I recently facilitated a strategic planning process for the New Orleans chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). This longstanding professional association (the national group formed in 1857, and the New Orleans chapter was founded in 1909) currently has over 600 members, representing 193 local firms and organizations. They have a strong and varied program of professional development and networking opportunities for their members, and recently completed, in collaboration with the New Orleans Architecture Foundation (NOAF), a successful capital campaign that enabled the purchase and renovation of the Center for Design in downtown New Orleans that houses its offices and hosts many AIA-sponsored events. The strategic planning process was an opportunity to build on the recent growth of the organization, explore the full potential of the Center for Design space, and chart a course for their programming, member and partner engagement, and branding and external communication that would maximize their value and impact.

The strategic plan had numerous specific recommendations regarding program activities, organizational structure, and revenue strategies, but one thing became clear. Among the most exciting aspects of AIA New Orleans is its dual mission: services to members and services to the community.

AIA’s member services include traditional activities such as training and professional development (especially related to the challenging process of licensure for architects), and networking and mentoring activities that build a strong professional community in a way that creates meaningful opportunities for collaboration, peer learning, and career advancement. Most professional associations provide similar services to their members. When you add to the mix activities such as promoting and highlighting members to potential clients, and advocacy on relevant policy issues, such associations add significant value to their membership.

Among the most exciting aspects of AIA New Orleans is its dual mission: services to members and services to the community.

But there are a number of additional potential roles for organizations like AIA in their communities. AIA’s advocacy work can ensure the continued quality and beauty of the city’s built environment. AIA’s promotion of New Orleans architecture as a major cultural asset, on par with the city’s music and cuisine, enhances civic pride and supports tourism, a major local economic driver. AIA’s promotion of architecture as a profession, coupled with its efforts enhance the quality of college and university architecture programs, attracts people to the field and ensures an effective pipeline of qualified and enthusiastic young architects. In post-Katrina New Orleans, creative and innovative architecture can play a significant role in supporting resiliency and sustainability for this vulnerable region, and AIA can be a leader in creating awareness among residents, businesses, and public officials about architecture’s important role in the future of New Orleans and other Gulf coast communities.

Advocacy, education, public awareness, workforce development. What is striking about AIA’s services to the community is how much they also help member architects and architecture firms. When people understand and value architecture, it’s good for architects. When university programs reflect the latest trends informed by the experience of veteran practitioners, it is good for architects, both employers and job seekers. When there is excitement about architecture as a career, it results in a strong and diverse pipeline of energetic and well-prepared young architects, which is good for architecture firms and for the local economy. All in all, an extremely compelling win-win.

Professional associations (and labor organizations for that matter) in fields such as health and wellness, real estate development, human resources, retail, hospitality, technology, … you name it, can, when they expand beyond their traditional member services and develop appropriate services to the community, increase their value and impact immensely. The community stands to benefit significantly from the association’s resources and expertise, and the professional members also benefit. Professional associations should think about what they can offer their communities in terms of advocacy, education, awareness, workforce development, and other such services and initiatives. Everyone’s quality of life and potential for success will improve dramatically.