Current Affairs

“Still Going Global?” – Thoughts & Advice from Association Leaders

29th October 2020

International Advisor to the Global Association Hubs Martin Sirk interviewed four association leaders in preparation for an interactive online education session during the recent #PlanetIMEX event, focusing on how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted their current global operations and priorities, how it is reshaping their strategic thinking and longer-term development plans, and what they believe the future of international meetings will look like.

Colleen Eubanks, CEO International Association for the Study of Pain, Mohamed Mezghani, Secretary General UITP, International Association for Public Transport, Tracy Bury, Deputy CEO, World Physiotherapy & President, AC Forum, and Tommy Goodwin, Legislative & Regulatory Affairs Lead, Project Management Institute, all shared their insights during in-depth recorded interviews that are also available below.

Radical & Surprising

Arising from the interviews and the session itself were some radical, sometimes surprising, insightful, and generally optimistic perspectives and predictions. The one common thread is that we are going to have to invent the future of international associations ourselves, and not leave this up to the vagaries of fate.

The conversation started around the immediate impact of the pandemic on global activities. In all four organizations, member reassurance and support has taken centre stage and been the immediate priority, rather than trying to replace revenue lost from the cancellation of F2F events. “Members needed to be reassured they’re not alone…the sense of belonging to a global community was very important” pointed out Mezghani. A comment which was echoed by Tommy Goodwin: “For all associations, being there for their communities when they were needed the most had to be first priority.” As for World Physiotherapy, as a federation, they “had to acknowledge the huge variation in capacity of [theirmember organizations to support their members, so they “adopted working practices to be really responsive.”

Intensive communication (from the centre and supporting peer-to-peer channels), super-fast local feedback mechanisms, revamped and extended resource centres, new member/staff action groups, and extensive free resources on both COVID-19 and general topics were some of the tactical steps that had to be taken quickly and efficiently.

“Inter-regional communication has been vital… including advance warnings from China and others hit early by the pandemic,” remarked Colleen Eubanks. In this respect, transparency was key. “For our Education Task Force (to teach physiotherapy treatments for coronavirus patients) – global – we brought in people whose countries had been through the pandemic and were coming out of it OK,” explained Bury.

Mohamed Mezghani’s unedited interview

Opening up Opportunities

So, if the pandemic’s impact may have been extreme, it has also opened up all kinds of opportunities, across such diverse areas such as working practices, digital transformation and advocacy. As Eubanks put it: “It feels like IASP is blowing itself up and reinventing itself, [buthome working has gone surprisingly well… we discovered we can function very effectively.”

It’s now been made clear that “all associations are digital, whether they started years ago or are pandemic-driven… COVID-19 brought that into focus”, according to Tommy Goodwin, while Mohamed Mezghani remarked: “In the pre-COVID era it would have taken months to set up meetings with mainstream media and senior policymakers… now they contact us!”

And of course, all education has moved online, and traditional timelines, formats, delivery channels, audience sizes and financial models have been upended and reinvented: “one-day-per-month congress”, “micro-certifications”, “digital world tour”, and “significant increases in audiences for world-class content” were a few examples that were mentioned, even if, as Eubanks pointed out “Zoom burnout is now a reality”.

Tommy Goodwin’s unedited interview

Future global strategy 
The pandemic appears to have reinforced the sense of mission in many associations, and the societal responsibility and importance of international associations in general. But long-established practices and policies are all being questioned far more urgently than pre-COVID-19, and communities are being redefined.

“We need short time-lines, agile boards, less formality. Board positions used to take a year or more to adopt, we’ve adopted three recently in a matter of weeks,” shared Mezghani. Eubanks agreed on the agility principle: “Old, methodical board decision-making isn’t adequate – new models for much faster and more efficient decision-making are needed.”

Now maybe the ideal time to pause and reflect, according to Bury: “our mission doesn’t change, what changes is how we demonstrate value to our members.”

The understanding of “global” is definitely changing. “The future of global associations is to be regional. It’s not enough to have a global strategy, you have to have boots on the ground – operationally practical, culturally aware,” said Tommy Goodwin. If Eubanks imagined a world with “maybe no large association headquarters in future,” we also need to be “diverse and inclusive – opinions change from being exposed to people from other countries and cultures,” according to Bury.” Also, as Mezghani remarked, strategy should be centred on “staff and the people in our member organisations.”

And there is a huge menu of strategic options on the table: “senior regional staff around the world” and “global and regional partnerships”, according to Goodwin, “advocacy partnerships with other associations”, “collaborative strategy”, and “weekly-meeting Task Forces, geographical and sectoral”, according to Eubanks, Bury and Mezghani respectively.

Tracy Bury’s unedited interview

This piece is part of the exclusive partnership between Boardroom and the Global Association Hubs, which comes as an innovative response to the increasing decentralization of international associations as they look to develop their activities globally.

All association leaders remain convinced about the vital importance and irreplaceable advantages of F2F international meetings, where the association’s culture takes concrete form and serendipitous encounters thrive, but there is huge uncertainty about when large gatherings will be feasible, the balance between global and regional events, and what kind of formats will best deliver specific objectives. The future will definitely be hybrid, not only to reach out to larger global audiences, but as an insurance policy in case F2F meetings need to be cancelled and moved online at short notice.

Eubanks said that “planning will be subject to much more uncertainty… we will be prepared to change at short notice. There will be large meetings, but fewer, and more regional in attendance.” In this respect, “meetings will be different, but they were probably going to be different anyway! There will be more regional meetings, more hub & spoke formats…F 2F has to be so unique, so special, it can’t be replicated,” Goodwin exclaimed. “But even regional events will include global content and perspectives… there will be fewer large events but many more small, focused events, some online, some F2F”, according to Mezghani.

Finally, destinations be prepared: associations will be demanding a lot more from their event-hosting partners in future, starting by proving they can “help us reach our financial goals”, argued Eubanks. “Don’t sell to me, develop a relationship with us!” added Bury. “Destinations shouldn’t restrict themselves to in-person events; they need to help us with digital events as well. Help us design the right business model… and invent new event experiences,” said Mezghani.

“Embedding the event in the destination should be the goal, not organising it at the destination – engagement, legacy and integration are a tremendously compelling proposition for associations,” concluded Goodwin.

Colleen Eubanks’ unedited interview
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