Trying to put together a 2021 budget based on a nonexistent crystal ball? One association found a novel approach to assessing member engagement to solve its 2021 budget quandary.
If you’re wondering how to prepare a 2021 budget amid unmatched uncertainty, join the club—it’s crowded!
An ASAE member recently posed a question in the Small Staff Association Professionals Community on ASAE’s online network, Collaborate [login required], about how to figure in membership dues in a 2021 budget process. Christina Lewellen, CAE, executive director of the Association of Technology Leaders in Independent Schools, had some excellent advice based on her own recent experience. I followed up with her to learn more.
Factoring in the Unknown
Lewellen started putting together a 2021 budget and quickly realized that so much of what ATLIS normally relies on in a traditional cycle didn’t exist. “The economy had just dropped off a cliff,” she said. “Nobody knew what was going to happen with independent schools and their budgets, or whether they would be able to open again in the fall.”
Once you get past the fear of frozen budgets and dire predictions of associations going under, she said, then you get down to what people need. “People will prioritize your offerings if you’re bringing them value.”
The more Lewellen looked at budget options, the more she realized nothing was resonating because there were too many unknowns. Without a crystal ball to work through projections during a global pandemic, ATLIS figured the best approach would be to isolate the variables.
The solution: a phased budget approach. Lewellen said the first major financial hurdle would be to get through the membership renewal cycle—which takes place from July through November—and then tackle the spring financial components when their in-person events were scheduled to happen.
Levels of Engagement
Without any capacity to project those in-person spring events in the short-term, the staff charged with budgeting decided to take them off the table and save that conversation for later. They took the overhead part of the budget down to a zero-based—or austerity—budget for all other departments besides membership.
Once they had isolated membership, they could analyze different levels of membership based on member engagement, looking at factors like longevity, volunteering, and participation in meetings.
“If you’ve got a decent database, you can see how many webinars [a member] came to, how many virtual town halls they participated in, and how many times they came to a conference. All of those things make them more ‘sticky,’” Lewellen said.
Each of those engagement elements, or “stickiness,” helped them gauge a member’s likelihood of renewing. Lewellen and her team divided up members into different buckets—red, yellow, and green—based on their levels of involvement with the association, ranging from high risk to low risk, and were able to put a dollar figure on the anticipated renewal rate.
“It made sense for our organization to look at members on a case-by-case basis and make our best guess of whether we thought that school would come back or not,” she said, “and that’s how we built the budget.”
She approached the renewal projections knowing that it was not productive to live in fear. “None of us has ever lived through anything like this before,” she said. “It’s time to be creative and find solutions that make sense for today.”