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The Value of Association

Trade magazine chief editors have much in common with association directors. In each case, the business is one of understanding and representing a large group of individuals who initially have nothing in common but the same job titles or the fact that they work in the same industry. Their interests are often parochial and even obscure to outsiders, especially when you find yourself trying to explain those interests to others in your own circle of friends and family.

You are expected to speak knowledgeably and authoritatively about the community you represent, even though you are not really one of them. Your staff is generally small, especially in regards to the job that has to be done.

Over time, your career and personal life become closely, almost inextricably, intertwined with the politics, conferences, trends and business prospects of the group as a whole.

The reward for all of this is monetary in that it provides your employment. But the real reward, as a retired executive editor said to me when I was just starting my own career as a business editor, “creeps up on you” over time.

“Some day you will be at a trade show, just like you have been many times before,” he said. “One person after another will come up to you like an old friend. You will know about many of their careers and families and situations, and they may know a little bit about yours.

“You will realize suddenly that you no longer simply cover the industry as a journalist, but have become a part of it yourself. That is when you will know you have grown into your role.”

That comes at a cost, of course. As a journalist, it often makes it difficult to provide unbiased coverage; as an executive director, you must often serve as arbiter for petty, or large, disputes, and need to be seen as an “honest broker” among your constituents.

There is always a need to maintain a certain distance from your audience for this reason. You must be able on a regular basis to step outside of their interests to take a larger view and form your own judgments — in the end, that is what you are there for. This is often difficult and not always appreciated by those whose interests you have at heart.

What brings these ruminations to the fore is the article elsewhere in this issue that traces the development of NACUFS — the National Association of College and University Foodservices — over the 50 years since its founding.

In writing it, and thinking at length about the culture, achievements and sense of community NACUFS has cultivated, I was inevitably reminded of the scores of other associations I have worked with over my own career.

Some of these will be just as obscure to the readers of Food Management as NACUFS would be to them: they include an association of picture framers, of co-generators, of industrial boiler owners, of refrigeration engineers, of foodservice distributors, and so on. Each had its peculiarities, culture, traditions and values.

You come to appreciate the depth of culture that a particular association has and the extent of the value that it gives back to its membership. It is a value that often goes beyond their business interests. In fact, I would observe that the strongest and most meaningful associations go far beyond the business side of things in terms of the benefits they offer.

NACUFS is one of these: it has a membership that has sought to make the association not only a means of professional education, but of personal development and personal leadership in the true sense of these words. For many members, it is a virtual family. Like every family, its members have their differences, but they are fiercely loyal and highly protective of each other and the association as a whole.

Further, NACUFS has managed to maintain a culture of volunteerism in spite of the many impediments and constraints that today's work environment places in the way of volunteerism. And it has succeeded — largely because, like the very best associations, its members find that the value they get in return is in direct proportion to the contributions they make on the association's behalf.

We at Food Management congratulate NACUFS on its half century of service to the industry. We know it has many more contributions to make in its next 50 years and wish the association and its members well on the journey.

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