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April 21, 2021

Renewal, Reinvention and Responsibility for Associations in 2021

Your association survived a year of extreme uncertainty and change, but how does it compare to other organizations in the sector?

The 2021 edition of McKinley’s Association Viewpoint, “Renewal, Reinvention and Responsibility,” provides context on the past and highlights case studies and opportunities to consider in a post-COVID environment. We share high-level findings below and encourage you to download the full report.

A focus on the individual

While our world is connected in sometimes intricate and surprising ways, it has never been clearer that there is no collective without the individual. Associations are unique in bringing together individuals to support a shared purpose. Simultaneously, advancing a collective while representing individual interests is often an association’s greatest challenge.

This year, we pay tribute to the individual while sharing important trends and developments from across the sector.

Steady but uneven recovery

Depending on where you live, your socioeconomic status, your political affiliation, or almost any other demographic, you likely have a different perspective on 2020 and the anticipated pace of recovery in 2021.

A Pew Research Center study reveals that, while the labor and stock markets have mostly recovered since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, these recoveries do not represent the financial hardships that many Americans continue to experience. According to the Pew study, about a quarter of U.S. adults say they or someone in their household lost a job due to COVID-19; the hardest hit are young adults and lower-income adults.

The full report provides more detail on some of the anticipated divides that will occur over the next few years between segments of society. We also suggest roles that associations can play in helping to bridge those divides.

Study highlights

Following a tumultuous 2020, the outlook for many associations has turned decidedly downbeat. At the same time, promising trends have emerged around association innovation and resilience.

Declines in key indicators

Core association indicators look dramatically different today than just a year ago. Levels of concern and the number of associations reporting membership declines have nearly doubled in one year. Professional associations have suffered the greatest hit.

Graphic demonstrating the makeup of various industries

Impact factors

Associations continue to attribute their optimism to strong leadership. For those with concerned outlooks, membership and revenue declines are major drivers.

Swift cost-cutting measures

McKinley’s 2020 COVID-19 pulse survey revealed quick action on the part of many associations to manage costs with operational freezes such as hiring, salary and budget. Those trends are set to continue into 2021.

Smart investments

Associations recognize that long-term sustainability requires strategic and deliberate investments. Respondents have prioritized non-dues revenue, DEI and improved member retention. In fact, DEI has seen a nearly three-fold increase since last year.

Systemic change

Last year’s extreme and unprecedented events forced many associations to change how they do business. Associations will need to go deeper into systems and processes to realize lasting success on everything from DEI to political advocacy to revenue diversification. 

Final takeaways

Association performance and outlook took a dramatic, downward turn over the past 12 months, but strong leadership and the ability to convene a community around a shared mission ensure the sector’s long-term sustainability. Associations should recognize that fundamental change requires a commitment to the means (e.g., systems or processes) and not just the outcomes (e.g., revenue diversification).

Additionally, associations will need to carry forward some of the agility and innovation they demonstrated in 2020. They should apply those tenets to build more informed, nimble, and sustainable business models that promote inclusion and equity.

Download the 2021 Association Viewpoint report


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