Association Management

A Down Economy is the Call-to-Arms the Association Sector Is Built For

By Danielle S. Russell, CAE • February 1, 2023

On October 20, 2022, I stood on stage at the CSAE Conference in Halifax Nova Scotia and presented an Award of Distinction to the Coalition of Hardest Hit Businesses – which was co-chaired by the Hotel Association of Canada, and the Tourism Industry Association of Canada – in recognition of the incredible voice that had been raised to keep the ongoing challenges of the Hospitality sector front and centre as most of the rest of the Canadian Economy bounced back more quickly in the face of COVID-19.

The Hardest Hit and on the Edge of Survival campaign launched by the Coalition of Hardest Hit Businesses is not the first, nor do I believe it will be the last, example I have seen of associations taking concrete steps in a down economy to support their members, member organizations, and the broader sector they serve.

During the 2008 recession, I was lucky enough to briefly work with Women in Capitol Markets (WCM), and to my mind one of the most impactful contributions they made to the dialogue was highlighting the disproportionate number of female bankers who were laid off in the face of financial crisis.

Its not simply enough to be the voice for members, its important that associations be the unique voice that articulates the unique impact on their sector, and the unique needs of their sector when times are tough.

Like the hospitality sector in 2020, and the financial sector in 2008, the tech sector appears to be the Canary in the Coal Mine for job losses during the current downturn. As a result, associations in the tech sector are likely to be the first among (hopefully not too) many to have to respond swiftly to support individual members and other individuals within the sector.

It also makes incredibly good business sense to create value for sector workers in their hour of need, as it can inspire career-long loyalty and an ongoing sense of the member value proposition among those who will make decisions about continuing to pay dues and provide other forms of financial and in-kind support to the Association for the foreseeable future.

From job boards, to sector specific professional development opportunities, to a forum for networking, associations already have offerings in place that be dialed up in hard times to support workers that have been displaced by large scale layoffs in your sector.

Along with providing supports that will enable laid-off workers to find new jobs – a particularly daunting task when you’ve been dumped unceremoniously into a talent pool with hundreds if not thousands of others with similar resumes – associations must be sensitive to the reality that recently laid off workers may have limited funds and will most certainly be looking to conserve those funds with no clear idea of how long their unemployment might last.

This will be difficult for some associations that might just be concluding programs put in place during the 2020 crisis that provided some financial relief for unemployed members to continue to access key member services such as those listed above, or to maintain access to certain credentials or other designations that are baked into the association’s membership model.

However, thus far, the hardest hit industries in 2022/2023 are largely those that fared very well in 2020, so organizations whose members previously worked at Shopify – for example – should not have already had their budgets stretched in this way over the last few years.

As the chair of the CSAE Awards Committee and Awards Program Review Task Force, I spend a great deal of time thinking about what constitutes association excellence, and how we can measure, assess and recognize the work of the sector. I have no doubt that association professionals, and the associations they work for, can use a combination of tried and true, and out-of-the-box strategies to answer the call-to-arms being presented to us by the current economic downturn, happening here in Canada, and across the North American economy.

Regardless of the current health and status of the industry or sector your association serves, as we are all frequently reminded  by Jeff De Cagna, FRSA, FASAE, we have a responsibility of foresight that must be pushing all associations into creating a battle plan for the year ahead. I would submit that it is essential that associations:

1. Identify the likely or ongoing impact of an economic downturn on your sector and further identify what is unique or more acute about this impact for your sector. Then use the collective voice of the sector – your association’s voice – to raise awareness and conduct advocacy activities to mitigate or offset any negative impacts.

2. Lean into member offerings that support career development and transitions, ensuring that job boards, networking, and professional development are calibrated to support those sector workers and members impacted by job loss.

3. Where possible adjust budgets, and create payment plans, bursaries, and implement other financial assistance for those individuals who may be most in need of their professional network, and least able to pay for it through high member dues, registration fees, and other costs of fully engaging with your association’s programing.

4. Be creative and innovative, matching solutions to the unique needs and circumstances in your sector that you identified in step 1. Leaning into your own professional networks, like ASAE, CSAE and peer groups to help you surface, “workshop” and refine new and unique offerings to help everyone weather this new economic storm.

About The Author

Danielle S. Russell, CAE is a Canadian not-for-profit industry leader, college professor, speaker, consultant and YouTuber who proudly lives life as a practical minimalist. Danielle has worked in various roles in the association sector for over 15 years and is an active industry volunteer, including serving as a member of the CSAE Board of Directors. She hopes you’ll connect with her on LinkedIn or follow her on Twitter @dani_s_russell and become part of her professional community. Reach her at [email protected].