Doing More With Less: How One Association Fills Staffing Gaps

The Illinois Section American Water Works Association operates with a small staff and turned to higher education to fill the gaps.

By Annie Storey, CAE

small staff solutions concept: vector image of person lowering puzzle piece to complete a bridge

Small staff associations are notorious for being out-of-the-box thinkers when it comes to strategies for doing more with less. That could be less staff, less budget, less time. More is anything from projects to events to new programs and initiatives to _____ (Insert your own MORE!). In 2020, I became executive director of the Illinois Section American Water Works Association. I came from an association with more than 400 employees to one with two full-time, two part-time and myself. 

I’ve learned that small staff association executives have to be great problem solvers. Finding a creative solution is something we do over and over and probably don’t realize to what extent we’re doing it. When I received a message on LinkedIn about a new company pairing college students with organizations across the globe on real world projects, I clicked to learn more. 

Full disclosure: my master’s degree is focused on youth development, so I have always been a cheerleader for student involvement. This took that to a new level, where I would be working directly with students on projects that I had available. 

Riipen integrates work and education by bringing real projects from organizations into higher education. They do so through an online matching system and communications portal. The key to a great match, in my opinion, is one where the employer has adequate time to connect with the professor of the course to review expectations and ensure that the project’s scope meets the instructional needs of the student(s) to ensure they are aware of the exact ask in terms of the project’s deliverables. 

My first interaction with Riipen’s staff was key to my understanding of how the programs work and to what level my participation in the project would be needed. I did a quick analysis of gaps in our current staff structure and reviewed what college courses had students available. There, I found my first match in working with students on graphic design elements for our programs. 

That experience was so beneficial and timely for me that I decided to try a few different program needs. Since 2021, I’ve worked with undergraduate, graduate and PhD candidates from across the globe on the following organizational projects: 

  • Graphic Design 
  • Human Resources – Recruiting, Retention, Salary Study, Exempt or Non-Exempt classifications 
  • Diversity and Inclusion – training curriculum for members, activity ideas for in person trainings 
  • Management Education series 
  • Pricing Strategy Review and Recommendations 
  • Internal Communications Analysis 

These students have all shared with me their research on the topics and each course comes with a deliverable. Our PhD student presented virtually to our Board of Trustees, detailing the research on our pricing strategy and his recommendation based on his analysis. This analysis was so in depth that I know, to the exact penny, at what price point I will price myself out of the competition. 

The diversity and inclusion training developed for us was presented virtually to our members this year and more than 40 members took the course and left fantastic reviews. 

The internal communications analysis proved that while there are amazing tools out there, none are built for a small staff association budget. But I know a great tool if I ever have the funding for it! 

One of the largest projects we undertook was through the human resources program at Capella University. Working closely with the professor, we determined that once one student ended their 10-week course, another MBA student would pick up the project and carry it forward. This model worked so well that we used it again on another topic with the MBA program at Capella. We found that some projects needed additional time and this flexibility and connection to the programs allowed me to have continuity, bring in fresh ideas, and eventually complete the project.  

“The experience with Executive Director Annie Storey and the Illinois Section of the American Water Works Association has been wonderful!  Students are provided the opportunity to put their learning into practice offering support to an organization in a real-world environment. This has been a terrific benefit to both MS in Human Resource Management and MBA students alike. A great partnership!” shared Robert Bigelow, JD, PhD, Academic Program Director, Capella University. 

I encourage all associations to take a look into Riipen’s programs. If you think there’s potential, I would encourage you to brainstorm with your staff where your knowledge gaps are and how students could assist you. Then, create your profile and your project and make connections with programs across the world. 

To be successful, be sure that YOU have time to devote to your students. Answer their questions, know their semester dates, and be involved. When it’s time for the students to deliver their presentation to you, be engaged. Ask tough questions so that these students learn from you and how to successfully share information in their career. 

Small staff doesn’t mean “less.”  It can easily mean “more” if you creatively work with resources that are available. 


About the Author

Annie Storey is the executive director of the Illinois Section American Water Works Association. She is an association management Professional with more than 15 years of experience in building capacity to meet members’ professional needs. Annie received her bachelor's degree in public administration, master's degree in youth development and is a Certified Association Executive. She is a 2019 Forty Under 40 awardee through Association Forum and USAE.

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