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The paradox of professional development is that it can feel like both a necessity and a luxury. We know we need it, but we don’t always know where to start.

This is especially true when attempting to navigate the alphabet soup of credentials and certifications geared towards association management professionals.

Personally, I have often wished for a high-level ‘cheat sheet’ explaining all the acronyms I see in the email signatures of accomplished association leaders. For those of us who have the financial resources and availability, there is no better time than now to differentiate yourself with a professional certification or designation.

That’s why I’m breaking down some core programs, and some more recent offerings, to consider in your professional development plan.

Association/nonprofit management:

Certified Association Executive (CAE)

  • What is it? ASAE’s CAE certification is the most ubiquitous association management certification, and with good reason. The CAE program was founded in 1960 and thousands of association professionals currently hold the credential.
  • Who is it meant for? Mid to senior-level association professionals should consider this certification. Since the exam is based on answering questions from the vantage point of a Chief Staff Executive (CSE), a pool of knowledge and experiences to draw from can be helpful. Amongst other prerequisites, CAE candidates must have five years’ experience as a staff member at an association, nonprofit, or association management company (AMC) or one year of experience as a CSE in order to apply to take the comprehensive exam.
  • What are the benefits? Completion of the CAE helps demonstrate a commitment to the association management industry and to possessing the core knowledge necessary to oversee a successful association. As professionals move up the association career ladder, you’ll also find that many job descriptions for senior-level roles express a preference for applicants with a CAE.

Institute for Organization Management (IOM)

  • What is it? The IOM is an immersive, in-person professional development program offered by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Course content delves into a wide variety of topics necessary to run a nonprofit organization and is offered in four week-long sessions at four locations across the country. Upon completion of 96 hours of coursework, participants will receive an IOM graduate recognition. Summer 2020 Institutes have been cancelled due to COVID-19, but now is a great time to budget and block off time for 2021 institutes.
  • Who is it meant for? The curriculum is geared towards chamber and association professionals at all levels, and can also be used in preparation for the CAE exam.
  • What are the benefits? Unlike the CAE, entry-level association/nonprofit professionals are eligible to participate and demonstrate your commitment to your industry. Since the IOM is based on attendance and coursework rather than a comprehensive exam, it’s also a great option for the test phobic.

ASAE Fellows (FASAE)

  • What is it? Becoming an ASAE Fellow is the gold standard of recognition in the association industry, with less than one percent of ASAE members becoming fellows. It is bestowed to association and nonprofit professionals who have demonstrated exemplary leadership and a strong commitment to producing valuable content for their peers.
  • Who is it meant for? Senior-level association leaders with five years of consecutive ASAE membership may apply. Candidates should have extensive experience as presenters, authors, mentors, and/or volunteers within the association industry. Candidates are nominated by peers and enter into a selection process governed by a selection committee of current Fellows.
  • What are the benefits? Individuals who hold the FASAE are considered leaders among leaders. This designation opens doors.

Meetings and events: 

Certified Meeting Professional (CMP)

  • What is it? While not specifically geared towards association professionals, this highly recognized certification developed by the Events Industry Council is frequently sought by association meeting planners. More than 11,000 meeting professionals currently hold the CMP designation, which demonstrates comprehensive knowledge of effective meeting management.
  • Who is it meant for? Meeting planners and managers with at least three years of experience in the meetings industry and have met the educational requirements are eligible to apply for the certification exam.
  • What are the benefits? The meetings industry is evolving at a rapid pace, and demonstrating and applying relevant and recent knowledge is key to personal and organizational success. According to PCMA, CMPs also earn an average of $11,000 more than non-certified colleagues.

Digital Event Strategist (DES)

  • What is it? Offered by PCMA, the path to obtain a DES certification includes a seven-week online program teaching participants how to strategically plan, produce and measure digital and hybrid (in-person and digital) events. Completion of the prerequisites, coursework, and passing the DES exam result in obtaining the DES certification.
  • Who is it meant for? Professionals at all levels currently working or having recent work experience in events, meetings, marketing, conventions, or adult learning.
  • What are the benefits? While the DES is not a highly recognized certification, it will be interesting to see how this evolves as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to necessitate virtual events. With a general lack of knowledge about how to properly plan for and executive digital and hybrid events in the association community, verified knowledge in this area may become a more valued differentiator. Association Forum recently announced a partnership with PCMA to promote the DES certification and Digital Events Fast Track course.


Fellow of the American College of Healthcare Executives (FACHE)®

  • What is it? The FACHE credential represents recognition of excellence in healthcare leadership. Earning the FACHE requires successful completion of the Board of Governors Exam in Healthcare Management, as well as a host of other criteria meant to demonstrate a high level of professional and academic experience.
  • Who is it meant for? The FACHE is geared towards executive-level healthcare management professionals, including those at medical associations. Candidates must be current ACHE members who have maintained membership for at least three years. Additional requirements include an advanced degree, continuing education, volunteer activity, and references.
  • What are the benefits? The rigorous standards necessary to achieve the FACHE demonstrate a strong commitment to excellence in healthcare leadership. For association management professionals looking to obtain or maintain C-level positions at a medical association, the FACHE can provide a leg up.


Amy Thomasson
Post by Amy Thomasson
July 8, 2020
Amy Thomasson, CAE is a strategist, content creator, and storyteller with extensive experience in marketing and communications, membership development, and volunteer management. She has worked in a variety of business environments ranging from the Fortune 500 to professional associations. Amy serves as Vice President, Marketing and Communications at Cure SMA, a nonprofit organization creating breakthroughs for individuals with spinal muscular atrophy. Amy is also a speaker and author who has partnered with ASAE, Association Forum, Sidecar, and standalone associations to deliver engaging content. Amy is a recipient of Association Forum Forty Under 40® Award and the Daily Herald Business Ledger’s Influential Women in Business Award.