How did I get here? Navigating a Career in the Association World

How did I get here? Navigating a Career in the Association World

By Caryn Odenbach

Growing up, I never said, “One day I’d like to work in association management.” What I did know is that I wanted to work for a mission that I could support, along with people whose passion was contagious, and somehow utilize my English degree. During my last year of college, right before the recession of 2008, I, like many of my classmates, was jumping at opportunities for internships. Yes, I really wanted the internship at WGN or Timeout Chicago--- those made the most sense as an English major concentrating in Cultural and Media Studies--- but somehow my path went a different way when I interviewed for a communications intern position at the Builders Association.

During that interview, a former journalist-turned-association-professional named Andy told me, “Associations are the best place to learn who you are and what you want to do as a professional.” Honestly, he had me sold with just two words: “paid internship.”

That first job introduced me to InDesign, content management systems, event planning, program development, and volunteer management. When it came time to apply for jobs after graduation, there wasn’t anything available. Entry level jobs were not available for young college graduates eager to do just about anything. I had to get creative. I went back to school, received a certificate in early childhood education, and was teaching two- and four-year-olds. When that job could no longer pay the bills, I decided to look at association jobs again, remembering what Andy told me during my interview for the internship.

I interviewed for a membership coordinator position with the . I didn’t get the job because of my “lack of experience.” The executive director told me she’d keep my resume on file because she wanted to find a place for me as she built her staff. A few months later, after a good cry in the car, I received a phone call; ASTRA had just approved a position for a membership assistant and they wanted me back to interview. I got the job and spent 4 years with ASTRA navigating the association world. I moved from membership assistant to manager in just four years. I stuffed envelopes, managed data, created digital marketing campaigns with 20+ mommy bloggers, sold some exhibits, and realized my passion for working with volunteers.

After four years, I wanted something different. I wanted a new challenge to see what other work I was capable of. I dabbled in for-profit marketing positions, went back to associations by working for the University of Illinois Alumni Association, but something was missing. I didn’t have the connection with people I was looking for. I missed forming relationships. I missed helping people realize their life’s work. Then it hit me… I had applied for a position with Association Management Center 18 months prior and decided not to accept the position. At a moment I was feeling like I needed something from the universe, I decided to contact 911 since they kept my resume on file and told me to give them a call if anything changed. They had an open position that matched my skillset and said I could be the personality fit the team was looking for.

Today I’m the Director of Membership and Marketing for multiple 911 healthcare clients.
Some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way:

Find a champion: Through each position I have had, I’ve been lucky enough to have a cheerleader: someone who not only mentored me, but helped me realize my true potential. Find someone who does this for you.

Seek opportunities: Association management really is the perfect place to find what you love doing and what you don’t like so much. If you’re willing to adapt, associations can be a great place to find new professional opportunities. Oftentimes your team members need to wear different hats when new initiatives are formed. It’s the perfect way to dip your toe in the water to see what sparks your interest.

Working with volunteers helps you just as much as it helps them: I’ve been fortunate to work with amazing volunteers throughout my association career. The people behind a mission not only encourage me to work harder but allow me to focus on the bigger picture. The connections you make and the relationships you nourish will help you become a better professional.
Remember to keep an open mind, set goals, and stay on track. You never know what opportunities will present themselves if you stay open to them.

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