Association Executive is much more than a job title 
by Marc Mestdagh, Coordinator of BSAE (Belgian Society of Association Executives)
To answer the question if association management has become a recognized profession in Belgium, we have to take into account that we are looking at two different worlds when discussing local Belgian associations and the large number of European and international associations in Brussels. Notwithstanding many essential differences, the ambition to grow more awareness for the professionals working in and for these associations is surely a common denominator. All, from their point of view, are actively seeking more professional recognition. Not last because of the necessity to cope with rapid and complex societal changes influencing the members of the associations in ways that are unprecedented.
Big in Belgium
Compared to some other European countries Belgium has a long and rich tradition of associations as being important interlocutors between companies, professionals and public authorities. The more than 700 trade organizations, professional societies and all kinds of business clubs fall into a wide range between the big umbrella organizations (e.g. Federation of Enterprises in Belgium) and highly specialized niche associations focusing on a specific part of industrial activity (e.g. the Belgian Unmanned Aircraft Systems Association) or profession (e.g. the Society of Environmental Lawyers). One disadvantage they all have in common is the ‘small numbers’ – in the sense of relatively few members per organization, and hence smaller budgets. Leaving aside the top 10, many associations have little or even no professional staff at their disposal. They depend on the voluntary efforts of the board and the members. Even when there are professionals on the payroll, they see themselves as administrative support rather than association executives. Nevertheless, there is a profound will to get things done, even with restricted means. It strengthens the association professionals in becoming versatile and creative professionals.
Towards professional recognition
It goes without saying that the biggest challenge therefore is to help these professionals to be acknowledged for their efforts. In this respect the Belgian Society of Association Executives is trying to be of help. Professionals are brought together to share their experiences, but also to attend courses, masterclasses and inspiring events. What makes this unique is that it goes further than providing management skills to them, it creates a collective sense of belonging to a profession.
“Professional is not a title you claim for yourself, it’s an adjective you hope other people will apply to you. You have to earn it.” (Julie MacDonald O’Leary)
It is no longer just about the job title and the tasks ahead, it is about how kindred professionals help to develop a ‘Body of knowledge and skills’ for themselves and for future professionals. This will sound familiar for professionals working for the European and international associations in Brussels. It is key not to have to work in isolation, but to be part of a thriving community of professionals. Whereas association executives of European and international associations usually have a soothing moment of glory during the annual conference, here again ‘small numbers’ play against Belgian associations which are missing out on these events to create a higher level of appreciation for the work of their professionals. Ironically, this does not withhold Belgian political initiatives to try to get more and bigger conferences to Brussels and Belgium. In contrast to other countries where the MICE-industry is closely connected to the association world, again for local Belgian associations this is a completely other game. Compared to other countries where the MICE service providers are a great ‘sponsor’ of the development of association management, this is not the case in Belgium.
To conclude, there is still a long way to go for association professionals in Belgium to become recognized as indispensable pivots of their organizations, but it seems this does not stop them carrying out their job in a professional, proud and efficient manner.
“The only thing that makes people and organizations great is their willingness to be not great along the way. The desire to fail on the way to reaching a bigger goal is the untold secret of success.“ (Seth Godin)