Association Leadership During the 2020 Pandemic: A Conversation with Michelle Mason, CEO of Association Forum

According to Association Forum CEO Michelle Mason, our world is in the midst of three pandemics:

"2020 is unlike any year we've ever experienced. We have three pandemics: We have social, economic and we have health. These pandemics threaten our business models, so we don't have a choice but to look inward."

Michelle sat down with Gather Voices CEO Michael Hoffman to discuss how associations can survive — and thrive — in our rapidly-changing world.

Watch the Complete Conversation

Read the Complete Transcript

Michael Hoffman:

Hi, Michelle. Thank you so much for taking the time out to chat with me today.

Michelle Mason:

Well, thank you, Michael for the opportunity. I look forward to our discussion.

Michael Hoffman:

Since the last time we talked, the world has been completely turned upside down. An events industry that was super strong going into 2020, just was stopped dead in his tracks. Associations have lost, depending on the organization, large amounts of revenue. I know one of our clients, their one annual event they had to cancel was 62% of their annual revenue. We have a movement for black lives that has become a forefront in the news and has made organizations look inward and really think about what are they doing to become welcoming environments, something that you've been leading on for a long time. I'd like, just to start with, what are you hearing? Where do you find us? How should we be looking at this moment that we're in?

Michelle Mason:

Yep. That's a good question, Mike. Boy, I think that associations should be looking at this moment as an opportunity, not just focusing on what's happening externally, but internally within the cultures of their organizations. It was a responsibility as associations to truly live up to what it means to be in our sector, which is a group of people joined together for a common collective purpose. That's where I think the welcoming environment comes in. Associations are really all about connection, belonging, a sense of community. We are very much inclusive organizations that believe that all have an equal voice and right within our organizations. So, this is really an opportunity for our sector to be leaders as we are, but to continue to demonstrate that leadership through how we model the way working with our members, our stakeholders, and our staff teams. I believe that this is a tipping point for transformational change. I don't agree with the whole new normal, I think it's a new reality. Not only do we look at our organizations and how we operationally function in the future, but we also need to use this as an opportunity to test, experiment and use this as an opportunity to really rethink our business models, conversations that we've had for years, now is the time to seize the moment.

Michael Hoffman:

Right. I think that's a really good point. The business model of associations has been under threat for some time and this loss of revenue in this moment is really a focus point of having to deal with that. I'll get back to that in a second. I want to just talk a little more about the welcoming environment piece. When you think of a typical organization and they need to look inward, what are the kinds of things that they typically need to do or that you would counsel that they should do? Where do they start? I can imagine there are organizations that are thinking "We want to be on the right side of history. We want to do the right thing. We know we have something to contribute in our profession maybe, but where do we start?"

Michelle Mason:

Well, I think it all starts with wanting to be on the right side of history and this is the moment to do so. 2020 is unlike any year we've ever experienced. We have three pandemics: We have social, economic and we have health. These pandemics threaten our business models, so we don't have a choice but to look inward. Where we start is look at our strategy, look at our culture, look at our leadership and what is the leadership supporting? If not, those are the conversations that leaders should be having with their governance systems, their governance bodies, because now is a time where people are asking me to be heard, they're holding organizations, institutions accountable.

Michelle Mason:

What I'm excited about Michael is this is driven by youth and these youth will be the younger generation. Organizations will continue to become very active and engaged and empowered. We really need to be thinking about that now. I think it starts with leadership. It starts with governance systems and also a strong look at the culture of your organization, your strategy, your policies. If you don't have one, you need one, but it also needs to be authentic and real. What that means is engaging your team members, engaging others, in the development of those statements and policies, but it doesn't just stop there. It requires action, because the world is watching, your members are watching. It's not just what you say, it's what you do that will help us get to a place of welcoming environment.

Michelle Mason:

I will say the welcoming environment means different things to different organizations. It has to be real to your association. If you don't have the experience internally, I think that's one of the first next steps, to find someone that can help you authentically lead through that. What I am hearing from some leaders is that some of their boards do not want to have the conversation or feel that they need to have the conversation, but I will offer that silence tells a story. Again, to your point, Michael, what side of history do you really want to be on at this moment in time? We have a short window of opportunity to all be a part of the change that we wish to see in the world.

Michael Hoffman:

Yeah. I think that's a really good point. There was a time when companies could say, "We're an association of nurses or flooring professionals or whatever and say that's none of our business." But that time has gone. It's business leaders that are having to stand up and partly because there's a kind of vacuum in the political life that's not playing that role, but people are looking to businesses. I totally agree with you. I think it's time to stand up and take a stand and you have to do that. What you said about the younger generation, I think every association that I've worked with wants to attract younger members and is challenged by that because they need to give leadership opportunities to those younger members. They need to feel like a forward-thinking, technologically savvy organization or the younger members aren't going to be interested. This is one of those things too, right?

Michelle Mason:

Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. There's great value in being uncomfortable because that's where the change occurs. This is a very uncomfortable moment for most. If you're not uncomfortable, you should ask yourself why not? Because that's where the change and transformation comes from because it's being pushed from the external, from outside. So, we really need to your point, think internally, how do we evolve ourselves? How do we change in order to be responsive to this next generation? It's here, it's not going away. If anything, it will continue to accelerate.

