Recession-Proof Your Association’s Learning Business

Learning business” is the phrase used by Tagoras to describe organizations that deliver adult lifelong learning, continuing education, and professional development. Associations are learning businesses along with other membership organizations, academic continuing ed departments, for-profit learning providers, training firms, and solo edupreneurs.

Your association needs the right mindset and strategies to succeed in the competitive learning business market, especially in an uncertain economy. In your case, the learning business mindset is guided not just by the bottom line, but by mission too.

To ensure you have the resources to invest in your mission, you must recession-proof your association’s learning business by:

•    Increasing the awareness of the need for lifelong learning among professionals in your industry and their employers.
•    Spending resources wisely by only delivering what your market needs and sunsetting the rest.
•    Differentiating your programs from competitors and exceeding customers’ expectations.


What you’re up against

The likelihood of a recession is a daily topic in op-ed and business columns. With so many factors at play, no one can predict what will happen, but it’d be foolhardy to pretend everything will be rosy.

Some economists see high inflation and economic stagnation—stagflation—in our future. Some issues are indisputable. Energy and labor costs have gone up. The prices for consumer and business goods are soaring. Interest rates are rising. Business journalists report companies are already making budget cuts, conducting more frequent budget reviews, and experiencing longer buying cycles and tighter cash flows.

Add in other factors whose impact on the economy is still unknown—China’s reopening, war in Ukraine, political battles all over the globe, and a persistent pandemic—and you can see why you should hope for the best but prepare for the worst.  

Define your recession-focused value proposition

Your association’s staff and volunteer leaders don’t define the value of your programs, the people in your market do. Find out what kind of information and training industry professionals need and value in an uncertain, challenging economy. Solicit this feedback via various methods and channels so you hear the views of all market segments.

Gain insight from those who have weathered recessions before. People are different now, but you might get a better handle on what to expect.

Brainstorm to identify gaps you can fill:

•    What can people not do on their own?
•    What’s too expensive for them to do on their own?
•    What can you provide that they can’t afford to get elsewhere?

Think about how you can help people:

•    Improve and acquire skills and knowledge.
•    Connect with others.
•    Get business and job leads.
•    Access information.
•    Find the support they need from coaches, mentors, and peers.
•    Feel a sense of belonging in a community.

Stoke demand for your online learning and credentialing programs

Employers are questioning expenses and tightening budgets. You must convince them that professional development is not a luxury for good times but an insurance policy for bad times.

Use content marketing to create the awareness of their problem first—the challenges they’ll face if they don’t invest in their employees’ professional development. Then show them the solution—your programs. This tactic also works for individuals who pay for education out of their own pocket.

The time to invest in professional development is when the economy and labor market is uncertain. When the cost of replacing an employee ranges from one-half to two times an employee’s annual salary, it’s more cost effective to keep them on the payroll and have them spend time acquiring new skills than laying them off.

Professionals prefer joining or staying with employers who support their growth. 94% of participants in a LinkedIn survey said they would stay at a company longer if it invested in their careers. 75% of frontline employees—retail associates, nursing aides, customer service reps, and administrative assistants—told McKinsey they prioritize learning opportunities for career advancement.

By supporting professional development, employers will:

•    Minimize employee burnout and improve morale.
•    Increase employee retention.
•    Demonstrate commitment to a person’s growth.
•    Build a leadership pipeline.
•    Leverage talent to become more competitive when the economy bounces back.

Recessions don’t last long. Employers should prepare their teams now so they can take advantage of good times ahead.


Develop the capacity to pounce on opportunities

The pandemic provided proof of associations’ ability to quickly respond to new needs and conditions by ramping up new educational programs—webinars, certificate programs, online courses, and virtual conferences. If your market faces a new challenge, where will professionals turn to learn how to handle it? If you want them to head your way, assess your ability to respond.

•    How long does it take to identify and validate a market need?
•    Who slows down that process?
•    How long does it take to deliver a program that provides the information or teaches professionals the skills they need?
•    What obstacles affected how quickly your association responded in the past? Have you eliminated those obstacles? If not, do you have a plan in place to eliminate them?

Associations that took part in the 2022 Association Economic Outlook Report from Marketing General Incorporated identified who and what’s to blame.

•    Lack of staff expertise to launch programs and new initiatives (56%)
•    Slow pace of board decision-making (56%)
•    Slow pace of senior executive decision-making (53%)

Is this painfully familiar? Then, it’s time to overhaul governance processes or find ways to operate around them. If you get resistance from volunteer leaders, bring in a consultant to help them see the light.

Members must learn to accept an equitable and appropriate balance of power between staff and volunteers. They also must learn to let go of programs that aren’t delivering ROI no matter how hard they worked on them initially. A sunset review process will help you invest resources where they deliver value to the association and its members and market.

Recession-proof your learning business

Your association can provide certainty and guidance to industry professionals who are tired, anxious, and cautious.

Provide justification tools. Help them make a business case to their employer about why they should invest in a particular learning program. Do the cost/benefit analysis for them to show what the employee and the employer will gain.  

Outline pathways. Show people the way forward. Map out the knowledge and skills needed to reach common career goals and the programs and resources you can provide to help. Display these learning and career pathways on your website with links to your catalog. Include testimonials from people who have followed the path.

Diversify non-dues revenue streams. The lack of revenue diversification was a huge problem for many associations during the pandemic. Get your house in order before the next crisis hits.

Take a content-driven approach to sponsorship. In our non-dues revenue outlook, we dove into this sponsorship strategy. Partnering with sponsors on educational content is a win/win for everyone. They want an authoritative platform where they can share their expertise and you need to fill content gaps and diversify your revenue streams while delivering value to members.

Offer learning subscriptions. We’re seeing more and more associations designing learning subscriptions, another topic we’ve explored a few times before.

Meet the need for condensed credentialing programs. What can you teach people in four to eight weeks? What kind of credential can they earn to show employers the competencies they’ve mastered? Think about new frontline, entry-, or mid-level credentials in specific topics or niches.

Keep reminding your members and market they’re not alone, not when they have a relationship with you. They’re part of a professional community of people who are experiencing the same conditions. But they have the advantage as part of your community. They can recession-proof their career by strengthening their network and improving their skills and knowledge.

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