How management techniques differ between Europe and the United States
By Peter Rush and Alfons Westgeest
With a growing number of members criss-crossing the globe and a mission to serve as an international resource for commercial information management providers, PRISM (Professional Records & Information Services Management) recognized the importance of opening an office in Europe.
To guarantee a successful expansion, PRISM needed a firm versed in the ways of the European market – one able to represent their interests before European Union (EU) agencies and legislative bodies, particularly in terms of information management regulations and codes and standards issues. Following significant research, the Raleigh, N.C.-based association settled on Belgium and hired Kellen Europe to manage its Brussels office. Now, a few years later, the opening of that office has been lucrative for the association, helping to increase both membership as well as PRISM International’s reputation as a global resource.
An international Association Management Company (AMC) with offices and representation in the United States, Europe, China, the Middle East, India and Southeast Asia, Kellen Company has helped many associations “go global” in recent years. This can generate a range of benefits including increased membership and name recognition, more networking and business opportunities, additional services and a better understanding of cultural diversity and international legislation. It can also differentiate an organization from competitors or enhance alliance building.
However, full-scale global development for an association is not always easy to achieve, even when it has access to an extensive network of international contacts and alliances, as well as professionals fluent in multiple languages. In addition to the expense attached to expansion, business tactics and culture can differ dramatically on either side of the pond. Here are five major distinctions between the way European and U.S. associations operate.
Industry representation anomalies
According to Thomson Gale, the U.S. is home to more than 123,000 national, regional and local trade associations and professional societies – a number that does not encompass philanthropic or charitable organizations. At the same time, an estimated nine out of 10 adult Americans belong to at least one association. Those figures are much smaller in the European Union, where just over 12,000 EU-level associations are found, although there are a larger number of national associations. Within the U.S., associations range in size and scope but may be broken down to represent even the narrowest of niches. In Europe, however, associations tend to operate on a smaller scale – and with a broader business sector focus. Why? For starters, many European-based firms are only active in one or two EU member states, meaning they often don’t see the need to directly join a European association. Instead, smaller companies tend to join a national association specific to their industry. As a consequence, the European association landscape is less concentrated than in the U.S. and leads to layers of national and European-level associations.
In some cases, different levels of membership have been created and “hybrid” organizations formed, which are composed of national associations and direct corporate membership. The European Manufacturers of Expanded Polystyrene (EUMEPS) is one such example, encompassing more than 20 different national associations related to construction and packaging. In addition to the federative structure, the association also has direct corporate membership.
Regulatory and legislative variations
When the U.S. Food and Drug Administration proposed a ban years ago on saccharin – which was the only sugar substitute approved at that time by the FDA – Kellen Company took action on behalf of its association client, the Calorie Control Council, and created an in-depth program that included scientific evidence, public relations and regulatory and legislative components to demonstrate the sweetener’s safety. From full-page advertisements in national newspapers to a grassroots letter-writing campaign, the resulting national campaign educated the public and legislators. This included the creation of a special “saccharin train” that transported individuals with diabetes to Washington, D.C. so they could urge Congress to keep the FDA from banning something that improved their quality of life. The result was a Congressional moratorium that saved saccharin and the government has since removed its warning label from food products, based on extensive scientific research among humans.
U.S. associations often work with Congress, regulatory agencies and health and scientific organizations to represent member interests.
In Brussels, Kellen Europe works closely with the various EU institutions involved in legislation and policy-setting, as well as the national governments which transpose and implement the EU legislation. In the EU, there is less distinction between legislative and regulatory affairs compared with the U.S. Also, lobbying techniques employed by European association professionals often differ from those of their American counterparts. Although 80 percent of national legislation is decided on the EU level, the EU member states still have the ability to add their own “national flavor.” The national link is very important in the early decision-making process of any lobbying strategy. At the same time, while the American political landscape tends to be more polarized and adversarial, Brussels politics draw on a wider array of parties and specific national issues often deeply rooted in a country’s governance culture.
