BIAF 2023: A Glimpse into the Future of Associations

19th December 2023

On 13-14 December, the Brussels International Association Forum (BIAF) unfolded its dynamic agenda at Maison de la Poste, a beacon of sustainability in the heart of the Belgian capital. With approximately 100 participants, the forum emerged as a melting pot of novel ideas and forward-thinking discussions, delving into contemporary themes such as cybersecurity, AI for public affairs, and data management.

Words Remi Deve

BIAF, a premier gathering of representatives of international and European associations, non-profits, federations, professional societies, and NGOs, has from the start aspired to be the global epicenter for knowledge exchange. The 2023 edition, organized once again by ASSOCIATIONWORLD, sought to unite international and European associations and non-profit organizations, fostering peer-to-peer dialogue, sharing best practices, and designing collaborative initiatives to address common challenges.

Here are some key takeaways from the Boardroom team:

1) The Evolution of Association Leadership: Mindful Leadership in a Fast-paced World

During a compelling panel discussion on “The New Role of the Secretary General/Executive Director in Turbulent Times” Strategy Coach Paul Rulkens urged association leaders to rethink their thinking. “We’re living in a fast-paced world where we have outsourced our thinking,” he asserted. “That’s why we need to rethink our thinking, and focus on our strengths instead of trying to compensate for our weaknesses.” This emphasis on adopting a mindful leadership style resonated as a strategic pathway to success in today’s dynamic and ever-evolving landscape.

2) Navigating the ESG Landscape: Building Compelling Business Cases

Tracy Bury, Founder & CEO of OPERANDI and former Deputy CEO of World Physiotherapy, moderated a panel on the challenges faced by international associations in speaking with one voice on the topic of Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG). As Colm Clark, Partner, Exempla Management Consulting noted: “Sometimes international associations struggle to speak with one voice on ESG, and this can impact leadership decisions.” The key takeaway was that with some fresh thinking and analysis, associations can build compelling business cases for action on at least some aspects of the ESG agenda.

3) Digital Transformation as a Catalyst: A Best Practice Case Study

A best practice case study featuring the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS) showcased the transformative power of digital innovation. Manuela Capraro, Head of Core Mission – Learning and Resourcing at WAGGGS, passionately conveyed, “Transforming an organization digitally means reshaping how people collaborate, introducing new ways of working, and fostering a culture of continuous improvement and learning.” Capraro also emphasized that adopting new digital tools not only streamlines processes but also prompts a profound shift in mindset and behavior.

4) Back to Basics in Strategic Planning: A Journey in Change Management

Tracy Bury underscored the importance of revisiting the basics of strategic planning. “Sometimes it’s good to go back to the basics of strategic planning,” she argued. She emphasized the critical steps of clearly defining vision, purpose, and mission to become future-proof. “Strategic planning is your plan to focus on your priorities, how to get to where you want to go, and the resources you will allocate to get there. It’s all about change management, and being able to say no to things. It’s a tool for clarity and purpose.”

5) Data Management Challenges: Navigating the Digital Landscape

In addressing the critical challenges of data management, the forum recognized the multifaceted issues faced by associations. “Associations face critical challenges in managing their data efficiently,” noted Thibaut de Vylder, CEO of, dFakto. “The constant influx of data requires robust governance to standardize processes.” Striking a balance between accessibility and security, adapting to evolving regulations, and catering to stakeholder needs emerged as ongoing challenges. The imperative to embrace advanced technologies and foster a data-centric culture were highlighted as crucial steps for associations to successfully navigate these obstacles.

BIAF 2023 proved to be more than just a forum—it was a transformative odyssey that framed emerging topics for the audience, inspiring active participation and passionate discussions. The overwhelming engagement underscored the forum’s commitment to peer-to-peer exchange, knowledge transfer, and the sharing of best case studies – solidifying its position as a beacon for the future of association leadership.

Upcoming events organized by ASSOCIATIONWORLD include the Washington International Association Forum, taking place January 31-February 1 and the first-ever Montréal International Association Forum on 5-6 February.

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