Meet Sarah Marshall, your new Executive Director

After a search far and wide, we’re excited to announce our new executive director, Sarah Marshall. She joins VACEP — on the cusp of our 50th anniversary — from the Virginia Dental Association, where she focused on building relationships with members, telling stories of VDA successes, and engaging its 3,800 dentist members with benefits to improve their practices.

As part of her role at the VDA, she served as Executive Director of the Shenandoah Valley Dental Association, providing its 300 member dentists with networking, continuing education, and volunteer leadership opportunities.

Sarah tells us she’s excited to take her association management career to a new level, and build the success of outgoing and retiring executive director Bob Ramsey (more on Bob and the transition here). Sarah holds a master’s in historical archaeology from the College of William & Mary, which she will tell you all about below, along with her vision for VACEP and a bit about her chinchillas (plural).

You have a background in anthropology and historical archaeology. What led you to association management?

Full disclosure: the life of an archaeologist is a lot less glamorous than it may seem. Before I finished my graduate degree, I knew I wanted to apply my detective, philosophy, and research skills in the non-profit world. I also knew I wanted to work with people and help them connect with their communities. As I’ve told lots of people since joining this profession, the great thing about being an anthropologist in association management is that you don’t just get to study a community, you get to become part of it.

Tell us about your role at VDA, particularly your efforts with the Shenandoah group, and how you might bring that experience to VACEP.

Sarah is an on-the-ground, get-your-hands-dirty leader. Here she is meeting with VDA members.

I’ve been head of membership at the VDA for the last few years and Executive Director at the Shenandoah Valley Dental Association for nearly as long. I came onboard at a time when the association (and many associations) were still feeling the effects of the 2008 recession. Business-as-usual association management was keeping the organization going but wasn’t helping it to grow. The organization needed to hear from us more often, with information tailored to what they needed as dental professionals, and they needed someone to collect feedback and turn ideas into action.

I helped build membership by setting up internal processes to help us get more communications in front of our members — and in ways that matched how they consume information. I recruited record numbers of students and residents entering the profession simply because I assumed that 100% was the goal. I put myself on campus, I built relationships with academic programs, leaders, and students, and I branded myself (for our newest dentists and for all our members) as someone that they KNOW. Not a mystery person that sits behind a desk but a real person that cares enough to show up at 6 a.m. to feed them breakfast before Boards.

Sarah with members at a recent VDA event.

Taking on the Shenandoah Valley Dental Association helped me to understand the challenges and opportunities with running a small professional association. By putting myself in the shoes of the people leading our other regional associations (the ones providing value to our members at the local level), I was able to create membership campaigns and volunteer engagement programs that worked, even for volunteers with limited amounts of free time. I am someone who likes having a lot of hats to wear (or maybe shoes would be more apt for me!) and having the dual roles of membership director and executive director meant that I was always thinking about the big picture whether I was brainstorming with our national organization or hosting a small local meeting.

What is your vision for the next 5 years of VACEP? Or if that’s too far out — the next two?

I want:

  • to make it easier to be engaged with the organization at multiple levels. If you only have a few minutes a year or if you have more time to spare, there’s easy ways you can help make your profession stronger. To quote VACEP President-Elect Dr. Cameron Olderog, “Whatever it is that makes you feel like nothing you do matters, you can change your view when you get involved in a bigger level.”
  • to make sure you are getting the information you need in a way that makes sense. We’re all more empowered the more informed we are, but we need easy access to information in order for it to be useful.
  • to look at the long term and short term strategic goals and make sure we’re building an association that’s relevant now and into the future. We are changing as a society and our associations should change with us be that in the way we operate, how we organize ourselves, how we tackle issues, etc.
  • members to feel like they’re getting something in return when they pay those membership dues. That value may mean different things to different people, but I don’t want anyone to feel like they’re not sure what they’re getting.

Sarah at a VDA masquerade ball (can you spot her?)

What in your view is the key to success in association management?

  • Believing that just because something hasn’t been done that way before does not mean it cannot be done.
  • When it seems like you’re just circling the drain, it’s important to pull back and identify the real goal of your project. Sometimes it’s not the idea but the process that doesn’t work.
  • Knowing and connecting with your members. Making everyone feel like they matter and that their ideas matter.

How do you want members to view you?

Approachable and invested in what you care about. That means caring about who you are as people as well as professionals. Even if you’re really pissed off about something that I DID, I don’t want you to feel like you can’t call me and talk about it. I can’t fix it if I don’t know about it.

Don’t hesitate to shoot a quick message to me when you have a brainwave in the middle of the night. I might not respond at 3 a.m., but we can keep a dialogue going over email or any method that works for how you work. I once had a boss that spent most of the year in Hong Kong, so if we can manage public health research with an 18-hour gap, I’m sure we can manage, too.

Tell us an interesting story about you.

I used to be a person that would curate my life down to the just the experiences that were comforting and familiar. Now I find myself seeking out things that make me afraid or uncomfortable.

For example, I used to be afraid of fish (an odd fear, I know, especially for someone raised on an island).

My family is planning a trip to Japan next year so I knew it was time for me to meet this fear head on. I went to Shedd Aquarium in Chicago this summer and stared at all the weird squiggly things until I saw the beauty in them. Maybe it’s FOMO that’s driving me but life seems a lot richer the more I push myself out of my comfort zone.

Sarah, a fan of selfies, selfies at 6 a.m. as she brings breakfast to the Board exam for dental students.

Where will you need the most help in your role?

I think the struggle with many researchers, especially those in association management, is how to capture enough data to make well-informed decisions for the benefit of the membership. It’s my job to ask and to make it easy to share your stories but feel free to reach out and share what’s on your mind (like it would be great if… I really hate how… I love when…)

I can get out a bunch of communications, run a conference, ensure we’re lobbying on your behalf but if I don’t know what’s like to be YOU, to be an emergency physician, then it’s only chance or my uninformed instinct that any of it will affect you in any positive way.

I need to hear your stories—the more I know about what drives you and what frustrates you, the better experience and better association I can create for you.

My inbox is always open!

What values guide your work?

  • Transparency
  • Hard work
  • Optimism
  • Curiosity

Outside of work: Fun? Family? Pets? Movies or Books?

My husband and I are proud roommates of three fluffy, grumpy chinchillas. We’re serious about movies but not always serious movies. We’re Jeopardy super fans and celebrated our first anniversary with a whirlwind trip to L.A. to see a live taping of the show. I listen to a lot of audiobooks, mostly fiction. I think fantasy writers are the great leftover chefs of the world—taking myths, legends, and literary traditions and crafting them into something new.

I also have serious craft ADD—I’m always trying to learn new things and, unfortunately, I leave all my project execution skills at the office.

Reach out to Sarah directly (even at 3 a.m.). She’s at