To celebrate the partnership the UIA, the Union of International Associations, and Boardroom have entered since the beginning of the year, Secretary-General Jacques de Mévius, with the help of Judy Wickens, UIA Council member and former Secretary-General of Tantalum-Niobium International Study Center, provides an overview of the state of the association community, which has been forced to reinvent itself in the last months.
People need companionship, fellowship in their ventures, so they form associations to pursue aims they have in common. Restrictions on travel and on gathering in groups over the past year – a long year it has seemed – have caused immense difficulties in the life of international associations. Nevertheless, they will survive, even if recovery comes only slowly, because people need people.
The ‘unknown unknowns’
We can use on-line services to maintain our networks, but keeping in touch with people we know already is only one facet of association life. Chance encounters at physical events are the way we extend our networks. The joy of conferences is the ‘unknown unknowns’: hearing talks describing strategies we had not thought of, or subjects we had never heard about, encountering new people in workshops and break-outs where we are deliberately separated from colleagues or friends and mixed randomly with those we do not know. These open our minds to fresh paths forward, so we go home stimulated by new ideas.
The composition of associations’ membership is highly variable: members may be individual persons, trade groupings, people exercising the same profession, even a federation of associations. But whatever their aim their operations are very similar from one to another – informing, supporting, organising meetings, promoting and pursuing the aims and interests which are the reason for their formation.
In recent years associations have suffered problems with falling membership numbers and a consequent decrease of subscription income, due to a general tendency in society away from long-term commitment towards individualism and enthusiasms strongly felt but of briefer duration. Associations have countered this trend by offering events focused on specific topics to boost income, and it is exactly these projects which have been major victims of the pandemic, with gatherings forbidden. International associations, ever creative (re-inventing themselves is their forte), have moved to on-line meetings and training sessions, virtual workshops or webinars, but their limited funds mean that they can not indefinitely provide such services free, they need to charge participation fees. Events will multiply again in the future because there is demand for them. Flexibility in approach has proved to be essential. For associations which are charities, donations have been severely curtailed in the past year, and their imagination in contacting their usual contributors has been tested to the extreme.
On-line service provision has increased and improved beyond measure, beyond expectations, to the advantage not only of events but also of the daily work of personnel. Staff members have been encouraged, even ordered, to work from home, thus avoiding daily travel, public transport or proximity in enclosed office spaces. Saving commuting time is a relief, and the future will probably continue to include some days of teleworking each week or two. We can continue in this way with jobs we know, carrying out tasks which are familiar, but it is not so obvious how we can learn and hone new skills. Staff also need reassurance that their function is relevant, and different levels in a structure have to keep in touch regularly to ensure that their connection remains strong. Maintaining staff morale takes time and effort. And from interactions between different people come innovation, inspiration, striking new ideas and sharing experience.
Recruitment of new staff members involves the identification of affinity and empathy, beyond practical skills or training, especially in the small multitasking teams typical of associations. The induction and training of new staff need particular attention, and are unlikely to be successful without direction and affording the new person every opportunity to ask questions and receive guidance
Sustainability as their watchword
The functions and activities of associations characteristically take place over a long cycle of several months or an entire year, with quarterly conferences or annual assemblies, regular publications to be written or guidelines to be revised. For these bodies, sustainability is their watchword: the ‘three R’s’ of ecology are part of their vocabulary, they seek constantly to Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, but another R is also important to them: Resourcefulness. Making the most of limited resources is always in the sights of association work, especially for the many which have no recourse to subsidies and must generate their income by their own efforts.
Congresses and conferences disseminate knowledge to large audiences, and in the past difficult months considerable ingenuity has been employed with on-line means and methods to replace physical attendance. Some of these systems will continue in the future, decreasing travelling to save participants’ carbon footprint, saving some time and expense. Nevertheless, on-line meetings can too easily become unnecessarily frequent and absorb precious time, so refining and editing papers for a restricted programme of face-to-face presentations with a regulated schedule will again be a benefit, alongside the opportunities for social interaction. Many associations hold exhibitions with their meetings, and participants can see visit stands relevant to their interests which pinpoint their needs and requirements.
Congress centres and meeting spaces will be there when we can use them, available for us, even if they have served as hospitals or vaccination centres while we could not. Facilities with spaces which can be modified to suit different sizes of meeting and which have managed to invest in equipment for virtual participation will have an advantage, as hybrid meetings with part physical and part virtual presence are likely to persist in the conference sphere.
The return to physical meetings will be real, even if progress is slow. Arranging a conference is by no means an instant solution: finding the venue for an event takes place months beforehand, and registering the speakers and audience requires weeks or months of preparation on the part of the organisers, all organizers know this. Meanwhile the centres will be seeking to recover their caterers or suppliers and restore their own supply chain, hoping they are still in business, as well as re-engaging their own staff. Numerous congresses have been postponed from 2020 to 2021 in the same place and with similar conditions, complicating the calendar of reservations and spreading thinly the income of providers who will have to make one year’s charges cover two years’ effort. Each time there has been a technical revolution the demise of conferences has been forecast but each time conferences have continued to exist, and the same will be true as the world recovers from the pandemic.
One other aspect of association activity has been affected over the past year: associations are legally obliged to hold regular – usually annual – assemblies for the approval of their accounts, election of officers, and similar administrative matters. This has previously meant that people have gathered at a physical meeting, but many associations have had to resort to virtual means. Physical attendance is normally more efficient and productive and will resume its importance, even if alternative sources are used for some operations. Some legislations have allowed for virtual general assemblies only for a limited time, and associations have been obliged to modify their articles or statutes to permit them to operate with on-line voting. The general assemblies of international associations have been a stalwart of the suppliers of the meetings industry, and they will be again. Confidence will return.
UIA is conducting a major survey to find out how associations have been coping with the pandemic and conditions in the past year, and will report.