AE/Volunteer Relationship Toolkit

The role of Chief Staff Executive requires being able to successfully work with everyone involved with the association. Working with volunteer-leaders, however, is a critical skill set that distinguishes the job of the association executive (AE) from other managerial positions.  To lead, AEs must create a culture of trust, respect and collaboration with volunteer leaders. This resource outlines the various roles and responsibilities of each player and guides the reader through best practices in managing those roles and important partnerships.

Leading the Association: Creating a Culture of Trust, Respect and Collaboration

Successfully working with volunteers is a critical skill set that distinguishes the job of the association executive (AE) from other managerial positions.   To lead their organizations, AEs must create a culture of trust, respect and collaboration with volunteer leaders, who may be full-time agents, brokers or managers in real estate businesses. 

In order to do so, AEs must understand both the nature of real estate associations and the nuances of dealing with volunteer leaders. By working collaboratively in an atmosphere of mutual respect, AEs and leaders can build long-term strategies and shorter-term tactics to move their associations in a positive direction toward shared goals. 

A Broad Overview of REALTOR® Associations

REALTOR® associations are trade organizations, representing the economic interests of members involved in providing similar goods and services. Like other trade organizations, REALTOR® associations provide education, advocacy, networking and other services for their members.

Most associations are non-profit organizations that reinvest any profit back into the services offered to members in order to continue providing value.  It is important to understand that the IRS defines a non-profit as a business that has been provided tax-exempt status because it furthers a social cause and provides a public benefit.

As a non-profit, associations act within the core aspects of their business. Therefore, managing a REALTOR® association is not the same as running a for-profit business. Some associations operate a for-profit multiple listing service (MLS) whose profits may be reinvested into the association.

Association Models

There are different models for REALTOR® associations, typically determined by the associations’ membership size, resources, volunteer involvement and priorities. The models are administrative, management, and leadership, which represent the three different models of association operations.

An administrative association is member-focused. It typically has a fairly small staff, ranging from one part-time association executive to three full-time professional staff.

In this model, the AE or chief staff executive is familiar with legal, regulatory, and business issues impacting the association and has a basic competency in office management skills, including word processing and spreadsheets, bookkeeping, and basic technology skills. The AE knows where to find information that is important to members in conducting their daily business activities.

Volunteer leaders are very involved in the administration of the association, and the authority for nearly all decision-making is vested in the officers and the board of directors. The association focuses on networking activities and opportunities for members to learn from one another.

A management association is a source of information for its members on best business practices and trends. Staff size typically ranges from three to 12, with defined positions responsible for specific programs. The staff possesses expertise in managing and communicating legal, regulatory, and business issues impacting the association and effectively manages association business. Most of the staff members are non-exempt.

The AE is responsible for all administration and management of the association, with added focus on community and real estate industry issues. The AE creates staff job descriptions, hires and manages staff, sets staff salaries within the budget, and determines staff structure.

Volunteer leadership determines the association's strategic vision and sets parameters for staff empowerment. Decision-making authority is vested in the board of directors with most operational decisions delegated to staff. Overall, management is a hands-on model with healthy volunteer involvement and some restrictions on the AE's authority.

A leadership association implements innovative and creative programs, products, and services that provide enhanced value for members beyond their day-to-day businesses.

Typically the staff includes a senior management team of department heads who report to the AE and are responsible for administration and management activities. The AE and the senior management team position the organization based on current and future real estate industry trends. Staff members possess expertise and provide leadership in political, legal, regulatory, and business issues impacting the association.

In this model, volunteer leadership determines the strategic vision, but the staff develops goals and plans to implement the vision. Decision-making authority for all operational procedures is vested in the association executive. Further, policies are in place to authorize the AE to take action quickly when an emergency arises, without having to seek approval from volunteer leaders.

Participants in Association Governance

The Board of Directors (BOD) is comprised of member-volunteers who have legal and fiduciary responsibility for the association. The Board of Directors employs the AE and can delegate authority and responsibility for various tasks to other groups, such as an executive committee or other standing committees, such as membership, education or advocacy. The board is typically led by a chair/president and other officers.

Other volunteer leaders serve on committees, work groups, task forces, etc., to research and discuss issues and bring recommendations forward to the Board of Directors for their consideration.

Governing documents, such as bylaws or policies & procedures, detail the legal authority for actions of the Board of Directors and officers and convey the expectations of the board. These documents promote continuity within the organization as officers and staff transition in and out of the association.

Relevant Resources: 

Defining the Roles

Volunteer Leaders

The primary responsibility of volunteer leaders is to identify and evaluate strategic opportunities and set the strategic direction of the association. Volunteer leaders should be focused on purpose (governance), and not process (management), which is the purview of the AE.

The strategic planning process is key to evaluating strategic opportunities and setting strategic direction of the association. The plan should address member needs and expectations so the association remains relevant to its members. The strategic plan serves as a road map for the organization and should be reassessed and prioritized often.  NAR’s Core Standards requires all associations to have a strategic plan or business plan that is approved by the association’s board of directors.  The plan must include the following, along with corresponding actionable implementation strategies:  advocacy component, consumer outreach component, diversity, equity and inclusion component, and a fair housing component. 

Volunteer leaders represent all association members and serve all constituencies. They provide definition to successful organizational performance and ensure that it happens. They strive to build competence in four areas: organizational knowledge; interpersonal skills and collaboration; delivering results; and strategic visioning. Fundamental skills and attributes for volunteer leaders include being open-minded, collaborative, and considerate team players. Most importantly, volunteer leaders should not have personal agendas and should have the skills and ability to put the needs of the association and the members over their own agenda.


