Have Your Cake and Eat It Too!—A Hybrid Model of Association Management

Hybrid is not just for meetings anymore. The need to adapt to a changing environment has given creative legs to business thinking. We’re mixing, matching, and collaborating in remarkable new ways.

Association CEOs and management firms are one example of a pairing that hasn’t always been viewed as a great date. However, when the chemistry is right, this arrangement can offer many benefits to smaller organizations.

I recently interviewed Sue O’Sullivan and John Forbes about how their partnership allows the American Venous Forum to have its cake and eat it too.

Sue is the Co-Founder and President of Veritas Association Management. Drawing on decades of experience, she’s built an industry-leading team of experts that work hand-in-hand with clients. Sue’s strong leadership has grown the VAM portfolio to include more than 35 of the world’s leading medical organizations.

John is the Executive Director of the American Venous Forum. Founded in 1987, AVF is dedicated to improving the care of patients with venous and lymphatic disease. The organization fosters cutting-edge research, clinical innovation, and education for health care professionals, patients, and policymakers.

John was hired to facilitate AVF’s transition to a new association management company. His engagement might have ended when Veritas won the contract for that role. But success intervened. Prior to John’s involvement, AVF had been experiencing challenges. John was getting business back on track, and the board was reluctant to put an unproven executive in the lead role. 

Communicate Candidly

“When we submitted our proposal,” Sue recalls, “We knew there was the possibility of an outside executive director. That was part of the RFP. Although it wasn’t ideal for us as a management company, we gave a lot of consideration to what would need to happen to make the arrangement a win.”

The willingness to discuss sensitive issues contributes to success.

Sue attributes their effective partnership to the ability to communicate openly and to candidly address sensitive issues. “When Veritas comes on board,” she notes, “we know that trust and adaptability are extremely important. John and I discussed the details of how Veritas would work with an outside executive director even before we knew he would be chosen.”

From my consultant’s perspective, I could see that a strong leader like John coupled with the operational resources that Veritas brings would be a winning combination. John offered data that confirmed my assessment.

“The results we’ve achieved are remarkable,” he notes. “AVF is thriving. That success would not have been possible without our partnership. Initially, our membership numbers were inflated due to faulty reporting. When Veritas corrected the process, we discovered there were 495 members instead of 900. Less than two years later that number has increased to 774. The ability to win people back who were leaving plus attract new members is a huge endorsement.”

Maximize Resources

“COVID actually gave us a boost, making us pivot to new initiatives,” John observes. “We organized a successful virtual meeting and hosted four webinars, something we had never done before. Another significant change was moving closer to our scientific roots. We resolved to be a leader in our specialty and identified strategies to get there. It was exciting to secure three grants for a total of $300,000 in new revenue. Along with great financial performance and good board relationships, worldwide awareness of AVF has expanded.”

Over the last year, some associations recognized the need for new initiatives but were restricted by limited human and financial resources. AVF is a good example of how additional administrative support and talent can make a small organization perform more like the big dogs.

“Veritas was already helping our clients to own and maximize their content,” Sue notes. “In 2018 we started Veritas TV. When COVID happened, we had the talent in place to quickly move to virtual platforms.

“The technology we implemented in 2020-2021 was more advanced than what we originally envisioned,” Sue recalls. “But having the staff to switch gears, overnight in some cases, was a huge advantage. We have over 50 employees, so AVF benefitted from that deep bench.”

Build Trust and Respect

Although this business model can provide significant benefits, Sue offered a caveat. “It’s important to understand that the hybrid model isn’t for everyone. The right players make the relationship. The management company and the executive director must be on the same team.

Trust and respect create a strong partnership.

“Personalities are a huge factor. This only works because John and I can call each other and rumble. We go back and forth and come out with the best results. We trust each other and we know that we can be honest and transparent.”

“From day one, Sue and I have operated with respect and trust,” John concurs. “If there is a challenge, we pick up the phone instead of allowing emails to accumulate and escalate. When we discuss an issue, we resolve it.  I want Sue to be successful, and I appreciate that her team cares and wants to work with us. Trust, respect, and the ability to hold each other accountable and have those fierce conversations work for us.”

Sue offered this additional advice about communication. “When there are important issues to discuss, representatives from both sides should be at the table. Everyone must be part of the decision-making and committed to the project.

“John always includes the appropriate team members in problem-solving. When you remove the politics, the real power becomes the success of the organization. That makes collaboration work.”

Create Meaningful Connections

When I asked for his recommendations to other leaders, John shared these thoughts. “Flexibility is important. Many medical societies are tied to a traditional way of programming and governing. The last 18 months forced us to consider our activities from a new perspective. Member engagement is another challenge. AVF has 770 members, and 160 of them serve on committees. We must keep building those connections.

“Leaders should also have a vision of the future and be flexible enough to make the changes needed. For example, our society had a separate foundation. Recently the two boards voted to merge. Nothing will be lost in the process, and both organizations will see gains. However, pre-COVID the leaders probably would not have been so flexible.”

“I agree with John,” Sue advises. “Membership in your association is no longer a given. You must create an experience that makes people feel good. Whether they are happy because they are volunteering or because you are initiating effective projects and research—when the interactions are positive, they will stay with the organization.

“It’s similar to frequent flyer miles. I use one carrier because I like the way they make me feel. The more that I support them, the more reasons they give me to come back. Our job is to make sure that members experience that growing value.”

This year taught us the importance of meeting our constituents on their own terms. The virtual and in-person interactions are different. Both venues must be unique and special. Choice is the operative word. We have to take a cue from Sue and John. Be flexible, transparent, and communicative.  Everyone wants to have their cake and eat it too.