Friday, March 30, 2007

Benefitting from Professional Organizations

Upon beginning graduate school, I received a list of books that I needed to purchase for my classes. Among the litany of expenditures was a membership to the American Association of Museums. Frankly, I was annoyed that I had to shell out $50 from my student loans for an organization that had little to do with my life. Looking back, getting involved with a professional organization from the outset was a good idea and a savvy way to stay involved with my new career. But before you go overboard joining different groups, I have just a few thoughts.

1. Scope out all of the organizations that you might be interested in joining. Since joining can be a costly endeavor, it pays to understand what you are getting into. There are dozens of professional organizations that might appeal to you and your chosen field, but only a fraction of them will really be of help. While I think that AAM is a great organization and highly recommend joining, it really doesn’t help on a local level. Investigate museum associations in your area. Each region of the country, most states, and many large cities have some kind of association that helps you network with colleagues and offers professional development. Also, be sure to check out organizations that appeal to specialty areas like history, education, visitor studies, exhibitry, etc. They are generally less expensive than larger associations.

2. Budget for membership fees. I have heard that it is smart to budget 5-10% of your salary for professional development which includes memberships, classes and conferences. If your museum pays for professional development, you should count your blessings. Most institutions pay only partially for such affiliations and frequently only to top level staff. Think of it as an investment in yourself and your career.

3. Get involved. You don’t pay the admission fee at Disneyland and then hang out on the bench in front of the Matterhorn all day. You have to get involved to see any benefit. Attend meetings or conferences, volunteer for committees, and introduce yourself to your colleagues. While the main reason most people join professional organizations is to have access to job listings, only those who get involved will learn about the opportunities that go unannounced.

4. Don’t over commit. For most young professionals, being over committed is more of a problem than not being involved at all. Be judicious with how you spend your time. Don’t volunteer to sit on several committees. You will do yourself and the organization a greater service by doing a great job at one or two things than doing a half-ass job on three or four (or more) things. Understand the scope of your commitment and, if necessary, get permission from your supervisor at work. Every museum benefits from heightened prominence when its staff is serving on professional organizations. Often your museum will allow you to do your service during office time.

5. Rotate. It is easy to get entrenched with one organization because you like the people and have made good contacts. But, it is important to find new challenges and to get a different perspective. After being involved with an organization for 3-5 years, look around for a new place to get involved. Ask your colleagues to recommend an organization for you to try out. By all means, stay in touch and remain a member with your old organizations, but focus your energy on a new enterprise to diversify your skills.

Working in a museum is a fun and rewarding career, but all too often we get discouraged or exhausted by distractions and obstacles inherent with each individual institution. Professional organizations provide crucial opportunities for professionals of every age to connect with peers, seek advice and advancement, and reinvigorate their minds. Now, if I could only listen to my own advice.


Nina Simon said...


I wrote a blog post awhile ago entitled, Professional Associations that Don't Suck. As a young person who didn't go to graduate school, I never got pushed by anyone to join an association, and frankly, have seen very mixed value in their offerings. To me, these organizations are a means to an end--cheaper fees for the AAM conference the most significant--and I don't derive any particular allegiance, community, or education from being a member.

But I wish I did. Which is why I wrote the post, which is mostly about the potential philosophy, focus, and activities of a great association. I'd love to hear your and other thoughts.

Nathan said...

Hey Nina,

I can hardly refute what you say. I agree that there are indeed a lot of professional organizations that seem to exist only to produce a bi-annual newsletter. They are frequently impersonal and their benefits are indiscernible. However, I feel that the true value of professional organizations lies not within the services they provide, but in the investment you put into them. I, too, joined a number of professional organizations that I found to be a waste of my money. I never read the newsletter, I couldn't afford to go to the conferences, and I felt no kinship to the other members. It wasn't until I actually became more involved with these organizations (volunteering for committees, etc) that I discovered that I was truly reaping some rewards.

I also think that it is assumed that only the large, more prestigious organizations offer any true benefit. In my opinion, that sentiment is entirely false. Before I came to Chicago I spent a little tour of duty in the small Midwestern city of Terre Haute, Indiana. Athens it was not. But, it did have a number of cultural institutions--most of who languished due to under-use and under-funding. One day, I initiated a small brown bag lunch meeting to get acquainted with other museum professionals in town. During what became monthly meetings we discussed many issues that were important to us and found that, collectively, we faced many of the same challenges. Over time, we developed from a small group of casual acquaintances into a sizeable affiliation. We collected some very paltry dues and used that money to advocate the interests of the community's cultural organizations as a whole. In what was really a short time span, we produced some great results and gained the support of the city, the mayor, and the local economic development bureau. While I didn’t learn much about museum education or anything directly related to my job, I did learn a great deal about leadership and collaboration and felt greatly rewarded by the experience.

Since that time, I have left Terre Haute and I have gotten more involved with EdCom and other different organizations. They have been a huge investment in time and resources, but I have had an opportunity to meet some very interesting individuals, network with all kinds of people, and get some good “face time” with leaders who might be beneficial to me in my career in the future. So, in essence, I think that professional organizations have more offer as a long term investment than a short term benefit.

Let’s talk more soon.


Investments for beginners said...

I agree, we must be careful and think properly before joining new organization because it can either help us if not stress us more.