Survey: Sustainability Is the Top Challenge for Associations

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A new association survey uncovers new challenges posed by today’s economic and political environment, topped by sustainability—both for the environment and for the associations themselves.

Sustainability is emerging as the top strategic priority for associations now, but the word has even more meaning in today’s economic and political environments. According to a new association survey, associations say their top challenge now is both to become more environmentally sustainable and to enhance their own chances for survival by striving to find new ways to diversify their revenue streams and become more agile in their approaches to delivering services to their members.

The ICCA 2023 Association Survey, conducted in January 2023 by ICCA in collaboration with the European Society of Association Executives (ESAE), the African Society of Association Executives (AfSAE) and the Asia-Pacific Federation of Association Organizations (APFAO), found that more than half of the 177 associations surveyed globally are again conducting in-person meetings and events.

However, they haven’t gone back to business-as-usual, 2019-style. Their priorities, and their meetings, are changing in some fundamental ways as they work to incorporate hybrid events and digital learning access into their post-COVID business models, make their meetings more sustainable, and address diversity equity and inclusion (DEI) challenges, as well as work with suppliers to best meet their own goals.

Association Survey: Changing Strategic Priorities

When the researchers compared the 2023 survey results with those of a similar survey conducted in 2022, they found that sustainability is a key strategic shift for 83% of associations now. Not only are they looking to find new ways to become more environmentally sustainable, but they also are seeking ways to become more economically sustainable, both in services offered and in increased membership. Respondents indicated that sustainability was something the industry as a whole needs to take on collaboratively by sharing best practices with peers and suppliers, as well as working with Net Zero Carbon Events and other industry sustainability initiatives.

This is why, as associations move back into in-person events, their focus on digital and hybrid technologies has moved off the front burner — but it’s not been back-burnered either. Associations want to keep the ability they gained during the pandemic to digitally reach a wider audience without getting in the way of their in-person conventions. Most of the almost-50% who said they would be changing their RFPs in the near future indicated those changes would include digital and hybrid options and sustainability.

As another piece of the self-sustainability strategic priority, associations also now are putting more of an emphasis on DEI, an especially key issue now that they are expanding into new regions and previously overlooked market segments and seeking to find ways to engage younger members. Around 80% said they had a DEI policy in place or in progress. But DEI is just one aspect of the overall perennial need for associations to boost membership overall with expanded services and improved engagement and retention.

That being said, their top five priorities still look similar to what they were pre-pandemic, with member/community development and engagement topping the list, followed by knowledge transfer/education/training, congress and event development, geographical expansion, and revenue growth/diversification and financial stability. It’s just that the way they approach each of these priorities is shifting a bit, the survey found.

Association Survey: Meetings Still Top Revenue Producers

Meetings, trade shows, exhibitions and events were in 2022 and remain in 2023 the top revenue source for associations — and even bumped up a touch from 43% last year to 46% this year, the survey found. Membership dues were a close second for both years, followed by publications, advertising and sponsorships. In 2021, just 14% said their largest meeting would be in person; this year, more than half said their 2023 meetings would be held in person, while 30% said they were going hybrid this year. Less than 5% were going solely digital in 2023, compared to 12% last year and 56% during the pandemic’s height in 2021.

But the pandemic-era shutdown of meetings and events has left a mark on the association psyche, making them even more cognizant now of the need to diversify that traditional revenue stream hierarchy. While meetings remain key, the emphasis for many now is less on in-person sponsorship and more on monetizing year-round digital access to evergreen educational content, in addition to producing digital and hybrid events along with in-person meetings.

While they recognize the need to change things up when it comes to their meetings and events programs, they still are dealing with trying to manage the costs of going hybrid and adding digital-only events, managing on-site and online attendance, introducing new formats and, of course, do it all as the cost of holding both in-person and hybrid events continue to escalate.

Top Challenges Today: Same Song, Different Verse

The top challenge today, said the respondents, was membership. This means learning new ways to stay relevant, engage members online and in volunteer opportunities, and attract and engage younger demographics.

The second biggest challenge is, not surprisingly, financial. Given today’s challenging economic climate of rising costs and inflation, associations are taking a hard look at maximizing their revenue streams through new ways to address sponsorships, diversification and membership dues.

The third biggest challenge for associations now is related to their own organizational structures, from talent recruitment and acquisition to finding ways to maximize their staff and other resources and rethinking their leadership and governance structures.

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