Professional and trade associations are membership organizations, usually nonprofit, which serve the interests of members who share a common field of activity. Professional organizations—also called professional societies—consist of individuals of a common profession, whereas trade associations consist of companies in a particular industry. However, the distinction is not uniform; some professional associations also accept certain corporate members, and conversely, trade associations may allow individual members. The activities of both trade and professional associations are similar and the ultimate goal is to promote, through cooperation, the economic activities of the members while maintaining ethical practices. Trade and professional associations do not include labor unions.

Professional associations have the additional objectives of expanding the knowledge or skills of its members and providing professional standards. The definition of a profession is an occupation that requires considerable education and specialized training, such as medicine, law, accounting, and engineering. However, many use the term more loosely to encompass any coherent occupation class. There is a fine line between professional associations and scientific or academic societies, especially in certain fields, such as the applied sciences or education. Academic societies aim exclusively at advancement of the discipline, rather than being concerned with the methods of practice and economic well-being of the members. At the other end of the spectrum, the differentiation between professional associations and trade unions can be blurred, as some unions claim the added distinction of being professional associations.

The definition of an industry, as far as trade associations are concerned, is very flexible. Some associations deal with a specific activity, such as paper manufacturing, whereas others consist of company members involved in all aspects of a given product, such as the publishers, printers and marketers of calendars. Associations exist for both specialized sectors of an industry, e.g., independently owned drug stores, as well as very broad industry categories, e.g., manufacturing.

The membership figures for trade associations, unlike professional associations, are not a good indicator of size, for the companies belonging to a trade association may be very large and the associations may have multimillion-dollar budgets. A good example was the former American Automobile Manufacturers Association, the powerful lobbying voice of the U.S. auto industry, which consisted of General Motors Corporation, Ford Motor Company, and Chrysler

Table 1
Table 1

Largest U.S. Professional Associations
Association Members
National Association of Realtors 720,000
American Bar Association 380,000
American Institute of Certified Public Accountants 330,000
American Medical Association 300,000
Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers 274,000
American Registry of Radiologic Technologists 221,000
National Council of Teachers of Mathematics 215,000
American Nurses Association 210,000
National Association of Female Executives 200,000
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development 198,000
National Association of Professional Insurance Agents 180,000
American Chemical Society 155,000
National Association of Social Workers 155,000
American Psychological Association 151,000
National Notary Association 150,000
American Dental Association 142,000
Largest U.S. Trade Associations
Trade Associations Members
U.S. Chamber of Commerce 200,000
National Association of Home Builders 190,000
American Management Association 85,000
U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce 70,000
American Library Association 57,000
American Hospital Association 55,000
American Advertising Federation 50,000
American Small Business Association 50,000
National Apartment Association 40,000
National Association of Wholesaler Distributors 40,000
Based on data from Association Management, May 1998; the Encyclopedia of Associations, 1998 ed.; and self-reporting by individual associations.

Corporation and operated on a $30 million budget. (The A AM A was disbanded in 1998 in the wake of Chrysler's merger with Germany's Daimler Benz AG.) Other influential trade associations include the AAMA's successor, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers; the National Association of Manufacturers; the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association; the American Bankers Association; and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.

The activities of professional and trade associations often include some or all of the following:

Associations typically publish a newsletter or magazine distributed to members and many produce additional publications for the public. Some compile proprietary market data and analysis that is available only to members. Members may also receive special discounts on publications or other association materials.

Activities particular to trade associations include sponsoring trade shows and awards, providing market statistics for their members, promoting research on new products or manufacturing methods, offering scholarships or fellowships, and encouraging ethical business practices. Professional associations are uniquely involved in sponsoring or certifying training programs or examinations for individuals in the field. Almost all professional associations hold conferences or seminars to discuss techniques of practice. Professional associations also provide opportunities for personal networking and job information for members. Many associations can also supply experts to the media for discussion of industry or profession news and trends.

Both professional and trade associations set their own membership requirements and charge membership dues. Full members may vote in association affairs and run for office. Professional associations usually require specialized training or certification as a requirement for membership. National organizations with large memberships—which is typically the case for professional associations—often have local chapters to which their members also belong. The proliferation of organizations in both narrow and broad fields makes it common for a company or an individual to belong to more than one association.

[ Heather Behn Hedden ]


American Society of Association Executives. Gateway to Associations. Chicago, 1999. Available from .

Association Management, monthly. Available from .

Encyclopedia of Associations, annual.

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