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Competencies for Association Executives: The indispensable leadership tool you didn’t know you needed

By Danielle Lamothe

Have you ever longed for a resource that could make priority setting with your board and staff a bit easier? Are you curious to know how other associations tackle the business of planning, board recruitment or onboarding staff and volunteers? Look no further than the Competencies for Association Executives (the Competencies) from the Canadian Society of Association Executives (CSAE). This brand-new guide addresses all aspects of performance in senior leadership positions within the association and not-for-profit (NFP) sector. Over the past three years, a dedicated team of NFP leaders and association management subject matter experts undertook the weighty but valuable task of outlining the work of association management. This painstaking endeavour has yielded approximately 60 pages of tasks that high-performing associations execute in the service of their members.

Organized into five major competency areas, the Competencies is intended to make the job of association leadership simpler (see the overview, below). The Competencies is not prescriptive in nature. What you won’t find within its pages is a one-size-fits-all solution to any of these areas, competencies or tasks. Recognizing that the size of your budget and team, your competing priorities and the needs of your members all play a critical role in identifying the best possible approach for your organization. As experienced leaders know, there is never just one solution to the challenges faced by an association or NFP and the landscape is always shifting. It would be rare to find an association that was simultaneously tackling all the tasks listed in the Competencies. And if there was, I’m not sure I’d want to know them – who needs an inferiority complex at the start of a new year?!

The Competencies is available on Associations Connect for free to all CSAE members (www.associationsconnect.csae.com) and is available for download in the CSAE store for non-members (www.csae.com).


The resource is designed for use by associations and NFPs in various ways, including:

•   Priority setting: Chief staff officers (CSOs) can work with their boards and staff to identify the most important tasks to tackle in any given fiscal year

•   Assessment: Boards can use the Competencies as an assessment tool to determine key strengths and areas of development for the CSO

•   Development: Sector leaders can use the resource as a guideline for personal professional development

•   Planning: Boards and CSOs can plan for succession in the organization by identifying upcoming priorities and the resources needed to succeed

•   Capacity building: CSOs can use the Competencies to assist them in building a team that complements their own strengths and weaknesses

The Competencies has been carefully developed to make the work of association leadership a bit easier for you, your board and your staff. I hope you find it valuable!


What follows below are the top-level competencies that are explored in the full document. Within the Competencies itself, there is a drill-down into the specific tasks encompassed in each of these areas, as well as the key outputs you’ll produce by tackling them. This is just a taste of what the full resource provides. The Competencies is a living document and will be updated as needed to reflect users’ feedback and changes within our sector as it evolves.

Optimize Governance

1. Ensure effective and efficient governance

2. Contribute to the effectiveness of the board and committees

3. Lead development of a strategic plan

4. Advise the board on issues requiring their input

5. Develop a risk management strategy

Establish Direction

1. Analyse current financial state of the organization

2. Develop a long-term business strategy

3. Develop an annual business plan

4. Develop and maintain brand and reputation

5. Develop partnerships to achieve organization objectives

Lead People

1. Evaluate human resource requirements

2. Recruit staff and volunteers

3. Onboard staff and volunteers

4. Establish staff and volunteer codes of conduct

5. Manage individual performance

6. Manage teams

7. Manage change

8. Conduct ongoing personal leadership development

Manage Operations

1. Manage day-to-day financials

2. Manage an annual external financial audit or review engagement

3. Manage facilities

4. Manage equipment

5. Manage technology

6. Develop operational practices

Deliver Value

1. Collect evidence-based data

2. Identify needs of segments

3. Conduct continuous improvement of organizational offerings

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