European legislation always involves three different entities: the European Commission, which writes the proposal; the Council, which represents the different national governments and finally, the European Parliament. Associations play an important role in the representation of an industry sector. The decision-makers, for instance, prefer to meet with one association rather than with the individual members. In that respect, a powerful tool in any lobbying strategy is to form an alliance with other associations – a type of coalition-building program. While legislative lobbying has been around the U.S. longer, association professionals say it has taken on a highly increased importance in the European Union political realm.
Meetings management disparities
When Kellen Europe hosts meetings for members of the European Portable Battery Association (EPBA), they often take place within the walls of its Brussels office – rather than at an off-site hotel or meeting facility. And while a nice dinner may be organized before or after the meeting, the event is definitely one of the “fly-in and fly-out” variety.
While not all European-level associations operate this way, meeting planning across the Atlantic as a whole tends to involve less fanfare than the U.S. This is due to several reasons, the most important being the smaller size and budget constraints of the typical European association, especially when compared to some of the large national associations elsewhere in the EU. An EU organization with 14 members, for example, may not have the financial wherewithal to organize an event featuring renowned speakers, upscale dinners and golf matches. Instead of social opportunities, European meetings focus on business affairs, while destinations are chosen based on climate and accessibility. Cities such as Vienna, Barcelona, Paris, Berlin, Budapest, Prague, Copenhagen and Lisbon frequently top the meeting destination list.
In Europe, very large tradeshows tend to be owned by a non-association organizer of a venue or exhibition center.
In the U.S., however, meetings, exhibitions and tradeshows are often the largest non-dues revenue generator for an association. A successful meeting can actually help make or break a membership base. So if an association’s annual conference lacks the appropriate amount of networking opportunities or educational content, or if the accommodations or menu is second-rate, it could negatively impact member renewal.
According to a recent Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA) report, nearly two-thirds of the U.S. meeting planners surveyed said total room pickup for their largest meeting in 2007 was more than 1,000, while about 37 percent said attendance exceeded 2,500 people. Many also claimed access to an on-site spa facility or golf course was key to hosting a successful convention.
In addition to language barriers and cultural and time zone differences, the size of the meetings is a key-distinction between U.S. and European meeting planning, which then impacts the negotiation abilities and logistics requirements.
Board makeup differences
The typical European association board consists of four to eight members. Working groups physically meet only a few times each year, instead conducting the bulk of their work through e-mail. In general, the board of a European association is not involved in the daily operations of the association – instead focusing their attention on deciding the overall direction of the association. The content work is then delegated to the working groups with the support of the secretariat – the EU version of America’s executive director.
Compare that with the U.S., where a larger board size averages about 17 members. The typical American executive committee includes around five to seven members. The board of directors serves as the governing body and policy-makers of the association, while employees are responsible for executing day-to-day management and operations. Although the board may then delegate some authority to various committees, they are still legally responsible for any action taken by those persons. This means the board tends to meet on a regular basis in order to act by consensus.
Today, many U.S. associations continue to push for smaller board sizes to cut down on the high level of bureaucracy.
Association mission contrasts
Kellen Company clients – regardless of their location – are all committed to serving member needs. But the missions of the individual associations often differ in the Europe and the U.S. based on divergent membership values and philosophies.
American associations, for example, rely on networking and education. While an appropriate dues structure and legislative affairs play a key role, benefits and services are often based on how much members can learn and what social opportunities are offered.
In Europe, however, networking plays a significantly smaller role in membership renewal. Instead, association missions have a strictly business-oriented focus. Indeed, regulatory affairs content is considered an important added-value for association membership.
Despite these differences, it’s clear that globalization is impacting the way associations across the world conduct business. In an increasingly wired world, an international perspective is becoming the norm – and once drastically different national philosophies are starting to soften. Because of the depth of staff experience and knowledge, an international AMC can highlight these differences and serve as a window into the U.S., Europe, Asia and the rest of the world.
Peter Rush is chairman and CEO of Kellen Company, an AMC Institute and ASAE-accredited international Association Management Company with offices and representation in the United States, Europe, China, The Middle East, India and Southeast Asia. Rush is located in New York, NY. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Alfons Westgeest is group vice president of Kellen Company and managing partner of Kellen Europe, Brussels, Belgium. Email: email@example.com.
Mr. Rush and Mr. Westgeest authored this article for republishing in an August 2008 issue of Associations Now.