Associations’ Post-Pandemic Opportunity to Go Global

COVID-19 brought a bigger international audience to associations. But without a clear strategy, as new study says, efforts to sustain global expansion can stall.

The general lesson-learned from the past year and a half is that the pandemic provided an opportunity for associations to expand their global reach. COVID-19 gave the planet a common problem to address, and associations specialize in collective solutions. Moreover, associations’ mass shift to virtual meetings has meant that international members (and potential ones) have had easier access than ever before to their association’s community.

That anecdotal experience is borne out by a new survey, “2021 and Beyond,” by Factum Global, an international consultancy, conducted with StrategicStraits and Boardroom magazine. Its survey of C-suite leaders in for-profit and nonprofit organizations shows that a majority (55 percent) experienced increased participation in their activities internationally. That’s heartening. As Factum Global CEO Francisco Gomez put it in a statement about the report, “The survey results demonstrate promising opportunities for associations going abroad. With a thorough strategic plan and commitment from leadership, we believe associations have a real opportunity for bottom-line growth.”

But that statement also shows how tricky the next steps will be. Though the method of engagement for international audiences may have changed, engagement without a plan doesn’t lead to global success. It may be more correct to say that the pandemic has helped more associations start to become a global organization. Organic growth has increased, but without a targeted effort to find out why global audiences are coming to you and how to serve them, that growth can easily dissipate. Especially if you return to the in-person meetings that those global members have a hard time attending.

Live events will need to be hybrid events if associations want to be truly global.

The Factum Global survey shows a bit of softness on that front. Nearly half of the respondents (48 percent) say they have unsure to negative confidence to “make informed decisions in 2021 and beyond.” And for all that organic growth, the prevailing mood is that it may not be sustainable: The largest proportion of respondents (37 percent) say that international growth will be flat this year.

The reasons for the hold-up are familiar ones: The most common was the lack of financial resources, followed by international know-how. Going global inevitably requires spending, and the pandemic has forced a lot of belt-tightening at associations, which may have relegated international efforts from a must-have to a nice-to-have. For association boards (another roadblock mentioned in the survey), the cost may look too steep without obvious, immediate benefits.

One way to address the problem in the near-term: Hold the line on the hybrid meetings.  “The staff might say the pandemic’s over and it’s time to go back to live meetings. No, it’s not,” says Peter J. O’Neil, FASAE, CAE, CEO of ASIS International and participant in a panel discussion about the report. “Live events will need to be hybrid events if associations want to be truly global and manage their risk better. They’re here to stay.”

There’s some evidence from the Factum Global survey that leaders see the virtue of investing in global. A substantial proportion of respondents (44 percent) say they’re more open to expanding their workforce internationally, now that remote work has become more normalized—potentially a helpful way to begin establishing that global presence.

Resistance to international efforts at associations is common, for some obvious reasons—it requires sizable country-specific knowledge and initial expense, and the benefits might not emerge for years. There’s plenty of room for error. But the pandemic sent a message to a lot of associations that the audiences are there, and worth the investment. The question is whether they’ll take the next steps to heed it.

(DKosig/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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