How to Manage When You’re an Education Department of One

Survey after survey says people join associations because they want to learn and connect with others in their profession. Professional development is a key driver of membership, yet, many associations don’t have the budget to hire more than one person for their education team. How do you manage this huge responsibility to members when you’re an education department of one?

We went to the association community—more specifically, ASAE’s online community Collaborate—to learn from those who have experience doing it all. If “me, myself, and I” are the education department at your association, we hope you’ll find a useful tip, tool, or habit in their words of wisdom. 

Success tips for the education department of one

We heard some great ideas about managing it all as an education department of one, starting with this great idea…

Education braintrust. Libby Bingham, CAE, of the American Inns of Court said, “I have a group of ex-co-workers who are all in the association education business and we try to get together every six to eight weeks to share what's working, ask for advice, teach something, etc. It's a sort of braintrust that has no pressure attached to it. I call it my Education Posse.” Everyone needs a posse like that! 

Anticipate needs. “Stay on top of things. Anticipate what is needed by members and begin development early,” said Cynthia Simpson of the Association for Women in Science. Her next tip will help you stay on top of things. 

Stay informed. “Keep abreast of changes that are happening in the world of education,” said Cynthia. 

Data analysis. “Data collection and analysis to inform future decisions is another critical skill,” said Cynthia. Don’t make the mistake of solely relying on assumptions, conventional wisdom, or insider (committee) opinions.

Delegate. “Use your resources, which for an association is volunteer member help. The smaller and younger the association, the more it needs its members to help. Now, that takes staff to manage the volunteers, which is time consuming, so you need the skills for that. Of course, the more members you have involved, the more invested they become in the association, and the more likely they'll become lifelong members,” said Jolynne at the National Ayurvedic Medical Association. 

“I am utilizing volunteer task forces and committees to assist me in filling gaps where I might ordinarily have staff to do the work. While it takes significant time to manage all these volunteer efforts, as Jolynne mentioned, the positive effect is highly engaged members who share ‘ownership’ for the association and its work,” said Robin Callahan at the National School Foundation Association. 

David Jennings of the Community Associations Institute suggested several sources of potential help.

•    Paid experts: From eLearning developers to outside printers. 

•    Other association staff: They could write an email to participants, show up early to meet and greet, recruit new presenters, etc. 

•    Volunteers: People in your association want to help, especially leaders, chapter staff, or an education committee. Beyond in-class logistics, some volunteers have the skills and experience to help with higher-level education work.

•    Instructors: Some presenters and instructors are willing and able to do more.

•    Participants/learners: David once heard a member of the Speakers Hall of Fame say, “Never do for students what they can do for themselves.” He had a gift for involving participants in all aspects of the learning program, and, in the process, identifying future leaders.

Timelines. “I ask my volunteers to use a workshop planning sheet [timeline]. It helps keep all of us on time (or close to it), helps me manage their work, and reminds them when I haven't received what I need from them. For the conference, I keep a monthly calendar of deadlines to keep everything on track,” said a Collaborate contributor.

Lists and reports. I can’t imagine life without my master to-do list, and our contributors can’t either. “Be super organized. I make extensive lists,” said Cynthia. 

Libby said, “I have a constant running to-do list and break it out by project. I try to keep a spreadsheet also where I can easily look up the basic info on each project. I love regular reports to help me see whether or not I'm on track with something.”

education department of one

Habits and routines 

We’re always going on around here about building a learning habit so we were curious about the habits and routines of successful education and association professionals.

Start the day by hunting elephants. Jeff Hurt of Velvet Chainsaw Consulting suggests a habit that would benefit any association professional:

“Develop the habit of zooming out, then zooming in, then zooming deep and wide. Be a helicopter. Zoom out to get the big picture, 30k foot strategic view. Zoom in to translate the strategy into tactical steps. Zoom deep and wide to focus first on the two most important tasks each day that will move your organization forward. Then spend 45 minutes max on each of those tasks before doing the other simpler and one-off to-do’s from your tactical lists. 

“This approach will help you stay away from unnecessary tasks that are easy and unproductive, and take your focus away from the important items. I call those easy unproductive tasks your rabbits. Your two important tasks each day that move your company forward are your elephants. As T. Boone Pickens said, ‘When hunting for elephants, don’t get distracted by rabbits!’ If you’re not careful, your day will be taken over by urgent unnecessary tasks. As you know, rabbits multiply quickly.”

