Strengthening Health Professional Associations: Insights from Health Leaders in Tanzania

Participants from Mauritius and Seychelles confer with a facilitator during the QI training session Photo: S&T GDA

Participants from Mauritius and Seychelles confer with a facilitator during the QI training session Photo: S&T GDA

The USAID-funded African Strategies for Health (ASH) Project collaborated with the Survive & Thrive Global Development Alliance (GDA),[1] East, Central and Southern African Health Community (ECSA-HC)[2] and the Regional Centre for Quality of Healthcare (RCQHC)[3] to co-organize and co-lead a workshop during the Regional Forum on Maternal and Newborn Health in Arusha, Tanzania in August 2013. The workshop, facilitated by staff of the ASH and LMG Projects had participants from 42 regional and national health professional associations from 16 countries in the ECSA-HC region. The focus of the workshop, well-attended by leaders from professional associations across Africa, was to identify the challenges faced by health professional associations, and identify strategies for addressing them.

Although the workshop focused specifically on the challenges faced by clinical professional associations, readers are encouraged to use this document to stimulate conversations about how professional associations can better support health managers in Africa and elsewhere around the world.

Priority Challenges Facing Health Professional Associations

Confidential polling conducted during the Arusha workshop of over 70 health professional leaders resulted in the identification of and ranking by relative importance of ten (10) key challenges to the vitality and success of Regional and National Health Professional Associations (See table below).

Priority Strategies for Strengthening Health Associations

During the workshop, participants worked in small groups focusing on five basic strategies to strengthen health professional associations:

Strategy 1: Enhance members’ engagement and enthusiasm for the Association

Strategy 2: Develop and Implement a New Strategic Plan for the Association

Strategy 3: Ensure Association is Responsive to Member Needs

Strategy 4: Develop diverse sources of funding for association activities

Strategy 5: Strengthen the Governance and Management of the Association

The small groups then identified actions that could be taken to advance each strategy—their detailed responses are listed below:

Strategy 1: Enhance members’ engagement and enthusiasm for the Association

  • Set up infrastructure for better invitations for engagement in all aspects of the association affairs, such as:
    • Up to date directory of member contact information, profile of interests, prior educational achievements
    • Update use of social media to listen to and communicate with members
    • Experiment with SMS methods of two way communication
    • Do periodic web or email polling of member opinions and needs
    • Re-examine committee and task force structures to allow for more opportunities for involvement and engagement and two communications
    • Web-based publication of calendar of all association activities,
    • 24/7 access to contacts information on committee leadership and governing body leaders
  • Assign board members to clusters of association members and communicate with them about ways to encourage member engagement opportunities
  • Establish or strengthen local chapters or district sub-groups to foster engagement and communication among members and governing body members
  • Send summary of governing body activities and minutes or quarterly reports to members in easy to read style
  • Organize special interest groups among members with similar interest or locations

Strategy 2: Develop and Implement a New Strategic Plan for the Association

  • Publish current plan and invite further reactions, inputs and validation
  • Create culture of more bottom-up planning, not just top down from the staff and board. Involve members, vendors, potential donors, and other stakeholders, including the public
  • Conduct strategic planning and budgeting process that is driven by changing needs of the profession and members
  • Review strategic plans from similar associations in ECSA and from US and Europe
  • Conduct open, honest and transparent review of Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats (SWOT Analysis)
  • Share draft with members for input and refinement
  • Post final plan on web portal

Strategy 3: Ensure Association is Responsive to Member Needs

  • Make sure staff and governing body members are good listeners, and have coaching on good communication skills
  • Publish a detailed profile of membership by work locations, experience, ages, gender, locations
  • Publish and celebrate profiles on members that are doing good work in the profession
  • Develop an advocacy plan to reach media, MOH, and public about how the association serves the needs of public, patients and members
  • Develop systems and technologies for two way listening and communications with members
  • Conduct annual survey for member feedback on needs, ideas and performance review of the work of the association
  • Develop committee and task force structures that are responsiveness to member needs
  • Conduct periodic evaluations of degree to which association is meeting its members’ needs

Strategy 4: Develop diverse sources of funding for association activities

  • Develop an accurate financial budget and sustainability plan that gives targets for fund raising
  • Develop a Master Fund Raising Plan that addresses practical ways to pursue and secure funding from sources such as:
    • Member dues
    • Pharmaceutical and suppliers’ grants and contracts
    • Contracts and grants from MOH, foundations and philanthropists
    • In-kind donations of supplies, office space, office equipment, internet services and systems
  • Develop committees to champion alternative income generating projects and co-ventures with companies that offer services and products needed by members
  • Develop investment strategy and use fund managers to optimize interest income
  • Explore debt financing to accelerate service value to members

Strategy 5: Strengthen the Governance and Management of the Association

  • Review constitution and by-laws to define the proper size, structure and composition for governing body and staff secretariat
  • Review job descriptions and ideal competencies for governing body board members
  • Develop updated organizational chart for association that shows all staff, committees, task forces and special project groups
  • Publish clear process and criteria for board service, and recruit diverse and talented candidates
  • Publish bylaws and governance policies and procedures on web portal
  • Explore sharing staff with other associations to save money or attract dynamic leadership team
  • Make all association governance and leadership decision-making processes transparent
  • Conduct annual performance reviews of board, committees, board members and staff

Leaders from ministries of health, health professional associations and universities should use these five strategies to explore how to establish and support lifelong learning for health sector managers.

Related Links:

Leading Change and Promoting Better Healthcare Worldwide

Promoting the Value of Health Manager Professional Associations in Low- and Middle-Income Countries (LMICs)

How do Professional Associations Get Resources? Lessons from Zimbabwe


[1] The Survive & Thrive Global Development Alliance was formed by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and private sector and civil society organizations to mobilize U.S. obstetric, pediatric and midwifery professional associations to work in partnership with overseas development partners to improve the quality of facility-based maternal, newborn and child health services to reduce preventable maternal and child deaths.

[2] The East, Central and Southern African Health Community (ECSA-HC) is a regional inter-governmental health organization that fosters and promotes regional cooperation in health among member states. Member states of the ECSA Health Community include Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Seychelles, Swaziland, United Republic of Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

[3] The Regional Centre for Quality of Healthcare (RCQHC), an affiliate of Makerere University School of Public Health in Kampala, Uganda dedicates itself to improve quality of healthcare in Africa. RCQHC delivers on this mandate through networking, building strategic partnerships, education and training, technical support to countries, advocacy, documentation and dissemination of best practices as well as intervention linked research.