The Dilemma of Agility vs Stability

2nd March 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic is in not the first major crisis that associations are facing and it will certainly not be the last, as we live in an ever-changing environment. In this context, how can member organizations adapt, even with limited resources? To what extent should they be agile and in what ways should they guarantee stability for their members and stakeholders? This is what the latest ESAE webinar explored.

Words Remi Deve

As you would expect, Boardroom partner ESAE (the European Society of Association Executives) put together a nice mix of association panelists from different backgrounds. Discussions revolved around the notions of agility vs. stability, the diversification of revenue streams when in-person events are cancelled or postponed, the need to invest in people, the race to remain relevant, and extensive case studies that were much debated on.

Nele Devolder, Association Director at association management company Kellen, started by giving a good overview of the challenges that associations are facing at the moment. If there is undoubtedly a strong need for education and peer-to-peer exchange, the fact that events are only happening online has had a strong impact on the finances of associations, which have been forced to search for alternative streams of revenues. Hybrid meetings will be here for a good part of 2021, and who really can tell what 2022 will look like? “In this context, associations have to make sure that they remain a safe haven for their members,” said Devolder. “Their value proposition has to be clear, so they can meet their members’ expectations and remain relevant. Solutions can include the rethinking of membership structures and collaboration with like-minded organizations.”

Echoing Nele’s insights, Nicholas Hodac, Director General, UNESDA Soft Drinks Europe, said that they “have had to redefine what values and achievements really mean in the last twelve months”, with soft drink producers having to appreciate the changing views on sustainability, and the issues of plastic bottles and obesity finding themselves at centre stage the world over. Still, Hodac argued that “changes and crises are opportunities.”

For UNESDA, the pandemic was, in a way, the ideal occasion to take a step back and to listen to all of its members (corporates and national associations, each with a different view). During a storm, the association becomes, indeed, the beacon of stability the members should rely on, and the highest calibre of professionalism should be showcased at every level of the association. To do so, agility is key. “How do you make your members feel like they are partners of the association?” wondered Hodac. “You have to inject agility into the organization to adjust to a challenging environment and deliver your services in a meaningful way.” For UNESDA, this included the development of new skill sets, the reduction of costs (the differentiation between what is “good to have” and what is “necessary to have”), and the understanding that perfection, anyway, can rarely be attained.

Joe Elborn, Secretary General, European Youth Forum (EYF), provided his take on agility, which, to him, is a little peculiar since his organization mostly does advocacy work. He differentiated between agile structure and agile culture, even if the two can’t go without one another. To him, “an agile structure can only work with a radically reduced priority list”: at EYF, this meant planning for capacity redistribution (with tasks being performed by more people than was the case previously), and regular “pulse checkings” while removing all individual KPIs and reviewing systems so that bureaucracy is annihilated. “Space and collaboration allow for agility,” argued Elborn. “In an agile culture, you have to be comfortable with mistakes and embrace vulnerability. In this regard, if you treat your staff as an important customer – perhaps the most important one – strategic decisions made by the Board will be more easily implemented.”

Agility is the central theme of ESAE’s activities in 2021, which you can access here.

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