Getting the Most from Professional Associations

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By Donna Cardillo, RN, MA, CSP, FAAN

The benefits of joining professional associations are always being touted — and for good reason. Belonging is the best way to stay current on what’s happening. You gain a competitive edge by being an active, informed member of your profession. You stay connected to your peers in a local and national forum. Joining a professional association offers opportunities for education, personal and professional development, as well as visibility, support, and access to industry leaders.

Too often I hear nurses ask, “Why should I belong to my professional association? What has it ever done for me?” That’s an interesting perspective, considering that the association doesn’t exist simply to serve us. Rather it’s a vehicle for us to work through to achieve common goals.

So how can you get the most out of membership? Let me count the ways —

First you have to join. Every nurse should belong to a specialty association as well as the American Nurses Association national and state chapter. There’s strength in numbers. Think you can’t afford the dues? Most associations have payment plans available and special rates for new grads, disabled, retired and unemployed nurses. Don’t like the politics of the organization? Then join and let your voice be heard and your vote be counted. Think the group doesn’t represent you? How can it if you don’t belong and let your issues be known?

Find a committee that interests you. It might be education, finance, political action, or the newsletter. This is an opportunity for you to hone skills related to your committee, as well as leadership, communication, and negotiating skills. I recently spoke with a new graduate who joined the political action committee of her state nurses association. She told me that she has a whole group of experienced colleagues at committee meetings whom she can use as a sounding board and personal advisory panel. It’s a benefit she hadn’t considered when she became active.

Attend meetings. It’s a great way to stay in touch with your colleagues and get out and let off some steam. Meetings are a good place to exchange ideas, find out what others are doing, and learn something new. You’ll also get the sense of not being alone out there. Don’t have time to go to meetings? Force yourself — you’ll feel energized and rejuvenated. We need one another for support and camaraderie. And it’s important to network with others outside of your place of employment to gain a broader perspective.

Run for elected office. Even if you don’t get the position you want, running gives you visibility and credibility and pushes you out of your comfort zone. If you do get elected, it’ll look great on your resume, and it’ll impress your boss. It’s a good publicity opportunity for you. Be sure you get the news in your employee and other association newsletters, and your local newspaper, if appropriate. Good publicity for one nurse is good publicity for all nurses.

Volunteer for special projects and programs. Many associations have mentoring programs, media projects, continuing education events, and annual conventions. This is a way to make a real difference and have opportunities that would otherwise not present themselves to you. I’ve been a volunteer “media ace” for my state chapter of ANA. That means I made myself available to work on media-related projects. Once I was asked to speak at a press conference about an important healthcare bill. I was given a prepared statement to read. Was I nervous? Sure, but I felt I was doing something important, and I got to meet a few state and local politicians. It was an opportunity I might not have had otherwise.

Use it as a training ground. Try out your writing skills by submitting articles to your local chapter and state newsletter. Hone your speaking skills by agreeing to present at a meeting or convention. Years ago, as education chair for a professional association, I learned how to run seminars and coordinate a convention exhibit. Little did I know that I would someday use those skills in my own business.

Get out to networking events. Aside from regular meetings, attend conventions, awards dinners, and special celebrations. It’s another way to stay visible, rub elbows with some of the leaders in your profession, and celebrate colleagues’ achievements. We have enough negative influences in our life and work. Take time for the celebratory events to remind you why you became a nurse in the first place.

Take advantage of continuing education programs. Most associations offer continuing education (CE) programs for a nominal fee. You can get CE contact hours and make new connections with your nurse colleagues. That’s hard to beat.

With any association membership, you’ll get out of it what you put into it. If you join and don’t attend meetings, don’t get involved, and sit around waiting for them to “do something” for you, you’ll likely miss the real benefits. Don’t join out of a sense of loyalty or obligation to the association, but rather because of what’s in it for you. Join and get involved to be the best nurse you can be and get the most out this glorious profession.

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