“Are we going to have dinner now or try to get this list created before we eat?”

I ask my two association colleagues nervously. It’s getting dangerously close to 8pm and I know that I need to eat dinner soon. Depending on the time of year, it was not unheard of to stay until 11pm.

This was a familiar conversation in our small association where a handful of key employees worked well into many evenings compiling data from multiple sources. It was always the same story. We could rely on the accounting system, but only for things that were created and contained within a journal entry. We spent hours manually creating attendee lists to import into various sources. We had to validate registration member rates against current memberships to ensure members were receiving the appropriate discount or group rate. And the examples go on and on.

Three employees, countless hours. We spent so much time together that we came up with parody lyrics to songs and had catch-phrases when we would finally finish what we needed for the day. On the flip-side, we also often fantasized about winning the lottery. Though we loved our association, we wanted to quit at times. The manual compiling of data, lists, and reports was not professionally challenging, and we longed for better work-life balance.

Everyone works hard in small associations, but there is a limit to how many dinners at work you’re willing to have. I spent most of my 20’s working well into the evenings at my association. I did this because I believed in the mission and loved our members. However, over time, I felt like I needed to consider my family more and move my career forward. My small association, predictably, lost me to a bigger paycheck and more nights at the dinner table. However, I wished they could have utilized me to help grow their revenue and monetize data for their industry. I would have loved to grow my career with the wonderful staff and membership I had invested so much of myself into. They just didn’t have the tools in place yet to give me that chance.

If it’s not enough to consider the human resource impact, consider this instead: while I was working full-time, I obtained my business degree and took many very useful courses in marketing, economics, statistics, and finance.

How could my knowledge and skills have been put to better use within my association? How many more products and services could I have helped deliver to the industry we served? I often wondered what I would have accomplished if I was able to focus more on our members and less on back-office number crunching.

I’ve kept in touch, and I know that the organization has done some amazing things since implementing new tools like Acumen and creating efficiencies. The entire staff and leadership worked very hard to create agility so that the “after hours three” no longer exists in those walls.

Though I have moved on in my career, that association has a special place in my heart. If any place deserved that amount of commitment from me in my youth, it was them. However, not everyone has the benefit of working with your best friends, like I did. Not every working dinner has song parodies and “what if I won the lottery” scenarios (we actually bought Powerball tickets together). And even when you work in an amazing association with amazing people, there is a limit to how much back-office inefficiencies you can handle.

One piece of advice I would give association leadership would be to invest in the resources your staff needs to become more efficient at learning and understanding your membership’s needs.

We all come to this industry to change the world, not necessarily for a paycheck. If we’re all sitting in the back office rewriting our “SELECT FROM” queries, that means we aren’t focusing on the needs of the membership or being professionally challenged to move the association’s mission forward.