What’s Next? Free Membership and For-Profit Associations

Written by Damian Hutt on April 24, 2018

I started the Association of Association Executives 10 years ago as a network and information resource, and a for-profit organisation. Coming from a business information background where I partnered with associations, I saw the lack of information and education available to them and wanted to make a change for the association community. Four years in, we expanded our events programming substantially, and now we are growing our offering and number of events every year.

How do the inner workings of AAE compare to that of a traditional, non-profit organisation?

Free Membership

Membership of AAE has always been free. Administrating paying membership is an effort-consuming, expensive activity and often makes a loss. Offering a free membership at a basic level is a good way of building a strong relationship with the community. You can more easily establish their needs, gain reviews of a service or a product that they’ve had input in to. Using this method, the organization only develops products the customers are willing to pay for. Our members are valuable to us and it’s an honest method of working together. One thing that associations have, that other organizations don’t, is input from their members. We capitalize on that by only charging for what members want and need.

Offerings & Staff Structure

We have 12 staff, half of which work on events. With 20 events a year and two awards programs, the day-to-day is labour intensive. Instead of having a board, we have members who act as advisors and sit on panels to tell us what issues they face and who they recommend as experts or leaders in the field. We have 8000 individual members and then another 15000 subscribers. The difference between the two is that the members commit to be involved by giving their advice, being interviewed and contributing. Our membership spans across Europe, India, and most recently, Africa.

In-person networking opportunities are important to AAE members. A senior level job at an association can be lonely. You may have sector colleagues around you, but you are unlikely to have senior executives or association leaders to talk to often. To combat this, a third of our program is focussed on networking and exchanging ideas between peers, in a structured way.

Revenue Generation

We’ve invested in activities outside of events that, in due course, with sponsorship, will generate revenue. These include high-value content, such as a program of in-depth case studies about how different associations created new tools, products or services. We also have a TV channel, that we maintain with a partner. We publish six hardcopy issues of our magazine per year and distribute them to members.

It takes a lot of work to attend to members, and we haven’t been able to commercialize all of it. We always create a service before seeking out sponsors.

Risk & Innovation

The key benefit of functioning within a for-profit model for AAE is that decisions can be made quickly. Admittedly, they may not always be as good as those that are made by a board with a structured and consultative process. But things move forward rapidly reacting to opportunities and perceived needs. We don’t have the politics, the siloed approach, or the cautious attitude of a traditional association to hold us back. We accept that sometimes a project might not work, so we quickly change it, or drop it and do something else.

Sponsor Relations

Sponsors aren’t members. We deliver to their needs in a structured way, in conferences for example as ‘Business Partners’, where the association executives understand the relationship. Suppliers are not allowed to join our online groups or see confidential information from our research and reports. We keep our members at the heart of our organization.


Any for-profit association that doesn’t have the needs of its members as its primary purpose will not be successful in making a profit. All commercial organizations know that by focusing on their customers, they make more profit, create a more sustainable business and grow jobs, on top of providing for their community of members.

Damian spoke in the “Innovative Business Models Emerging on the Association Scene” session during SURGE Spring, an interactive virtual summit hosted by AssociationSuccess.org on May 2nd-4th. Click here to watch the sessions on demand.