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Many small businesses find value in association membership, but when money is tight it’s important to make sure entrepreneurs get their best return on the investment.

Now more than ever small business owners should consider joining an association in terms of value, says Susan Robertson, president of the American Society of Association Executives and the Center for Association Leadership, says.

“Most people who join associations often don’t really participate, but just send a check ... They should really look at what can they put into becoming involved with an association that will pay higher dividends,” she says. “What can an organization do for them that they can’t do for themselves?”

It’s also important to decide whether you need to belong to more than one association: An entrepreneur might want to join a group geared toward small businesses as well as a group catering to a specific industry.

For example: A doctor running a small shop may join the National Association for the Self-Employed, the American Medical Association and also a group focusing on emergency medical technicians. This splintering also may be why there are more than 50,000 groups listed in the ASAE database.

One Joiner's Success Story

Keith Ashmus, a partner at law firm Frantz Ward in Cleveland is also chairman of the Washington-based advocacy group the National Small Business Association.

His firm began in 2000 with 13 lawyers and now has 65 on the team, a growth rate that he partly attributes to active involvement with local and national groups. “I’m an advocate of getting involved in associations to give back and to get access to people who have different viewpoints that aren’t tied to your business,” he says.

Here are some association perks that benefit small businesses:

1. Annual Meeting – Many associations rotate locations of their annual meetings and offer training, expert speakers as well as entertainment. Some small business owners tie these events in with their vacation. “A lot of small business owners wind up not being able to see beyond the immediate fire that they must put out today,” says Ashmus. “It’s important to get out and see what others in the industry are doing.”

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2. Benefits – Ashmus was able to initially grow his firm through a Cleveland business group, Council of Small Enterprises that’s affiliated with the local chamber of commerce. COSE helped the fledgling law firm put together programs covering health insurance and worker’s compensation. “Since we didn’t screen the people who we wanted to join us [for health problems], we wanted to make sure we could get relatively affordable insurance and it turned out that we had all kinds of things that would have been problematic for individual policies,” he says.

3. Certification and Credibility – The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, like many other groups that include very small businesses such as sole practitioners, offers members a certification that is widely recognized in the industry. Its certificate of clinical competence “provides employers with the information that this is a person who seeks not just to meet the bare essentials, but who has gone beyond,” says Sue Hale, president of the Rockville, Md.-based group.

4. Mentorship and Networking – Small business owners are often very lonely people. “They often can’t talk to their employees about what concerns them and they need to talk to a peer who is not a competitor,” says Ashmus. “An association is a great way to find those connections.”

5. Professional Development – Associations are paying a lot of attention to online learning these days, says Robertson. “Within the next couple of years there will be an increasing amount of these kinds of opportunities for people who won’t have to travel and so can save costs.” Associations also offer continuing education events and other related opportunities.

6. Research – Most associations offer access to highly specialized databases, studies, directories, white papers and call centers staffed by experts. ASHA, for example, has an “action center” accepting calls from members on specific questions. “Someone may need more information on how to work with an 8-year-old with a fluency problem or another may have an issue with Medicare,” says Hale. A staff of 250 experts is available to field those questions. The association also offers thousands of Web pages of information on best practices and legislative issues.

7. Voice on Capitol Hill – Very few people can lobby on their own, but “face time on the Hill or with the administration is something associations do very well,” says Robertson. Ashmus echoes those thoughts: “Part of the reason to belong is to have someone on your side – like today’s debate on health care reform. We’re hammered by the current situation and we could benefit hugely or have a disaster happen to us.”

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