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The State of Associations: Australia

BEING affiliated with the Asia-Pacific Federation of Association Organizations (APFAO), I was invited by the Australasian Society of Association Executives (AuSAE) to the recent launch of its “Association Insiders” webinar series. AuSAE is the premier not-for-profit professional society representing over 10,000 individual leaders working in associations in Australia and New Zealand.

The new series features monthly interviews with association leaders who will share their insights, experiences, and real-world stories from their own organizations. Kicking off the series was a panel discussion on the “State of Associations.”

The high-level panel was composed of the following: Graham Catt, CEO of the Canberra Business Chamber; Megan Motto, CEO of Governance Institute of Australia; Andrew Hiebl, CEO of the Association of Australian Convention Bureaux; and, John Winter, CEO and Company Secretary of the Australian Restructuring Insolvency and Turnaround Association. Toni Brearley, CEO of AuSAE, moderated the discussion.

Here are some takeaways I got from the panel discussion which resonate with local associations:

1. What was 2020 to you?

The panel was unanimous that 2020 was a year of experimentation: work from home, operational digitalization, virtual meetings, webinars and everything “e” (e-documents, e-contracts, e-signature, e-regulations).

It was also about engaging more with the government and communicating advocacies better. Membership in some instances became ‘transactional’ because of the inability to meet in person.

Financial uncertainty also set in as revenues dipped and/or have been impaired due to cancellation of face-to-face events, decrease in sponsorships, and slow remittance of membership dues.

2. Is your membership model ‘fit for purpose’?

The panel covered many aspects in this regard. They cited that volunteering will stay and, in fact, will get stronger. There will be a balancing act on serving members’ needs versus the existence of the association.

More and more, associations will be looking at efficiency at all levels. A focus on the balance sheet is inevitable. Segmentation of the market will be based on technologies. Collaboration will be a strategy (and not to be perceived as opportunism) as well as mergers and acquisitions will increase.

Questions like these need to be answered: Is my purpose still relevant? Where will I be next versus where am I now? What are members going through? What do they need?

3. What were lessons learned?

There were many enumerated here.

Professionalization and good governance are being gauged through the lens of performance.  Embedding behavioral change and intergenerational personalization are a must. Relationships between the board members, the chair and the chief executive need to improve further.

New skill sets need to be developed for  virtual meetings, e.g., body language and facial expressions visible only in face-to-face meetings. Associations need not operate in silos. Financial reserves are critical during uncertainty. Virtual and hybrid events will be here to stay.

Associations not only in Australia have been impacted by the pandemic in many more ways than one. This has been a universal phenomenon. Those that have adapted early and quickly have survived and thrived during this sudden and unprecedented crisis.

The column contributor, Octavio ‘Bobby’ Peralta, is concurrently the secretary-general of the Association of Development Financing Institutions in Asia and the Pacific, Founder & CEO of the Philippine Council of Associations and Association Executives and President of the Asia-Pacific Federation of Association Organizations. The purpose of PCAAE—the “association of associations”—is to advance the association management profession and to make associations well-governed and sustainable. PCAAE enjoys the support of Adfiap, the Tourism Promotions Board, and the Philippine International Convention Center. E-mail: [email protected].

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