What the Research Says About the Pandemic’s Impact on Associations

A bumper crop of survey reports has arrived this spring that provides insight into the pandemic’s impact on associations and an outlook on association priorities. We’ve pulled out some highlights from each of them, but all of them are worth downloading and reading alongside your mid-morning coffee.

•    Association Innovation Scan conducted in the summer of 2020 by Mary Byers, CAE, CSP, in partnership with the Loyalty Research Center.
•    2021 Membership Performance Benchmark Survey conducted in December 2020 by Advanced Solutions International (ASI).
•    The Conference Roadmap to Recovery conducted in January 2021 by Ricochet, HPN Global, and Bruce Rosenthal Associates.
•    Association Viewpoint: Renewal, Reinvention and Responsibility conducted in February 2021 by McKinley Advisors.

The role of professional development

Since we’re learning nerds, we always laser in on findings relevant to association education professionals. McKinley Advisors shared an observation by the Pew Research Center on what life will look like in 2025: expect “tele-everything.” Associations with virtual events and online education are ahead of this tele-curve.

McKinley said association training and reskilling programs help people adapt to the changing workplace and alleviate the effects of economic inequality. Knowledge sharing helps prevent the spread of misinformation, another disturbing trend.

The pandemic’s impact on associations

Association execs surveyed by McKinley named the three most unfavorable circumstances of the pandemic:

•    Membership decline
•    Contraction of revenue streams
•    Lack of diversification in revenue streams

As expected, the news from the financial front is gloomy. 53% of ASI’s participants saw a decline in revenue. 64% of McKinley’s participants reported a reduction in budget (up from 32% in 2020) and 48% in had a reduction in hiring (up from 20% in 2020).

smiley and sad faces - pandemic’s impact on associations

Silver linings of the past year

The biggest silver linings come to associations with a more innovative mindset and culture, said Mary Byers. They “were more successful at navigating the challenges that came early in the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The execs surveyed by McKinley said the two most favorable circumstances during the pandemic were a strong executive staff leadership and high-functioning board—essential elements for innovation. The third favorable circumstance was diversification of revenue streams—the result of an innovative mindset and culture.

ASI pointed out two additional positive outcomes: member engagement increased for 49% of their respondents and virtual event attendance increased for 66%. As a result, 58% of associations earned new revenue from virtual events and 37% earned new revenue from online training/materials. What a shame that last number isn’t higher, a missed opportunity.

The future of conferences

Ricochet and its partners asked association members about their interest in attending events this year.

•    56% are interested in virtual.
•    53% are interested in in-person.
•    43% are interested in hybrid.

The respondents “shared a developing perspective that virtual events offer sufficient education without travel expense and time away from the office.” In a rush to go back to traditional event formats, don’t ignore the large audience who prefers virtual no matter what’s going on in the world.

The interest in hybrid events could simply mean members want options. Ricochet noted an “interest in the emerging hub-and-spokes hybrid format that gathers small ‘spokes’ of people to participate in conference content web-broadcasted from a hub.” ASAE is using something like this format for its Annual Meeting in August 2020.

The Ricochet respondents said the factors influencing their decision to attend in-person events include:

•    Venue sanitation procedures
•    Rate of COVID infections
•    Social distancing and spaced seating
•    Wide adoption of the COVID vaccine
•    Mask requirement for attendees
•    Government travel restrictions
•    Employer travel restrictions: Respondents said 28% of employers are eliminating or reducing reimbursement.

The future outlook

McKinley’s participants said their three highest priorities for 2021 are non-dues revenue, DEI, and member retention. ASI participants said their top goal is increasing member engagement. They then identified challenges to achieving that engagement goal:

•    System costs
•    An inability to measure engagement, including poor or incomplete data, and inadequate reporting tools

Nearly one-third of McKinley’s respondents, or nearly double last year’s number, reported concern about their association and industry. Looking on the bright side, two/thirds must not be concerned.

When ASI asked their participants how they felt about their organization’s future growth/sustainability over the next year, the average ranking was 66 on a scale of 1 to 100, reflecting some confidence in the future.

brave woman crossing a scary suspension bridge - pandemic’s impact on associations

Future-ready associations

The report from Mary Byers shows the way forward. She said, “Associations have been reactively innovating since the pandemic began because they have to. The purpose of this research is to encourage—and invite—associations to make innovation a proactive part of their culture going forward because they choose to, and because the resulting return on investment is well worth it.”

Here’s one example of that ROI paying off. Prior to the pandemic, her research showed innovation was less likely to have an impact on learning management systems. She said, “Ironically, those with… learning management systems in place prior to the pandemic likely felt less impact on income and operations, a reminder that proactive innovation is one way to contribute to an association’s long-term sustainability.”

Before the pandemic, the top constraints on innovation were:

•    Lack of staff time or budget
•    An organizational structure that slows innovation
•    No sense of urgency
•    Lack of senior leadership vision

Now, the most common innovation constraints are:

•    Complacency or inability to change (paralysis)
•    Lack of resources
•    Lack of vision

The real truth has emerged: complacency and a reluctance or inability to change is the real problem. Perhaps you too have heard stories about associations with deep reserves who, as Byers put it, believed it was “better to maintain the status quo than risk rocking the boat.” What a shame.

To be successful over the next five years, association executives said the most necessary aspects of innovation are prioritization followed by building and cultivating a culture of innovation. Byers says these facets of innovation require focus, time, and attention, not necessarily large budgets.

She invites associations to take the 10% Pledge, a terrific way to exercise your innovation muscle:

“A commitment to regularly innovate and reinvent 10% of their activities (advocacy, membership recruitment and retention, meeting/events, communications, publications, certification, etc.) on a continuous basis. This pledge is designed to create ‘innovation mindfulness,’ a state that eschews complacency and actively seeks new and different ways to create value.”

The pandemic revealed the weaknesses and strengths of associations. If your staff and leadership operated with a change-adept mindset, you were better positioned to deliver value in new ways to members, customers, sponsors, and exhibitors. An innovative association culture has the resilience to succeed in tough times and thrive in good times.

association research reports
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