In a period that will forever be characterized by disruption, uncertainty and, for many, financial hardships, associations across Canada found themselves facing a unique balancing act.
Even as many confronted dramatic declines in their traditional revenue sources, associations played a critical role supporting organizations devastated by the pandemic. Others represented the interests of professionals on the front lines of the health crisis or helped position entire industries to lead the economic recovery.
“Associations have made it possible for many businesses to get through the last 19 months,” says Erin Benjamin, president of the Canadian Live Music Association. “Our members realized there was no way they could fight for themselves and manage the overwhelming amount of information coming down the pipeline, so they relied on us.”
Now in its third year, the 2021 OTUS Association Exchange – an annual management practice survey of Canadian association executives – examined how the sector is adapting to new operational realities both amid the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.
What emerged from this year’s survey is a diametric story of highs and lows that’s explored on the following pages of this report.
While associations grappled with loss of traditional revenue sources and canceled events, they were also met with higher engagement and interest from members.
As a result, association executives have an unprecedented opportunity to harness the lessons learned from the pandemic in order to move forward, says Francis Liska, CEO of management consulting firm OTUS Group.
“This is the time to look back at what caused the biggest challenges in the last year and learn from the responses to them,” he says. “Associations now have the chance to leverage these learnings to rebuild better for the future.”
The 2021 OAX survey asked association executives for their insights on more than two dozen financial and operational topics. That included an in-depth look at how associations are engaging members.
Nearly half of respondents reported a drop in membership numbers – an unsurprising finding given the economic impact of the pandemic, says Benjamin.
Many businesses, organizations and individuals were forced to cut discretionary spending, which often includes memberships and subscriptions – underscoring the need for associations to articulate a clear value proposition to entice members to stay.
For the Canadian Water and Wastewater Association, losing a large member could have been devastating, says executive director Robert Haller.
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To see the full survey results and read up on tips for how to run a successful association, check out the 2021 OAX Report.
“We have a range of memberships, but if a big player was to pull out, that could be a substantial chunk of our revenues gone,” he says. “It was a big fear, so we had to find better ways to tailor our content to members and become a resource of critical information.”
While their membership numbers may have been in flux, association executives overwhelmingly reported that engagement was up, and their value proposition was more prevalent than ever.
They became a critical two-way conduit of information by advocating on behalf of their members as well as sharing up-to-date information on government support programs.
This resulted in increased contact with members and a more direct line of communication through stronger digital outreach.
“In order to build off that momentum, association leaders will need to stay close to their membership and remind them what makes the organization’s work valuable and relevant going forward,” says OTUS Group president Richard MacNeill. “If you have lost members, reach out to them and keep them in the loop to try and rebuild that relationship.”
Alternatively, for some associations, the increased relevance brought in new members.
At the Canadian Live Music Association, Benjamin saw membership nearly double in the last year.
The CLMA decided to reduce its membership fees to acknowledge the financial strain that many venues, concert promoters and others in the sector were feeling. This allowed them to continue representing a wide cross-section of businesses and advocate on behalf of their interests more effectively.
“We made the decision to open our doors to everyone, even if you couldn’t afford to pay the dues,” she says. “While we were lucky enough to have some members continue to pay, we knew we wouldn’t be able to rely on membership fees to get us through the pandemic.”
Navigating the pandemic economy
Despite the increase in membership, associations still face an uncertain financial future, adds Benjamin.
With large revenue-generating conferences canceled and sponsorship revenues often taking a hit, the majority of OAX respondents say they became increasingly reliant on government funding and grants to stay afloat.
More than half of associations reported decreases in revenue – making it one of the top challenges executives say is facing their organization in the coming years.
The findings underscore the importance of maintaining a healthy operating reserve in case of emergencies, says OTUS Group’s Liska.
“Associations should have between six and 12 months of reserve funds to draw from in case your other revenue streams fall short,” he says.
For Haller, the annual CWWA conference was traditionally a major revenue generator and one of the main appeals of a CWWA membership.
As the organization nears its second year without the event, he worries about the impact on the organization’s bottom line.
“If we go too much longer without a conference, it would hurt us financially and I fear it would start to affect our membership and engagement,” he adds. “It’s been hard.”
That reality is pushing many associations to rethink their revenue streams and expand their service offerings.
Part of that involves rethinking major annual conferences. Nearly half of respondents say they expect to host both in-person and virtual events, a clear indication that some organizations have found a complementary digital sponsorship approach, says OTUS Group’s MacNeill.
Creative event solutions
Associations have long used professional events as a way to attract new members. So it comes as no surprise that executives are eagerly awaiting the return of in-person gatherings.
When asked to rank the success of their various virtual gatherings, association leaders reported that networking was the hardest event to translate into a digital format. Conversely, education and training seminars had the highest levels of engagement.
“We’ve seen a widespread adoption of virtual events, but it seems to be a bit of a placeholder for some associations who are struggling to commit to the technology or adopt new sponsorship models,” says MacNeill. “Even if in-person events return, associations will need to be proactive in marketing those events and not assume that members will automatically return, especially after the cost savings of attending a virtual event.”
At the Canadian Business Aviation Association, members are invited to monthly “Check Thrust Thursdays” where president Anthony Norejko provides critical updates on advocacy campaigns and government regulations while also selling digital sponsorships to offset the association’s costs.
“COVID showed us that there are other options besides flying across the country and walking around a trade show for three days,” says Norejko. “We really focused on spreading out that single-event revenue throughout the year with smaller offerings, and it’s been a really sustainable approach.”
As the association community moves closer to the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, it will be critical to take a look at the highs and the lows of the last year and not fall back into old habits, adds Norejko.
It’s no longer about the return to normal, but instead how association leaders will adapt and find success in this new working environment.
“If you’re in a position of power, you have the opportunity to mould your organization into something new and innovative,” says Norejko. “The question now is: What are you going to do with that opportunity?”
OAX 2021: Key findings
- Slightly more than half of associations saw their revenues decline during the pandemic, driven down by lower event registrations, sponsorships, membership dues and advertising.
- Associations have become more relevant to their members during the pandemic, survey respondents say. Additionally, more than half of associations report membership engagement increasing over the past year.
- Reduced membership numbers is the biggest risk reported by association executives. Four in 10 respondents say their membership numbers have already declined over the past year.
- Associations are anticipating employing a hybrid workforce, in which some staff work from home while others work on-site, once the health risks of COVID-19 subside.
- Virtual conferences, galas and seminars – sometimes mixed with in-person gatherings – are expected to be the dominant event format over the coming years. Few associations are expecting an imminent return of solely in-person events.