The primary responsibility of the staff is to implement the decisions of the volunteer leaders efficiently and responsibly to meet the stated performance goals. Staff should be focused on process (management), and not purpose (governance).

Staff should be knowledgeable about the association and industry issues and trends and be willing to share their knowledge with volunteer leaders to help inform their decisions. Staff members focus their efforts on providing resources that members can utilize to achieve professional success. Staff should be open-minded, collaborative and considerate team players.

Working Together: The President and Association Executive Partnership

The president is typically the spokesperson for the association, chairs the BOD and membership meetings. The president provides vision and focus to move the BOD forward in line with the strategic plan. This role supports the development of future volunteer leaders. Additional duties may be defined by association bylaws.

The AE is responsible for the day-to-day management and operation of the association. They hire and manage all staff and creating and support a staff culture that is cooperative and focused on meeting the Association’s strategic goals. The provides information about emerging trends and issues to prepare the President and the leadership team to serve effectively. 

The individual serving as aligns Association resources to implement the decisions of the Board of Directors and is accountable to the Board for successful completion of its stated goals and objectives. The AE addresses risks to the association, ensures legal compliance, and manages the budget and financials. The AE provides continuity for the association in interactions with members, elected officials, community leaders, media contacts, other associations, etc.

For associations to be successful, the president and the AE should have a mutual respect for each other’s strengths, abilities, opinions, challenges, sacrifices. To govern and manage effectively, they need to recognize their unique roles and commit to work in partnership to fulfill their roles. It is important these individuals realize they have different perspectives, competencies and knowledge. To successfully collaborate, there must be open communication about issues and concerns and the commitment to successfully resolve conflicts. They hold each other accountable to ensure progress on clearly defined goals. They should each possess a genuine desire and determination for a successful and enjoyable year for the association, the president and his/her leadership team, and the staff. They maintain confidentiality.

Best Practices in Managing Conflict

Despite an AE’s best efforts to manage and maintain good relationships, conflicts may arise over setting goals, implementing strategies or other issues. However, conflict can be productive in bringing out additional information and different views, leading to better decisions and strategies. 

On an individual level, conflict can occur for a variety of reasons. For example, when someone doesn’t feel heard, when people have differing opinions, when roles lack clarity, or when leaders don’t agree on the best solution. Whatever the reason, it’s important for AEs to handle conflict in a productive manner in order to serve the association goals and objectives. 

It’s important to address conflict early rather than later. When conflict surfaces, it’s important to take a step back and recognize what is happening. Listening for understanding is the first step in resolving any conflict. You can recognize when someone is listening for understanding when you hear signs of active listening, such as “If I understand you correctly, your point is that …. Does that accurately summarize your position?” Someone involved in the conflict must be willing to take that first step to listen to the other party for mutual understanding. If you wait for the other person, it may never happen – so let it start with you.

To get to mutual understanding, it’s recommended to take the conversation offline and meet individually. Start by outlining the goal for the conversation – to arrive at mutual understanding. Ensure both parties agree with the goal of mutual understanding. Listen to each other’s position without preparing a response in your mind. To help yourself do that, you may want to jot down some points you want to remember to address when you present your view. In the meantime, listen to understand why the other party is responding with their position. Listen also to what isn’t said and ask probing questions to gain further understanding. You can accomplish this by through phrases such as, “Help me understand …” and “Can you tell me more about that…”.

Allowing the other person an “off ramp” can be helpful to maintain esteem. This can be done by using phrases such as “If I understand you correctly, you’re suggesting …., or is it possible you’re suggesting ….” When conflict surfaces, people can become entrenched in their positions and may not see an easy out to the conflict without giving in, which can be uncomfortable for some. Providing an “off ramp” – seemingly related option to their position, can provide the cover needed to resolve the conflict without the other party thinking they have lost. AEs should try to position conflict as a win-win. This helps keep the conversation professional and alleviate the stress.

In the event the conflict has surfaced due to a lack of information, it is advisable to gather any data and supporting facts, without appearing to overwhelm the other party. Anecdotal data may be relevant, but it must be fully explained – others may not see what you see.

If there is disagreement about possible solutions, brainstorm together to see what other options may be available. It could be there is an alternative that would be a better choice which neither party has considered. Be willing to arrive at a compromise and understand your battles. Is this issue really worth the anxiety and stress? What will be lost if your solution isn’t chosen? Will the other solution work as well? Consider how much you want to push for something, knowing that you will be held accountable for the outcome. Consider whether your solution will actually yield the desired results.

Finally, it is important to have self-awareness on how you respond to conflict and stress. As a professional, you may often be called upon to set aside your solution in order to maintain serving the members. Be aware of your stressors and be prepared with a strategy to manage them before the conflict escalates.

If the parties are unable to resolve the conflict on their own, NAR offers a conflict resolution program through the Strategic Association Management team. This is a premium service that identifies the preferred conflict modes of the parties, the root cause of the conflict, and how to bring resolution and move forward.

NAR also offers the AE Mentor Program, a mentor program for AEs that matches them with other more experienced or seasoned AEs. The mentoring relationship can assist by providing guidance on how to handle conflict and other matters that may arise in the course of the AEs role.

Relevant Resources

A Genuine Partnership

Successful REALTOR® associations foster collaborative, productive staff-volunteer relationships in a genuine partnership. With a clear understanding of roles and responsibilities, effective leadership education and training, careful planning, and ongoing communication, association staff and volunteer leadership teams can foster a healthy culture based on what’s best for the members.