My Sutherland Scholarship Year

Felicia Owens speaks on her experience as a 2018-19 Sutherland Scholarship recipient.

By Felicia Owens

Buisnesswoman climbing career steps vector concept. Symbol of ambition, motivation, success in career promotion. Eps10 vector illustration. Business opportunity concept for feminism. Woman in business
Buisnesswoman climbing career steps vector concept. Symbol of ambition, motivation, success in career promotion. Eps10 vector illustration. Business opportunity concept for feminism. Woman in business

I know what you’re thinking—my family still asks, too: What’s an archivist? Archivists are the professionals who assess, collect, organize, preserve, and provide access to important and enduring records. At the Society of American Archivists (SAA), our small but mighty staff of twelve supports 6,200 members in advocating for archives and archivists. Our members archive everything from historical records to corporate documents to celebrity memorabilia to local, state, and federal records. (And, yes, there are even archivists preserving the President’s tweets.)


Felicia Owens, governance program manager for the Society of American Archivists, was the 2018-19 recipient of the Bree Anne Sutherland Scholarship. Named in memoriam for Association Forum’s former director of learning, the Bree Anne Sutherland Scholarship is awarded annually to a young professional and provides one year of unlimited access to Association Forum education.


As the governance program manager, I provide support to SAA’s sections (shared interest groups), committees, and Council, as well as the Foundation Board. One month into the job, I found myself frantically taking minutes at my first Council meeting, misspelling names and confusing acronyms. Three years later, not only has my minutes-taking improved exponentially, but I’ve come to appreciate being “in the room where it happens” with leadership, getting a bird’s-eye view of SAA and the future of the archives profession.

Even as I was learning about archivists, I was also getting acquainted with the association management profession. I stumbled into association management by happy accident, as most of us do, and my limited knowledge of the profession was filtered through my SAA lens. This time last year, I nervously clicked the submit button to apply for Association Forum’s Bree Anne Sutherland Scholarship, hoping for the opportunity to get a broader perspective on a career in associations. Imagine my surprise a month later when I was notified that I’d received the scholarship. I was so eager to embark on this concentrated year of study!

I was surprised (and delighted) to discover that Association 101, the kickoff to my Sutherland year, focused primarily on governance. Although I was familiar with terms like fiduciary responsibility, I quickly realized there was still much I didn’t know, so many “dazzling successes and fantastic failures” to learn from, as instructor Dr. Philip Lesser would say. The other courses in the Association Management Essentials series also proved to be absolute gems, serving to fill in the gaps on so many aspects of our profession.

  • Association Law, as promised, gave me just enough to appreciate (rather than fear) legal concerns and to ensure that my mental alarm would go off when legal counsel needs to be sought.
  • Membership 360 put me on the other side of the table to consider how members experience the work I do every day.
  • Your Leadership Potential allowed me to discover my own “influence potential” and strategies for communicating effectively with others on both a large and small scale (including negotiating with my boyfriend!).
  • And, of course, Governance Essentials was like a “self-care” session for me and my fellow governance folks. (No hydrating facial masks, unfortunately!) I was heartened to find solace with colleagues who had similar struggles and inspired by their creativity and dedication to solve issues like orienting new board members and developing productive agendas.

I look forward to earning the Association Management Essentials certificate soon with the final course, Finance for the Non-Finance Professional.

Though outside the Essentials certificate, The Volunteer Relationship: Engagement and Support course served as a deep dive into leadership from both staff and members’ perspectives and provided effective communication strategies to maximize volunteers’ limited time.

Attending all of the Association Forum signature events—Forum Forward, Honors Gala, Holiday Showcase, SmartTech, the Welcoming Environment Summit and the Women’s Executive Forum—in a single year provided strong examples of diverse learning experiences. Through education sessions, networking breaks, action planning, keynote addresses, and a whirlwind visit to the exhibit hall, I learned that no matter the size of our memberships, we all have similar struggles, but we also have a wealth of solutions to share.

Thanks to the Sutherland Scholarship, I appreciate leadership development as a lifelong endeavor and something I will always be passionate about pursuing. Having attended six signature events, absorbed seven education courses, and watched 16 webinars, I fully believe that all member engagement is ultimately leadership development. The 50+ hours of professional development paid immediate dividends in renewed energy and inspiration. Whether it was an hour or a full day, I left every session brimming with new ideas to share and implement as well as a clear action plan to keep me motivated once I returned to the office. I find my voice strengthened, a new confidence to speak up during a session—both to ask a question or offer advice—and to take risks with new initiatives.

Providing a year of study, opportunities, and professional development to a young professional is such a meaningful way to honor the memory of Bree Anne Sutherland, AF’s former director of learning. I am grateful to Association Forum for selecting me to be part of this legacy. I will certainly hold the lessons, best practices, and new connections dear throughout my career.

I encourage new professionals to apply for the Sutherland Scholarship (and to reapply again next year, if you’re not selected). Every hour you invest with this scholarship will be invaluable for accelerating your knowledge of association management and understanding your motivations for embracing this profession.

Thank you to the many instructors, presenters, and fellow Association Forum members for sharing their vast wisdom, including my mentor, immediate past-president Rob Paterkiewicz. Most importantly, thank you to the Association Forum staff: Michelle, Melissa, Moe, Shawn, Mena, Phyllis, Mike, Regina, Nicole, Katie, Matthew, Dan, Adam, and (former staff) Tina. Your warmth and guidance was such a wonderful welcome to the Association Forum community. I look forward to seeing you at Association Forum events for many years to come!

About the Author

Felicia Owens is the governance program manager for the Society of American Archivists.

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