How Diverse Leadership Can Help Associations After the Pandemic

A new study shows that association staffers are understandably anxious about the COVID-era economy. Easing those concerns will require broadening the scope of revenue streams—and of association leadership.

More than a year since the start of the pandemic, associations have gotten smarter about remote work, virtual meetings, and shifting gears in a host of ways. But it’s not quite the time to celebrate, according to a new association study.

Renewal, Reinvention, and Responsibility,” a new report published by McKinley Advisors, reveals how more than 100 association executives and staff plan to address operations in the coming months (they answered survey questions in February). Many expect belt-tightening: 64 percent of respondents said that budget cuts are happening or will happen, double the percentage of respondents who said that in 2020. Large proportions of association staffers expect staff reorganizations (59 percent), freezes on salary increases (52 percent), and hiring freezes (48 percent)—all substantial jumps from 2020.

Who leads and how they lead has an impact on perceptions of an association and its performance.

And a third of respondents anticipate reductions in programs and services (34 percent) and outright layoffs (33 percent)—sizable increase from the 2020 numbers as well. Perhaps needless to say, optimism is on the downswing. Last year, 79 percent of respondents said they had an optimistic outlook about their association. This year? Just 51 percent.

So the recent spate of commentaries about how quickly the economy will bounce back as the pandemic recedes might best be taken with a grain of salt. But if the respondents are feeling optimistic, it’s in two areas that have a lot to do with each other: leadership and DEI.

The McKinley survey broke down the key reasons for optimism among those who feel that way. The two top reasons relate to leadership: They credit top executive leadership (53 percent) as well as high-functioning boards and other volunteer groups (37 percent). As the report puts it: “We were reminded that who leads and how they lead has an impact on perceptions of an association and its performance.”

The report offers a glimpse at the moves leaders are making that are having an impact. Associations are placing substantially increased emphasis on nondues revenue: 42 percent of respondents are prioritizing it, compared to just 25 percent last year. And 39 percent are prioritizing DEI, compared to just 12 percent in 2020. Pursuing diversity in revenue streams makes good sense at a time when membership has dropped and meetings have taken a hit. And pursuing diversity among staff and leadership, it’s clear, is both a good ethical practice and a good business practice.

That increased interest in DEI—motivated in large part by last year’s protests around racial injustice—mirrors what’s happening in the corporate realm. According to a recent study, 82 percent of HR chiefs are prioritizing DEI efforts in 2021.

As ever, though, the question is how to put that interest into action. In a recent blog post, McKinley cautioned associations against being passive about creating diverse boards and volunteer pools. Associations tend to rely on word-of-mouth when it comes to recruiting new talent. That in itself isn’t a bad thing—you want people to feel validated enough by volunteer work that they’ll recommend replacements.

But word-of-mouth alone makes for limited groups of talent; it “typically leads to associations pulling from the same circles and potentially creating a homogeneous volunteer leadership,” writes McKinley’s Alanna Tievsky McKee. “With a commitment to DEI, it’s critical associations push themselves outside these circles to ensure volunteer leaders represent the diversity of the full members and the profession/industry they serve.”

Which is where that optimism and strong staff leadership come in. Associations have practical revenue issues to resolve in the months to come, and the key to resolving them will be leaders who are comfortable with being flexible about new ideas regarding revenue and the people who’ll lead the organization into the future. There are reasons to be optimistic, despite the bad news. But putting that optimism into action depends on leaders learning to expand their horizons.

(Angelina/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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