicated meeting planners employed by EU-level associations. This is due to several reasons, the most important being the smaller size and budget constraints of the typical European association, especially when compared to some of the large national associations elsewhere in the European Union. An EU organization with 14 members, for example, may not have the financial wherewithal to organize an event featuring speakers, dinners, and golf matches. Instead of social opportunities, EU-level trade association meetings focus on business affairs, while destinations are chosen based on climate and accessibility. Cities such as Vienna, Barcelona, Paris, Berlin, Budapest, Prague, Copenhagen, and Lisbon frequently top the meeting destination list.

In contrast, national associations in larger European countries tend to have more members, many hailing from smaller and mid-size companies and universities, as well as the ability to generate more nondues income. They often allow more time for socializing and leisure activities at their meetings and are more likely to include meetings specialists among their staff to provide the required services.

In the United States, meetings, exhibitions, and tradeshows are often the largest nondues revenue generator for an association. In Europe, however, very large tradeshows tend to be owned by a nonassociation organizer.

Different Boards
The typical European association board consists of four to eight members. In general, the board of a European association is not involved in the daily operations of the association; board members focus their attention on deciding the overall direction of the organization. The content work is then delegated to working groups consisting of volunteers and national staff with the support of the EU-level paid staff. (This is also called a secretariat, with the secretary general acting as the EU version of America's executive director.) Working groups physically meet only a few times each year, conducting the bulk of their work through email. It's also worth noting that while directors and officers insurance exists, there is less liability risk in Europe's legislative and court systems.

Compare that with the United States, where a larger board averages about 17 members. The typical American executive committee includes around five to seven members. The board of directors serves as the governing body and policy makers of the association, while employees are responsible for executing day-to-day management and operations. Although the board may then delegate some authority to various committees, it is still legally responsible for any action taken by those persons. This means the board tends to meet on a regular basis in order to act by consensus and reduce potential liabilities.

Mission Contrasts
Associations, regardless of their location, are committed to serving member needs. But the activities of individual associations often differ in Europe and the United States based on divergent membership values and philosophies.
U.S. professional associations, for example, rely on networking and education. While an appropriate dues structure and legislative affairs play a key role, benefits and services are often based on how much members can learn and what social opportunities are offered.

In EU-level associations, however, networking plays a significantly smaller role in membership renewal. Instead, association missions have a strictly EU business-oriented focus. In addition, major restrictions may be placed on what the EU association does, in order to leave national associations of the EU-level federation sufficient leeway and value to succeed. Indeed, EU regulatory affairs content is considered a key added value for EU-level associations.

The Association Profession
In Europe, the association and its management profession goes back centuries, much like guilds. But the profession is less visible or recognized than in the United States. While ASAE & The Center have 23,000 members, the European Society of Association Executives has a membership of 200. However, new courses and training programs are now emerging in Europe, especially in the larger EU member states. Meeting planners, accountants, lawyers, and public relations and marketing professionals, for example, are joining association staffs, just like in the United States.

Association management companies, while present for decades in the United Kingdom, Netherlands, and Switzerland, now represent and manage a number of European chapters, including U.S.-based associations desiring a presence in Europe.

Conversely, there are few EU associations with a U.S. office. However, U.S. and EU associations are on equal ground when it comes to investigating ways to deliver services via representative offices in China, the Middle East, India, and Southeast Asia.

Despite these differences, it's clear that globalization is affecting the way associations across the world conduct business. In an increasingly wired world, an international perspective is becoming the norm, and once drastically different national philosophies are starting to soften.

Peter Rush is chairman and CEO of Kellen Company in New York City. Alfons Westgeest is group vice president of Kellen Company and managing partner of Kellen Europe in Brussels, Belgium. Emails:,

Reprinted with permission, copyright August 2008, ASAE & The Center, Washington, DC.
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