Building Back Better: Associations Set the Future in Motion

23rd March 2021

In Boardroom’s previous article of this ‘Building Back Series’, we established that associations of all sectors will offer a vital contribution to getting back what’s lost from the pandemic and turn into an improved version which will shape a brighter future. The task at hand is not an easy one; big and small associations alike will need support, guidance and strong collaboration links to achieve their goals and, thus, benefit the planet. That’s where global Associations of Associations, such as the European Society of Association Executives (ESAE), the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE), the African Society of Association Executives (AfSAE), AC Forum and the Union of International Associations (UIA), jump in and help regroup, refocus and rebuild.

Words Vicky Koffa

International associations of associations, meaning organizations which work to advance and promote the association management profession – have grown in membership as the need for radical changes to the better increases and an alignment of objectives is crucial. Members – associations in this case – need a homogenous solid basis, a platform to consult with in order to acquire the best knowledge for future steps, a clear understanding of their role in the recovery process. How can all these pieces and differences fall into place so that everyone achieves their set goals?

How Can Associations of Associations Help

Most of these organizations agree that educating associations and their executives is key for a better future. Ioannis Pallas, Association Manager at European Society of Association Executives (ESAE), shares his insights: “The health crisis accelerated changes that were already at play in our sector. The professionalization of our services, the inclusiveness of our structures and the sustainability towards which our actions need to aim for, had already been identified as priorities even before Covid. Nevertheless, most Associations moved slowly towards achieving these goals. Today, we have no choice but to accelerate, in order not to become obsolete. ESAE is centrally positioned as an Association of Associations to help its members become the ambassadors of this change. We do not merely educate the Association professionals of today; we also build the foundations for the Executives of tomorrow. And raising the profile of our Association Management profession in the process is a fundamental way to do so.”

Educating executives on how to do business best in the future requires the adoption of more progressive tools, as the inability to travel has taught us. Associations are adapting their strategies according to their members’ needs, as Amy Hissrich, CAE at the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE), informs us: “ASAE is in the midst of a strategic planning process, initiated before the pandemic actually, and we are envisioning becoming a digital-first organization. That doesn’t mean we’re going to stop doing in-person conferences, but it will mean taking more of an omni-channel approach to the way our members connect and learn within ASAE, where some in-person offerings will be reimagined for virtual formats that can be stream-able and on-demand. Our lines of communication are going to be critical to the success of our goals.”

However, offering educational platforms with random topics will not bring the desired results. A more targeted approach after attentively listening to associations’ needs will certainly go a long way. “As the community of association executives in our region, our overall role is to help mitigate the impact that the pandemic has had on our associations. The impact brought about by lack of revenue sources such as non-dues, membership dues, conferences, expos, and events; other issues related to member engagements, staffing and work policies affecting performances of staff and volunteers. When we are able to understand these issues from our members, then we are able to offer a plan,” explains Jeffers Miruka, President of the African Society of Association Executives (AfSAE).

Keeping An Open Mind Leads To Fruitful Change

Once knowledge of what is vital for a sustainable future has settled in, associations will – and many have already started doing so – look within their management, structures and strategies for change. “Largely influenced by the changing association landscape, the theme of the next AC Forum Annual Meeting is ‘Building a sustainable future’. This is a hot topic among our members, and there has been much discussion about planning for the future and “future-proofing” associations. Indeed, AC Forum ran a recent webinar on planning for 2021 and beyond, where C-level staff of our member associations gathered to discuss and review changes in their business planning going forward,” says Finola Quinn, Secretariat Manager at Associations and Conference (AC) Forum.

All our interviewees agree that profound change needs an open mind and attentive ears towards all team members. “Associations need to engage more with their members, in a coherent and all-inclusive way. This is no time for closed clubs, but for open structures, where everybody’s opinion should be judged on merit in institutions that are open to change and adaptable to constructive criticism. Values should not be preached but applied to our everyday functions, be it the way we treat our teammates or the way we plan our meetings and events,” says Pallas. “But be careful not to change too much too fast, otherwise you run the risk of alienating your existing members and distancing yourself from your Association’s mission.”

Through communication, associations will find a way to align their own goals and missions to those of the planet as a whole. “Communication is a two-way process: sending messages is only one of the ways, listening to each other and listening to the planet is the other,” confirms Union of International Associations (UIA) Secretary General Jacques de Mévius. If association goals – may those be social, cultural, economic or environmental – become tenets for their work towards recovery, success is guaranteed for all parties involved.

Hissrich goes into detail on this: “Building a stronger economy through industrial development, product and service innovation and through facilitating domestic and international business; enhancing job skills by advancing workers’ job skills and creating new employment opportunities across virtually every industry sector; strengthening lives through volunteerism, creating industry standards of quality and safety, providing disaster relief: succeed in these and the future will be a bright one.”

Time For Tangible Action

Basically, the building of a better future is an all-hands-on-deck job, in this case all sectors of economy and society, with associations being a shining beacon in their respective domain. Following the education received and the internal change mentioned above, associations will then need to look outside their bubble for concrete actions towards sustainability. Intersectoral and interregional collaboration and community building is key to this end; and associations are experts in that. 

Miruka talks about this collaboration on a human level as well: “As associations, we broadly understand that the key pillars of sustainability are economic, environmental, cultural and social. We like referring to these pillars as people, planet and profits. We encourage our associations to prepare a knowledgeable human capital, to work smart in order to drive change and attract revenue. As associations, we want to engage with our communities through collaboration, and by creating strong inter-regional networks. We want to develop capacity through our community of interest networks, where access to the best knowledge, skills and abilities, tools, and career-development resources are available in driving our successes.”

In regard to this extensive collaboration, big organizations are adapting their offering according to the new needs of their members in order to provide easy access to ideas and experiences sharing as well as action coordination. “Our members are cognizant themselves of their role in the evolution to a more sustainable future. As we move into the next phase, AC Forum is tightening the focus on key indicators of trends for associations in the future and expanding the frameworks for peer interaction as well as learning from experts. Our members recognize the need to ensure they remain relevant as associations and offer a beneficial value proposition,” says Quinn.

Similarly, Hissrich points out another task her organization has when supporting associations in their missions: “We continue to advocate on behalf of the role that associations will play in the economic recovery. Advocacy is now, more than ever, a critical function that associations and non-profit organizations cannot overlook in terms of its importance. Associations have access to millions of skilled professionals and experts in different fields who can share valuable perspectives with policymakers, raise important questions, and help formulate strategies for approaching difficult, multi-layered issues.”

To sum it all up, because of the pandemic and the forced changes that came with it, the knowledge and the tools are largely there; so is the support and the guidelines. For associations, the road to building back a better future is now clear and associations of associations are working hard to keep it that way, as Pallas states: “Investing in the future should be in the center of your actions today.” And Miruka confirms: “There is a saying: A wise man changes his mind sometimes, but a fool never. What I mean is that if change is good in order to achieve our mission and goals of our associations, we will all support it.”

This article is graciously sponsored by Madrid Convention Bureau, whose values align with the Building Back Better concept.

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