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  • Writer's pictureESAE

Charting the Course: Improving Association Performance & Competitiveness

Updated: May 10, 2022

As we begin to emerge from the pandemic, improving performance and competitiveness has never been more important for associations. Tommy Goodwin, Vice President for the Exhibitions & Conferences Alliance, lays out the building blocks for assessing performance and competitiveness while exploring key areas of focus for associations looking to grow their member value and social impact in 2022 and beyond.

After two years of transformational change, now is the time for associations to step back and assess their performance. “In 2022, we have to take the opportunity to slow down and reflect,” says Magdalena Nowicka Mook, CEO of the International Coaching Federation. “After working nonstop since the pandemic began to respond to different and urgent needs, associations should think about where they are with respect to offering value to their members and the marketplace before moving forward.”


But where to begin? “Start with revisiting your strategic plan,” recommends Nikki Walker, Global Vice President, Engagement – Associations & Communities, with MCI Group. “Leaders need to ask ‘What are the desired outcomes?’ and work backwards to ensure that the identified priorities link directly to the strategic intent and have measurable performance metrics.” She recommends that associations continually evaluate their offerings, competitiveness, and relevance; review measures of success, and identify the ‘must-win battles’ that will drive future value creation and success.

From there, it is ‘Association, know thyself!’ “One of the most important questions for any association is ‘What is the data telling us?’” concludes Dianna Steinbach, Chair, ESAE Programming Committee. “The right data and key performance indicators can help associations better understand their current performance, identify opportunities to re-direct resources, and provide an early-warning system for performance-related challenges on the horizon.” This can include both snapshot and longitudinal (e.g., year-to-date, year-over-year, etc.) data for performance metrics ranging from membership growth and revenue to operational efficiency and staff engagement.

Along with performance data, the voice of the member is also critical. “Associations need to truly understand why members join and why they renew, particularly in these challenging times,” says Feriel Saouli, COO and Director of Association Management at SEC Newgate EU. “Ongoing 1-on-1 conversations with members can help associations understand what keeps their members up at night and what new benefits and services might be most relevant.” Dianna Steinbach adds: “Member councils are also a great way to get a pulse on what’s happening in the marketplace. These groups can identify canaries in the coalmine that association leaders can respond to in an agile manner to stay ahead of the curve.”

The final ingredient is competitive intelligence and analysis. Rigorous environmental scanning will surface valuable information on emerging trends, market developments, and new offerings from competitors (and potential future competitors!) that associations can leverage in strategic decision making and performance improvement. This can also include foresight-driven exercises such as scenario planning and creating an association’s ultimate hypothetical competitor to ensure competitiveness and protect against future developments and market disruptions.


Taken together, these elements paint a comprehensive picture of an association’s priorities, operating performance, and competitive environment, which will help identify opportunities for improvement going forward. But where are associations focusing their efforts on improving their performance and increasing their relevance, impact, and revenue in 2022?

One area is growing member and community engagement. “While the value proposition of associations to create connections should not change over time, the offerings and channels that create value for members will,” notes Chiara Gasparotto, Deputy CEO at the European Society for Radiotherapy and Oncology (ESTRO). At ESTRO, this has involved matching content with the right channel based on the needs of the membership, such as different channels for education and networking. At an SEC Newgate EU-managed association, performance information and feedback led to an EU policy audit that identified threats and opportunities for members with the circular economy package and in the European Green Deal. This led to the establishment of a new policy committee and the launch of monthly monitoring reports in preparation for increased advocacy.

In addition, associations continue to invest in their online communities. “If you think about why associations exist, it is about bringing people together around shared interests,” says Marjorie Anderson, Founder of Community by Association. “It’s the same for their online communities.” That’s why now is the time for associations to strengthen their community offerings. Marjorie Anderson adds: “Community performance can be improved by reviewing feedback from surveys and user interviews. Ask ‘What’s Working?’ and ‘What’s not working?’ to ensure that members can seamlessly engage 24/7 wherever they are.”

Along with external-facing efforts, many associations are improving organizational performance by reviewing their processes and embracing automation where possible. “Associations should critically look at the operational tasks they perform and automate them whenever possible,” advises Feriel Saouli. Automating certain activities, which can range from report generation to social media posting, allows staff to focus on higher-value work. Dianna Steinbach adds: “The less time staff spent on back-office work, the more facetime they spend with members, which creates more opportunities for engagement.”

Speaking of staff, two other critical areas for association investment are workforce and culture. “Staff are a critical factor in any association’s success, including at ESTRO,” says Chiara Gasparotto. “To recruit and retain the professionals that we all need to help us build future-proof associations, we must be ahead of the curve in offering flexible and dynamic working arrangements to be competitive going forward.” This was a key topic of conversation at the recent Brussels International Association Forum session on post-pandemic association reimagination.

Likewise, culture is a key aspect of performance improvement in associations. In her research, Silke Schlinnertz, Marketing and Communications Manager for the European Petrochemical Association, found that organizational culture drives association performance, as long as performance is defined. She says: “It is critical for associations to create a strong, yet flexible, culture to deal with challenges as they emerge. By acclimating to the dual challenge of adapting to an ever-changing environment and needs while sharing a sense of responsibility, ownership, and commitment with all parties involved, a strong culture of performance in associations can be built, even remotely.”

While improving association performance and competitiveness requires dedicated attention and effort from association leaders, now is the perfect opportunity to ensure our associations continue to deliver relevance and engagement for years to come as we emerge from the pandemic.


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