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Forward-thinking associations will disrupt and innovate in 2023

Dec 28, 2022

Professional and trade associations are at the very core of a positive American economy, not to mention the largest providers of post-college education. They bring people together, share best practices and provide thought leadership on industry verticals, while providing resources and support.

For most associations, pre-pandemic connections with their members had a high in-person element. Meetings, conferences and events had been staples of the association world — and the revenue engines. That is, until the COVID-19 pandemic shook the industry like a snow globe. Now, things are settling down.

Innovative and forward-thinking association leaders are trying to find balance between how it’s always been and what’s ahead. For example, even though some folks have returned to in-person work, remote work options are still vital to hiring and retention. According to GoodHire’s 2022 remote work survey, 63% of American workers felt that companies would have a hard time getting people to apply if they didn't offer remote work and 33% would quit or start a remote job search if forced to return to the office full time.

Today’s leaders need to be fearless and creative, as well as compassionate and vulnerable. And associations need to be authoritative but also transparent and flexible with members.

As leaders find their new-normal footing, they need to shake things up again. Associations will want to revolutionize their business models to be relevant in a completely different world — all while taking care of heightened priorities related to employee mental health, self-care and diversity, equity and inclusion.

It’s a tall order.

Focusing on four strategic priorities can help nonprofit associations find balance and attract, serve and retain members.

2023 nonprofit association priorities

1. Disrupt and innovate

Business models that rely on membership dues and event registrations may be vulnerable. The desire for in-person gatherings has waned for many reasons: health and safety, cost and even carbon emissions related to travel. If people aren’t attending meetings, why would a member belong?

Moving forward, associations need radically new, compelling value propositions. They adapted business models to get through the pandemic; now they need to figure out how to stay relevant for the next decade or longer.

This work can’t be done alone. For one, leaders need to surround themselves with people who push them outside their comfort zones, who force them to see different angles and possibilities.

Big change requires listening, as well. Members and employees can guide the association toward exciting opportunities if you give them the chance. Lean into strong vendor partners, too. As employee turnover rises, they may hold key institutional knowledge.

2. Rethink resources

Budgets, real estate assets and staffing needs will be different, especially if you pursue a new business model. Adapt to these changes. You can’t adopt new ways of working by holding onto the past.

Reassess what the association needs to serve its members. Include factors that members and employees care about. Those may include social and environmental costs you hadn’t considered before.

You have a blank slate for this work — because there is no baseline. Your historic data (e.g., annual meeting attendance, memberships and subscriptions) is based on a different set of business conditions. It’s time to stop comparing today’s performance to the past. Establish a new direction and new expectations for the future. Then, figure out what you need to get there.

3. Prioritize culture

Culture has never been more important or more difficult to manage. Today’s employees need to feel a strong connection to their workplace. But they also don’t want to come to the office full time.

Leaders are still navigating the return-to-work process. As part of culture, leaders need to rethink the role of their physical spaces. Offices may become more useful as connection points rather than day-to-day workplaces. Also consider what employees need from work (or their coworkers) to be productive and healthy.

Over the next year, leaders need to establish clear cultural expectations and boundaries. Since more work is occurring at home, leaders need to protect staff (and themselves) from burnout. Set working norms to protect sacred times, build relationships and take care of people.

Leaders are also being asked to take positions on social issues and causes. Make the association’s values clear and openly share them with employees and members. That can help you attract compatible employees and partners.

4. Embrace technology

Associations need new ways to deliver value to members, strategic partners, donors and sponsors. Technology is the most likely enabler. Tap into technology to reshape programming, whether it’s virtual, in-person or hybrid.

Automation and process improvements can create new sources of value for members and release staff from time-consuming, low-value work. Prioritize innovations that deliver the highest benefits to members and/or employees.

Leaders also need better data about the markets they serve, as well as the analytical skills needed to translate it into meaningful information. There’s no baseline for where associations are going — but that doesn’t mean the journey is uninformed.

How Wipfli can help

Want to jump on these trends in associations? Wipfli can help. From strategy to digital transformation to organizational performance and talent optimization, we help associations adapt to an ever-changing landscape. Learn more.

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Kathleen DuBois, M.A.
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