Deciding to Leave All Business Associations: A Toxic Journey

I always used to think the more people wanted your time and opinions, the smarter or more successful that meant you were.

I was so naive.

About a year ago, just after the first wave of COVID hit, I decided to pull out of all the associations in which I participated, including paid memberships. At the time, I told myself it was temporary and once things were less uncertain, I would become a member again.

However, as the business has leveled out I haven’t gone back and I won’t be.

As a member of six associations, I was overwhelmed with the demand on my time and wallet. I was on the board of one, a committee member of two, and a mentor at several of them on and off over the years. I decided to take stock of how much of my business’ money and time was going towards these entities. Examining this commitment every year, it was clear: IT WAS A LOT. But maybe it was worth it? What were the entities providing to me? What was I giving? Let’s explore that.

WHAT I GAVE

In total, I spent approximately $5000 per year on associations. This included membership dues, trade show passes, galas, golf tournaments, etc. I was devoting a minimum of three weeks worth of business hours per year. These estimates are on the low end. In addition, these entities were receiving my skills, experience, network, and intellectual property for FREE. And if I added that up in terms of what I would charge for a consulting hour, honestly, I don’t even want to think about it (it’s in the thousands of dollars, though!).

WHAT I RECEIVED

To be fair, I have met some absolutely stellar people who I now rely on as colleagues. These connections are priceless. However, it is possible that these people could have ended up in my network through other avenues. Like at my co-working space, virtual business connectors, and social media.

Did I get any direct business through associations? I have never made a deal or booked a meeting at an event. I spend the majority of my time following up with the connections I made, via email and phone conversations. Granted, I gained general education and mentorship. But again, I think these things could have been developed or obtained via other means. Mentors can come from any kind of networking if the connection is good, and at this point, you can find education on pretty much any topic on YouTube or other online options for free or at a reasonable cost.

Associations claim to provide additional value in the form of government lobbying. While that is helpful for any industry, I do think it can cause tunnel vision. If the association’s main goal is only to increase sales and not the betterment of the industry, then lobbying could be doing more harm than good. If a government policy increases sales for a particular industry, it does not inherently improve that industry. Just because there is more product going out the door does not mean that employees are being treated well, that those businesses are running efficiently or that the product itself is top-notch. And in my opinion, those are all things that are indicators of great or terrible industry culture.

Finally, these associations provided an opportunity for fun and friendships. As frustrating as I find associations, I have made wonderful memories and lifelong friends at events and tradeshows.

WHAT I ENDURED

On top of all this, the emotional toll of the constant politics started to become overwhelming. It culminated with the opportunity to run for a position on an association board. I lost to a man who had been on and off the board for over 15 years. While I appreciate the democratic process and the idea of “paying one’s dues’’, having a board with members that are the same for decades does not encourage change and innovation. It roadblocks diversity and bolsters nepotism. There are currently only five women on the board of approximately 30. And visible minorities? One that I am aware of.

Innovation was not their priority. Every meeting was a struggle to get them to see other perspectives and get out of their echo chamber. For example, I audited the “Marketing Committee’’ semi-annual meeting because they discussed the viability of a “Women in” the industry program. The committee was discussing how it was not a good idea to have a separate program for women as it may widen the gap between men and women in the industry. I physically tensed up and felt the women next to me do the same. One of the older men at the table said it looked like the “ladies on the side” had some input. So I stood up and advised the committee that women were being driven out of the industry due to the toxic masculine culture. I was met with stares and shaking heads. I advised them that there was a toxic culture of women being harassed daily in certain places where our industry members interacted, something that I had experienced firsthand. Then one of the older WOMEN on the committee stood up and told me that I was stronger than that and I should be able to handle this behaviour due to my time in the industry. The other committee members seemed to agree with her. This committee was shrugging off daily harassment as something strong women needed to survive to deserve to be there. I was stunned. I walked out of that meeting feeling awful. Later that evening, the same woman who spoke up during the committee meeting ambushed me and told me that I should “put my big girl panties on and just power through the bullshit”. I was disgusted.

Only after speaking with a close friend did the toxic nature of that meeting reveal itself. I was being gaslit by my colleagues and I had had enough. My friend said I was brave to share the things I had experienced. I was honestly a little confused by her support. Only now that I’ve removed myself from that environment have I recognized that at that moment I was sharing trauma that I had experienced for years at the hands of members of this industry. I should have left then; I chose to stay for many reasons — mostly because I hoped that if I stayed I could help change the way things were. But after two more years, I decided to leave that particular industry association, they were not ready for someone like me who would not just rock the boat but fill the boat with water and switch to a jetski.

WHAT I WAS LEFT WITH

After leaving the above association, I was still a part of associations that were not industry-specific. I had positive experiences with these associations but the imbalance between the use of my time and money versus the value each of them provided remained an issue. I decided to dive in and attempt to change the organizations from within.

HOW I MOVED FORWARD

Then COVID happened and everything shifted. Everyone had to adjust. I recognized early on that I needed to cut all costs that were not necessary to keep my business afloat. I dropped my office space immediately, dialed back any contractors, and dropped any association memberships. I always planned to go back.

After the first wave subsided, I got an office at a coworking place and I hired a contractor at the end of 2020. However, I didn’t revisit the associations. I finally recognized that they were not offering anything I could not do or find elsewhere in more healthy and valuable environments. The longer I was away from the association sphere, the more I recognized them as archaic boys’ clubs that were riddled with inner politics and toxic cultures. I am a better businessperson for this decision.

Being based in Toronto has been a blessing and a curse. While a lot of places have been in and out of lockdowns, we have been in some state of lockdown for the majority of 14 months. The downside is weighty. I have barely been to my coworking space, and when I do, there are no events or interactions with others. Conversely, I have had to become more creative with getting new business and contacts. I also have had to dive into my network and figure out the best partnerships. I now foster those relationships and look forward to contacting those who I haven’t heard from in a while. When Toronto is safe again, I plan to host a few intimate gatherings with those I think will get along and can provide value to each other. Until then, you’ll find me on zoom happy hours and small virtual conferences being my usual friendly, talk your ear off kind of woman.

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An international shipping consultant with over 15 years experience with a passion for female-led, startup and innovative companies.

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Jennifer Morris

Jennifer Morris

An international shipping consultant with over 15 years experience with a passion for female-led, startup and innovative companies.

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