Confronting Your Organisation’s Sustainability

19th Oct, 2021

So much has changed in the past year that it is hard to remember what was “normal” before. It looks as if it might well be late in 2021 before we are approaching anything close to pre-pandemic normalcy. Of course, there is no way that the global health crisis can really be considered as having a positive effect on anything. However, some interesting (and perhaps valuable) trends that this crisis created has begun to show some signs of a positive impact in the near future.

Without exception, associations spent the last year dealing with some major challenges: reduced resources, both financial and human, change management, meeting and convention chaos and cancellations, remote staff and “virtual” everything... and many other challenges unique to the association environment. It is this commonality of concerns that also provides opportunities for the future.

As we slowly, but hopefully, begin to emerge from the global pandemic, it is a critical time for all associations to confront the realities of the post-COVID world. For some organisations, the past year has been a disastrous period, with membership losses, meetings and conference cancellations, and financial strains.

Even organisations that were not impacted too badly in those areas, now must ascertain what the “new” expectations of their members, sponsors, exhibitors, and other stakeholders will be. For example: will meetings continue to have a virtual/hybrid component when in-person meetings resume? Will educational offerings be accessible in all three ways − in-person, virtual/streaming, and on-demand? Will association staff be required to start going into an office again? Will there ever be a need for in-person committee or board meetings again? These are not just issues related to operations or policies.

These are issues related to the long-term sustainability of your organisation. Every organisation needs to focus on several key actions to assure its sustainability and viability in the future.

Here are some of those actions:

1. Review and revise your organisation’s strategic plan to assure that it is reflective of what has happened this past year. Remember that some interim changes made in the last year to accommodate the pandemic, will likely become permanent changes. That will probably affect many projections and assumptions made when the original plan was developed.

2. Look at your benchmarking metrics and update them. To begin with, do not worry about accountability issues as much right now. Many groups were (are) just trying to hold on until this crisis is officially over. Secondly, see if there are any new metrics that make sense in the post- COVID world − e.g. percentage of conference attendees who attended pre-pandemic events, versus those who come back in-person to your post-pandemic events.

3. Reconnect with ALL your stakeholders. I realise many organisations have stayed in touch with sponsors, exhibitors, meeting venues, during the pandemic. These stakeholders are (were) all dealing with it too, so they were very understanding and ready to work with you. However, going forward, they will also be changing in a lot of ways. Examples:
• Destinations and venues may be no longer hosting in-person client events the way they used to.
• Many hotels and conference centres have had a reduction in staff. Does your pre-covid contact still work there?
• Exhibitors may have got used to sending fewer people to staff booths, or not sponsoring events.
• You may have fallen out of the consciousness of influencers in your industry, profession or community, due to lack of personal contact

Start thinking NOW of how you are going to re-confirm these relationships in a mutually beneficial way.

4. Start preparing your messaging for former members. There are members of almost every organisation who let their membership lapse or drop in the past year, especially in professional societies. This was due to personal financial constraints, employers not paying dues anymore (at least temporarily), no in-person networking opportunities, etc. Stay in touch with these former members now, so that you do not have reintroduced your organisation to them a year from now. Put former members on a “thought you’d be interested” or “in case you missed it” communications list, but do not ask them to rejoin every time you contact them. Let them know you have not forgotten them, and that your organisation is still doing great things, just maybe a little differently for a while.

When you do want to reach out and ask them to join again, be sure to start with what is new or different since they were members. They may have got used to getting along without your organisation for this period. Remind them of what they are missing. Be sure to offer exemption of any additional fees normally paid by new members.

Going forward, sustainability for associations and societies will be an all-encompassing aspect of effective leadership input and staff management. It is no longer just about sustaining the existence of the organisation: it is also about sustaining the value of the organisation

CAE and CSP Mark Levin has three decades of experience as an association executive. He is also an internationally known speaker and consultant to the nonprofit and association community. He currently serves as executive vice president of the Chain Link Fence Manufacturers Institute, an international trade association, and as president of B.A.I. Inc., his speaking and consulting firm. He is also the current president of the National Speakers Association National Capital Area Chapter.

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