Benita Lipps, head of association and event management at Dentons Global Advisors Interel, explains why she finds scientists more interesting than rock bands and theatre luvvies, and why associations are rethinking their member value propositions.
Benita, what do you do and how did you get there?
I’m the head of the association management practice of Dentons Global Advisors. So that means I’m managing a team of 15 people and we’re providing secretariats to more than 20 international
associations. Some days I’m the head of operations of an association and another day I’m providing strategic advice to an entirely different one.
But I started my career working with bands and touring with theatre groups. For a while, it was really wonderful and pretty cool but then it got a bit boring. I realised I wanted to work with people who make a real difference, like scientists. I wanted to help them shine, help them change the world.
What does a typical day look like for you?
It involves a lot of talking to board members and talking to members, figuring out what other associations are doing in the space and then how can we create an interesting programme for the upcoming years. Then it’s a question of finding out whether there are enough resources and knowledge to make that happen.
I’m working with an association to help them create their strategic roadmap for the next six years. I think through Covid-19, and the disruptions that brought, a lot of associations need to figure out again where they are and what their role is and what their members want and how they can still add value. A lot of associations lack the time and the tools to do a complete strategic exercise that also involves their members in a way that it brings
them closer together.
What should associations be focusing on to ensure longevity and success?
For a long time, especially in Brussels, associations used to be clubs. You joined and then you were part of that and that was okay. But about 10 years ago, we started talking about the fact that this is not really the way things go anymore, and with a
pandemic, this has been accelerated.
Now, people need a reason to join, and they need to understand why your association and their membership to it, is valuable. This is what we call a member value proposition, and it has become incredibly important. Prospective members are asking: “So why should I join this association?” And the second question is, “What can this association do that nobody else can do?” There are so many more alliances and networks and working groups around, people have a limited amount of time, so they want to know how your association is making a difference.
What’s the most rewarding aspect of your job?
To be this facilitator that can help these amazing leaders who are dedicating their spare time to this tedious thing of board meetings and administrating an association to create a vision,
one that they can do and with that, they can change the world a little bit in their field. I mean, that’s an amazing privilege and the insight that you get and the people you’re exposed to – it’s my little way of helping to change the world without having to become a lead surgeon, or anything like that.
"For a long time, especially in Brussels, associations used to be clubs."
What do you find most difficult about your job?
The most frustrating thing is that we work with all these amazing organisations and amazing volunteers, I would love to give 100 per cent of my time to each one of them, but I simply can’t. I have
a team to manage and our practice to manage.
What do you wish you had known when you started the role?
I wish I’d known that I was working in a sector called ‘associations’. You understand that you work in medicine, or you work for some other industry, but it’s a completely different field once you flip into associations and I wish I would have understood that as a business model and the way it operates is hugely different because there is not one person that makes the ultimate decision. It’s the members. The organisation doesn’t belong to shareholders. It doesn’t belong to one person and
that just changes the way that you can work or what you have to do.
I finally understood the association model when I was leading the congress team of the European Science Foundation. I was invited to trade fairs and met other congress managers. As I talked to them, I realised we had so much in common even though we worked in different sectors, and I finally realised it’s because we are all associations. It was a Matrix moment.
What can you be found doing when you take your association hat off?
Five years ago, the answer would be taking photos and doing live band photography, it’s still something I’m deeply passionate about. I really like to observe people in that way. But I have an almost seven-year-old daughter, so at the moment I’m mostly running through the park playing games or pretending to be Elsa from Frozen – and I love it. In my professional life I have to be pretend that I’m incredibly important and develop six-year strategy plans for associations, but then I come home and roll around the floor pretending that I’m an ice princess.