Professional associations serve a variety of roles for their members and society at large. These include developing standards and training, lobbying the government for changes in legislation and informing the public about important information regarding an industry. Starting an association can be a lot of work, and it requires a lot of resources. It's often best to start small, at a local level with a few of your peers. Then, once you develop a consensus on what is most needed in your profession, you can begin formalizing your association.
Start Small and Informally
Many associations, including professional associations that reach a national level, get their start as a small group of peers who get together to discuss issues related to their profession or community. Invite a few people in your profession to discuss what you think is needed. Most likely, you will need their assistance, both in terms of time and money, to get the association up and running.
Decide on Your Mandate
Before forming your association, you will need to answer several questions about it. These include:
- What issues will your association address?
- What benefits will it offer?
- What will differentiate this association from others?
- What will the name of your association be?
- Will its scope be local, regional or national?
- Who will be invited to join as members?
- Who will serve on the board?
Incorporation and Taxes
Most professional associations incorporate, which is something you should consult a lawyer about before filing your letters of incorporation with your state's secretary of state. Most states, for example, require that incorporated nonprofits have annual meetings, take minutes and adhere to other regulations, which your lawyer can advise you about.
If your association is going to engage in activities that promote the business interests of its members and improve its conditions – something most professional organizations do – then you can probably file for 501(c)(6) tax-exempt status with the IRS. Again, this is something you should discuss with a lawyer.
Financing and Budgets
Most professional organizations require an operating budget and a means of income to pay for it. Decide how much the membership dues will be. This can be a flat fee for everyone, or tiered based on income, or the size of one's business or practice. You can also have one fee for individual members and another fee for companies. Additional income can come from corporate sponsorships, advertising on your association website and publications, or from board-member contributions. Once you know what your income will be, you can set an annual budget and determine what your association can afford to do, like having full-time staff and an office, lobbying the government on your membership's behalf, or producing media campaigns to promote your profession.
Without members, there is no point in running an association. So you'll need to decide who to contact, how you will get their contact information and what incentives you can offer them. Contacting companies in your field may be a good place to start. You could also buy names and contact information from lead brokers. Online advertisements using Google Ads, LinkedIn or Facebook may also be a good way to find potential members, since you can target your ads to specific interests. If people in your profession are gathering for a conference, you may want to invest in sponsoring the conference or purchasing a booth.