Project hours vs. email hours. “I set the first two hours of my day aside for project management and the next hour for email management. It prevents me from scheduling meetings during my most productive part of the day when my mind is fresh and most generative. I then schedule one more hour toward the end of the day for email management again. If I am not careful, I find I can be on email most of the day and get little ‘real’ work done,” said Robin.

People hours vs. quiet hours. “I leave database management, research, and any administrative task to quiet hours when I'm not needed to interact with others (via email, phone). I only have so many hours in a day to connect with people (especially with coast-to-coast time differences) so plan to use those hours for phone calls and trying to reach someone,” said Jolynne.

Learn from others. “There are many people in this field who have created proven workflows over many years. Do not reinvent the wheel,” said Dan Pietroske of Association Applications Group.

education department of one

Favorite tools, apps, and resources

Trello. “Trello boards are good. I set one up for each event,” said a Collaborate user. “I check the Trello boards daily or at least every other day and set them up to send reminder emails.”

Asana. “Each of our departments has an account in Asana with sub accounts for each project. We can tag other people who are either directly involved or even indirectly involved in a particular project to keep them informed of progress. I have listed our programs to include deliverables and due dates to keep on task. It’s a great project management tool,” said Cynthia.

Synapse. “I don't know a lot about it yet, but there is a tool for collaborative content creation called Synapse. It seems to make it really easy to get the right instructional design/education elements from your SMEs without a lot of training or heartache. I'm hoping to start using it next year,” said Libby.

Vyond. “I haven't used it yet, but every time I get an email from GoAnimate [now Vyond], I get very excited. I've sat in on some webinars but don't have the guts to pull the trigger yet,” said Libby.

OneNote. “I keep notes in OneNote on every conversation, meeting, task force, etc. From there, I can add follow up items to my task list, which shows up in Outlook. I can then assign tasks to team members,” said Robin.

Zoom. “I am a fan of Zoom conferencing. Ours is a virtual organization so the face to face is invaluable,” said Robin. 

GoToWebinar. “I've just started using GoToWebinar and it is pretty cool. It's robust and they have good training webinars (very meta),” said Libby.

Calendly. “I am also a fan of Calendly. I set aside two hours each day (noon to 2 p.m.) for meetings. Mine are set up in either 15-, 30-, or 45-minute increments. I can send someone the link for one of the three—if I want to limit the time I spend with them—or a link where they can choose the meeting length. They choose the date and time that works for them. The meeting, along with any details I want to collect on the attendee, is automatically added to my Gmail/Outlook calendar. It has saved me endless time spent trying to find a mutual date and time,” said Robin

New book. Diane Elkins of Artisan E-Learning alerted us to a book coming out in December from ATD Press, E-Learning Department of One, by Emily Wood. “It isn't association-focused,” she said, “But the author does work for a non-profit.” 

LMS. Don’t forget about the biggest tool in your education toolkit, your LMS. Take full advantage of your LMS team’s expertise. We work with all kinds of associations and are always happy to share advice on the processes and practices we see. 

What do you wish someone had told you before becoming an education department of one? 

Choose your focus wisely. David said, “Focus on what only you can do.” And, as he suggested in the Tips section, “It’s OK to outsource work.”

“Focus on higher-value tasks. For example, it is more valuable to observe and evaluate an instructor's performance than to sit out in the hallway all morning waiting for stragglers to arrive at registration,” he said.

Save your back. As the beach burro in our family, I can relate to this anonymous advice. “Remind me that as I get older, being the pack mule to haul everything to events gets harder. I do use my members at the event to help with the heavy stuff now, but someday the lifting and toting will catch up with me.” 

Downside: isolation. “I knew it would be a challenge and I'm actually finding it very exciting, but I do miss having other education staff I can turn to for brainstorming ideas or finding solutions (or just complaining). My other co-workers are great, but someone with the same education/learning mindset would be helpful,” said Libby. This explains why she gathered her Education Posse.

Upside: integration. “It's a common position... and one that I actually found better than having a large staff. Why? Because then I was able to start with big picture and integrate my learning offerings across several platforms from online and print to face-to-face,” said Jolynne. Sounds like an integrated learning strategy, something we highly recommend too.

On behalf of WBT Systems and the association learning community, thank you to all our contributors for your wise advice. 

association career
project management
Sign up to our newsletter to be the first to receive our blog and updatesSubscribe