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Masters of reinvention: How Canadian associations are leveraging pandemic lessons and forging a new path forward

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Transforming any organization during volatile times requires a heightened level of flexibility, adaptability and strong leadership. 

If the way we respond to crises defines us, then Canada’s associations should call themselves the masters of reinvention. Over the past two years, many association executives demonstrated solid leadership by evolving their strategies to help their members navigate through the pandemic.  

Now in its fourth year, the 2022 OTUS Association Exchange – an annual management practice survey of Canadian association executives – examined how associations adapted on the fly and found new best practices that not only allowed associations to sustain their operations, but in some cases, permanently transformed how they do business. 
Throughout the pages of this report, a story emerges of how associations pivoted to stay financially afloat while streamlining their operations and increasing engagement with members and key government stakeholders.

While associations were undoubtedly thrown off course by the pandemic, as Richard MacNeill, president of OTUS Group points out, there remains a sense of optimism around the fact that teams now have the chance to build back better. 

“Associations are trying to rebuild in a more efficient, more effective manner that can ultimately better serve the needs of their membership,” said MacNeill. “It’s like someone’s thrown all the cards up in the air and now they’re landing.” 

Read the report!

OAX report

What is the long-term impact of digital transformation for associations? How will Canada’s fluctuating economy impact membership? Find out this and more by downloading the 2022 OTUS Association Exchange Report.

Download the report!

Sustaining revenues and examining spending 

For years, associations had a steady sense of where their revenues would come from: membership fees, sponsorships and for many, an annual conference. But, as the results of the OAX survey demonstrate, association executives were able to find new ways of sustaining the bottom line amidst canceled events and rising costs. 

Nearly half of respondents saw an increase in revenues – or maintained the status quo. Instead of simply focusing on how to bring new money in, which many did through switching to online events and webinars, other associations looked inwards at where they could cut back spending or reinvest.

Nicole Thibault, executive director of Canadian Parents for French, got creative by repurposing the organization’s travel funds in order to offer virtual programming to members.

“All of a sudden we couldn’t travel, so we negotiated with the government [to find a new way to invest the money],” said Thibault. “They were very flexible and said we could put that funding towards technology and equipment.”

Similarly, Erin Benjamin, president and CEO of the Canadian Live Music Association (CLMA), took advantage of government grants to bring her organization to a surplus, but she is already thinking about how to sustain the CLMA’s new financial foundation. 

“We helped the industry raise $70 million,” said Benjamin. “Now we’re going to ask for the industry to reinvest in us so we can keep the relationship and the success going.”

Others in the sector chose to delay any big expenditures while they regained their footing and focused on growing reserves. 

Close to half of respondents reported an increase in their reserve funds, a sign that more associations are looking to save long term. 

For the Helicopter Association of Canada (HAC) president and CEO Trevor Mitchell, taking on a leadership role during a period of uncertainty meant rethinking spending.

“My first step after taking over seven months ago was cutting costs,” said Mitchell. With help from the board, Mitchell did a line-by-line audit of their expenses and cut a number of subscriptions, while also deferring his move from Regina to Ottawa to eliminate the relocation expense. “Nowadays, we simply have to live within our means.”

Making the digital shift

Operationally, there were substantial changes, and unsurprisingly the common thread across all associations was digital adoption.

Seventy per cent of respondents reported an increased use of cloud solutions, as well as a drastic increase in electronic payments. 

“The pandemic allowed associations to look at how they were operating and assess if it was most efficient for them, and for their members,” says Francis Liska, CEO at OTUS Group. “For many, adoption of new technologies was a great pivot point.”

Internally, organizations that had already started their digital adoption journey found it easier to adapt to remote work – a shift that 70 per cent of respondents see as likely to continue. 

“‘WFH’ can mean work from home, or work from here,” said Anthony Norejko, president and CEO of the Canadian Business Aviation Association (CBAA). “I prefer ‘work from here’ because all you need is an internet connection.” 

For those who were playing to catch up, the necessity of virtual work accelerated the adoption of new technologies.

“The pandemic expedited the shift to technology,” added Thibault. “We didn’t have to convince anybody.” 

Associations also took the opportunity to reinvent how they communicate with members in an online world, experimenting with new platforms and approaches. 

For many, two-way channels now supplement push communications like e-mail blasts. 

At the HAC, Mitchell now hosts a monthly video call with his members as a way of building rapport. 

“Everyone jumps on a Teams meeting and it’s an open forum,” he said. 

Alternatively, Norejko found Slack to be the right fit for CBAA members, whereas Benjamin uses an e-mail management tool to communicate and build the CLMA  community. 

Adapting advocacy efforts with digital adoption

Digital adoption, however, wasn’t just crucial for internal communications and communications with members, it also introduced tools to aid in advocacy. 

While association executives continue to rank reaching decision makers and influencing legislation as the biggest hurdle in their advocacy efforts, some inroads were made thanks to new digital solutions.

Executives were able to connect with policy makers more quickly, or more informally due to the increased use of video communication – negating the need to travel to meet in-person. 

This also allowed members to be more directly involved in advocacy efforts. 

“When we reached out and asked the industry to write a letter to the government to make sure we were seen in the federal budget in 2021, we had 45,000 letters sent in a week,” said Benjamin, adding that despite the need to reinvent how they do things, their purpose never wavered. “Our number one job in the last two years has always been to represent our members and to be heard by government.” 

As associations continue to reinvent themselves and capitalize on post-pandemic opportunities, it’s important for them to hold onto their values and purpose, but welcome change with open arms, said Norejko. 

“Change is all about finding the new normal…there is no point in looking back and saying ‘Boy, I wish I could go back to those days,’” he said. “Those days are gone already, so now is the time to adapt.”