Let’s start with “what is an academic?” The word is a circle definition, because to be an academic means to be within an academic institution, such as a school, college or university, to pursue the learning that is offered there, also the theory, not just the practice, and eventually to do research, teach, or do both.
So why would academics need associations? Let us look at how a university is organised. While the different departments may be big, very few universities hire people with the exact same specialities. This is counter-productive both for teaching and for research. For the staff, this means that while they are necessary to the institution, and so can depend on keeping their job, they don’t have many who understand their very specialised work in the immediate surroundings.
This is why they reach out to other academics in other institutions, countries, perhaps even on other continents, and decide to form an academic association. That is basically the main part: you need to decide to do it. And since there’s very little money to be made off academics talking to each other, you make it non-profit. Like all non-profit organisations, it needs a set of bylaws. Even if there’s no money in the organisation it needs a treasurer, if only to say to the auditor – because the organisation has to be audited – that you all met, brought your own lunch and paid 4€ each to the guy who made a run for coffee and snacks for the afternoon talk. It also needs a president, a vice-president, and some board members. The actual work of the board members will depend on what the association does – as it grows these roles may change. And that’s it; an academic association is born.
What the association does depends on the bylaws. Most academic associations are put together to organize conferences and/or publish journals. Some kind of knowledge exchange is what makes for better research: you are made accountable by presenting your work for others. It also offers a chance to ask questions, to get feedback, and weed out bad ideas, face to face.
The influence of academic associations depends on their size. A large one such as ICA has 4500 members. A small one such as DiGRA has a couple of hundred. Of course, a small one focusing on for instance the study of a rare, dead language can be 20 person big and comprise the entire community of researchers, and thus totally control all research on that topic. It’s all on what you consider “influence.”
Academic associations are normally funded by way of the membership fees, while some associations also get donations. Since there are some costs related to all organisations – postage, websites, coffee for the yearly meeting – there needs to be a fee. This fee for the most part comes out of the pocket of the members. Associations also don’t apply for research projects, or do research projects. It’s the members, through their institutions, who apply for research funding.
If academic associations organise conferences, some of the membership fees will be used towards the administration of the connection to the person(s) who take the responsibility for that conference. The association itself is rarely responsible for organising the conference, and doesn’t get much (if any) of the money from the conference. The academic association just brings their network of scholars, their knowledge and some support and know-how to the field. However, this differs from conference to conference; the huge ones that can be expected to generate a large income will have different ways to handle the economic side of this, and in some cases also have a professional conference staff, or buy the services of professional organisers.
So, to sum up:
Academic associations are collections of individuals with common interests.
The governments do not fund them.
They are non-profit.
Their main goal is to offer a place to meet others with similar skills and interests.
They are open to all who have this interest and have shown that they are specialists in their field (or, in the case of students – about to specialise).
Finally: “Association” is not a protected term. This means that there may be businesses that call themselves associations, but are for profit, or funded by private interests. It is not difficult to check if an organisation is a business or a non-profit, but it takes more than a quick look at the name. Reading the bylaws is a good place to start.