Whipsawed by the recession and the Reagan administration's budget cuts, many of the trade and professional associations based in the Washington area have faced the roughest sledding since their founding, forced to lay off workers, freeze salaries and eke out new sources of cash.

"Like everybody else, we've been hurt," said Stephen W. Carey, executive vice president of the Greater Washington Society of Association Executives, an umbrella group.

Associations, Carey noted, are the area's third largest industry, running just behind government and tourism. Together, 80,000 persons are employed by associations, and their total annual payroll amounts to $1.7 billion, he said.

The pain, however, has been very uneven. Groups representing beneficiaries of federal domestic spending and interests severely hit by the recession have suffered the most.

The National League of Cities, for example, has seen its staff dwindle from about 150 to less than 60, according to Clint Page, and its $6 million budget cut virtually in half.

This fall-off has resulted from the complete elimination of federal government grants and other support that had provided half the organization's operating budget. The decline is attributable almost entirely to the withdrawal of federal money; over the past year, membership in the league actually has grown from about 1,000 to nearly 1,100.

In fact, the administration's cuts of urban aid are probably a factor in the growing number of cities that have joined as concern over the cutbacks in programs for the cities mounts.

At the National Association of Realtors, the nation's largest association, the recession has decimated the membership ranks, and the result has been a major reduction in the staff of the organization.

From the end of 1980 to last January, the Realtors saw membership fall from 762,391 to 614,146 as the housing market collapsed and, in the succinct comment of Bill Adkinson, "we suffered."

Adkinson, a spokesman for the Realtors, said the organization's staff, which had grown from 405 in 1975 to 609 in 1981, has been cut to 534. This reduction has not, however, been damaging to Washington, because all the cuts were made at the Realtors' Chicago headquarters, while the staff of the Washington office actually grew from 106 to 124 between 1981 and the beginning of this year.

Similar reductions in salary and staff have been reported by other recession-hit organizations, including the National Association of Home Builders and the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association.

Some industry associations that have not been hit by the recession are thriving. "We happen to be doing well," Mark V. Rosenker, vice president for public affairs at the Electronic Industries Association, said. "I don't want to call ourselves flush, but we are in pretty good shape."

While other industries have suffered over the past two years, electronics, he said, has grown in volume from about $115 billion in 1981 to $119 billion in 1982, employing a work force of 1.6 million. For the association, the results have been a growing membership. Since dues are based on sales, the EIA is "in pretty good shape," he said.

For another industry, recreational vehicles, the recession was not a period of decline, but, instead, a period of rebounding from an extraordinary drop in sales after the sharp gasoline hikes in the late 1970s.

A spokeswoman for the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association pointed out that sales in the industry went from 541,100 in 1976 down to 181,400 in 1980, but then began to climb in 1981, and continued upward in the recession of last year to 258,000. Sales for January 1983 were 62 percent above January 1982.

As a result, she said, the RVIA has hired people recently, including her.

The recession also has been a period of rebounding for the National Association of Life Underwriters. Jack E. Bobo, the executive vice president, said that the high interest rates before the recession prompted a number of insurance companies to put their money into investments producing 18 percent to 20 percent returns, instead of building their sales forces.

The result, he said, was a decline in the growth of insurance salespeople, who form the member groups comprising the underwriters association.

When white collar people lost their jobs in the recession, a number went into insurance sales, boosting membership. At the same time, lower interest rates prompted the companies to shift their money back into building up sales personnel.

"We have weathered it the recession quite well," Bobo said.

In some other cases, associations representing individuals and groups that have been hurt by the budget cuts and recession have seen their membership strengthened, as ranks are closed in defense against further cuts and individuals look to the association for job protection and job-finding assistance.

Frederick T. Spahr, executive director of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, said that as members' jobs are threatened, "instead of finding our membership dropping," it has stayed the same or slightly increased.

He said the certification the organization grants to audiologists and speech therapists can become an important factor when a school system or health clinic is deciding either whom to hire or whom to retain at a time of spending reductions.

In addition, he said, the organization, like many others, provides a job bank that can help persons entering the market and those who have lost their jobs. Membership retention and growth, therefore, "is for a negative reason," Spahr said.

He also contended that the organization played a significant role in getting Congress to prevent administration cutbacks in federal spending aiding the handicapped. This, in turn, prevented many of the members from being forced out of jobs.

In a similar vein, Al Gonzalez, chief lobbyist for the National Association of Social Workers, the members of which have borne much of the brunt of the Reagan spending cuts, said in a magazine article: "Interestingly enough, we have had a slight increase in our membership. This may be in part due to the sense that now there is a greater need to support the association."

One way associations have attempted to absorb the recession is to boost revenues from a host of other sources besides dues, pimarily by offering a range of different services and educational programs to members at a fee.

Nancy A. Burns, executive director of the American Trucking Associations' sales and marketing council, said she has expanded continuing education programs, workshops and seminars. "You can get some good money out of that sort of thing."

The national umbrella organization representing association chiefs, the American Society of Association Executives, which concluded its convention here yesterday, provides an example of the entrepreneurism characteristic of associations seeking new revenues.

R. William Taylor, ASAE president, said the organization, which was running in the red by $600,000 in 1981, is expected to be in the black by $1 million this year; income is up from $4.5 million annually to $7 million and staff has grown by 22 positions.

Attendance at the ASAE's convention will cost members $250 and $300 for nonmembers. The society is attempting to boost participation by getting member groups to offer prizes ranging from a mini-race car to a one-week cruise. The ASAE also is offering its 10,000 member organizations professional liability insurance.

Referring to these and other marketing programs under way in his own organization and within many associations, Taylor said, "You see a lot more concern with hard-nosed business strategy."