In one of my favorite parables, a farmer is beset by a series of volatile wins and losses across his life. Each time he asks, “Good thing? Bad thing? Who knows?” While certain situations seem unequivocally bad or good at the moment, the passage of time provides us with the gift of perspective — to make sense of each of life’s unpredictable twists and turns.
As I look back on a year unlike any other and prepare for what comes next, the importance of maintaining perspective strikes me as particularly resonant. Below I share a handful of areas that I expect to be high on associations’ lists for action in 2021 and beyond. Will the shifts we’ve had to execute this year out of necessity be good things or bad things? Of course, the parable suggests that we reserve making up our minds too quickly. Indeed, gathering the power of perspective will help us summon the courage to move forward without knowing the outcome.
Even with the expectation of game-changing vaccines, the economic and health outlook for 2021 remains highly unpredictable and volatile. Many associations will face budgetary challenges as a result of the inability to hold face-to-face events. The adage “cash is king” will continue to be a solid guiding principle — particularly for organizations approaching the real or perceived limitations to cover operating expenses with reserves. For the foreseeable future, agile scenario planning will remain a must for associations.
COVID-19 has catalyzed issues and opportunities that have been facing associations for years. One of the most recognizable is the “shift to digital.” Our sector has been contemplating this concept, with mixed results, for quite some time. While embracing a “digital-first” approach was once considered an option, it is now imperative.
Another example surrounds associations’ diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts. With renewed consciousness around social justice, DEI has landed squarely at the top of the agenda for many leading associations that also significantly influence workforce and access issues. It is increasingly clear that words and statements alone will not be sufficient to build the inclusive organizations that current and future generations will expect. Associations will need to show meaningful progress and outcomes, but there is a wealth of practical resources, tools, and resources to help associations navigate this topic effectively.
While some had initially hoped for a “V-shaped” economic recovery, the association sector will feel the economic impacts of COVID-19 well into the future. In a particularly challenging dynamic for our industry, the U.S. Travel Association’s travel forecast suggests that we will not see pre-COVID travel levels until 2024.
As the historically durable event revenue stream erodes, associations have to move quickly to explore options for revenue growth and diversification. However, durable new revenue streams do not happen overnight. Associations must adopt a disciplined approach to ideating, testing, and refining their offerings. There is no time to waste in engaging in the work to be done. Similarly, well-capitalized associations consider “buy vs. build” options such as mergers, acquisitions, and joint ventures that accelerate their progress in tapping new markets.
Nimble Governance, Adaptive Strategy
In 2020, we have seen how association governance has seamlessly adapted to an entirely virtual environment. While the personal bonds that boards form and renew at their face-to-face meetings have been frayed, there are considerable advantages to more frequent and focused virtual board meetings.
In the future, I expect that boards will continue to achieve greater efficiency and effectiveness in handling much of their routine business in a virtual environment — a long-overdue reset. We also perceive a noticeable shift toward shorter-term strategic thinking. To that end, we are advising associations to get crystal clear on their highest-order priorities for the next 18-24 months.
Seizing the Moment
As we approach a new year, I am again reminded of the tremendous potential associations have to seize their “leadership moments” in an environment where our citizens, society, and governments need fact-based sources of information and constructive venues for civil discourse. Given the access associations have to legislators and policymakers, as well their proximity to tens of millions of members, there is great potential for new collaborations across professions and industries to drive progress. Indeed, there is so much common ground to explore across our association industry on the high-stakes issues of our time. From advancing climate solutions and responsible criminal justice reform to driving much-needed investments in our physical and public health infrastructure, associations can play a pivotal role in helping to shift our trajectory if we come together to seek common-sense solutions.
In closing, I hope that the new year brings us all the gift of perspective — to enable us to adjust our worldview and consider some of the good along with the bad. I wish you a joyful and restful holiday season during which you can refill your reservoirs of creativity and commitment. I have a feeling we will all need our tanks to be full as we venture forth in 2021.