Michael Hoffman:

Yeah. Yeah. Well, it's great. Also, I'm optimistic that it's a kind of tipping point and we see that, tomorrow is Juneteenth and we've made that a holiday here. I just got an email from Allstate saying, it's a holiday. I just saw Governor Cuomo in New York said, it's a holiday for state workers. That feels like something substantial. I mean, it's symbolic in a certain way, but it's feels substantial.

Michelle Mason:

Well, this is the 155th year celebrating Juneteeth, and Juneteenth really being the end of slavery which occurred, were marked by the events in Galveston, Texas. It was a very significant moment. There are 47 States that acknowledged Juneteenth as a holiday. Current legislation in Congress for a national holiday, it is significant. When we talk about unity and freedom for all, it really marks that. What we have an opportunity to do as a society, as a nation is truly say, "Okay, we understand. We want to be on again, the right side of history. We want racial reconciliation. We want equality for all." Let's use this Juneteenth because of the conversation that we're having, as a new beginning, as an opportunity to have those tough conversations, but work together towards healing. We have the statements, we have the , which I think is great. Let's now move towards action. How might we in future years use Juneteenth as a day of celebration, which for slaves was the case, a celebration. It was a day of freedom. As a nation, How about we use that as a premise moving forward, and also in organizations.

Michael Hoffman:

Yeah. Yeah. That's an exciting thing to see play out for us. Going back to the business model thing around associations and the challenges that they're having, one of the things that I've seen is this massive skills gap between people who are used to organizing in-person events and now having to pivot to these virtual things that they know a lot less about. There's a lot less vendors involved in, and that there's a lot less stuff that people are learning. The other piece that I'm seeing is the recognition that you need to be engaging all the time, but these events are like little peaks. You have kind of peaks and valleys, but you need to be repurposing content. You need to be doing things that keep interest. That's part of the business model, which is, when an association started, I don't know, 150 years ago, people had no other way to get together. They had no other way to learn. They had no other way to set standards, and we're in a world where people can meet without going to that conference or network without doing that thing. How do you see that? What's the future of associations and how do they ride through this moment, but it's not a new normal, it's a new reality. How should association leaders be thinking about this?

Michelle Mason:

Well, I'm not a futurist. If I was a futurist, we certainly wouldn't be in this situation today. I would say a few things, the new reality is a good thing. As we discussed earlier, our business models need to fundamentally change. We've attended more than enough programs on that, so this is an opportunity for associations to test and experiment. Use 2020 to test and experiment. I called it a forgiveness year. A year where you can take risk through the use of virtual technology, but also see this as an opportunity to rely on your partners that have that expertise as well. I do not believe that in person events will go away. I do believe that they will look very different in the future. I do believe that there will be more hybrid events. So, how do we leverage the expertise and the skills of our partners to further the mission of organizations?

Michelle Mason:

We know that many associations, our footprint will be smaller. This year again, is a year of testing, the true test will 2021. So, what are we doing to actually execute what we've learned this year? It is a new reality. I believe that we will need to re skill and look at hiring in a different way. If you have team members that have digital expertise or competencies, it's an opportunity to skill them in that way. That's okay because there are a lot of online courses and partners who can help us with that. But, there's also an opportunity to really think about the composition of your teams and what's required to really advance into this new space that we are forced to entering into. I am optimistic because many associations had no choice, but to pivot within less than 24 hours and they are being successful. The economics behind that is very different, obviously disrupted our business models and we're learning our new pricing strategies and things of that nature. But again, this is a year of testing, so what we learned from 2020 and all that we were experiencing, we can bring the effective practices into 2021.

Michael Hoffman:

Right, yeah. That's an interesting framing about the idea that it's a ... What did you call it? The year of forgiveness here?

Michelle Mason:

Yeah, a forgiveness year.

Michael Hoffman:

You don't need to worry because people are forgiving. There's no expectation that everybody knows how to do these virtual things and there's a learning curve. So, people are forgiving if the dog walks into the scene and you have your child on your lap.

Michelle Mason:

Yeah. Well, I say, we are writing the new playbook while we're playing a game. We'll bring that playbook into next year, but it is true. Then in some cases, Michael was okay if the dog or the cat is there, because it makes it more human and we are in a virtual space and a human aspect creates a greater sense of connection. In some cases it opens a different conversation with that person. It just depends on a matter of perspective and how you view it.

Michael Hoffman:

Yeah. Yeah. I think back to those events, obviously the revenue side changes and where that comes from the pricing strategies need work to kind of figure out, but the cost basis is completely different as well. You're all of a sudden, there's a lot of things you don't have to do, and if you don't have to pay for, so do you think people should be taking more of a bottom line view than a top line view?

Michelle Mason:

I don't know. I can't really speak to that. I think it depends on the organization. It depends on how you structure. What works for a larger organization might be vastly different than a small organization. It also is just your constituencies as well. I think it's going to vary. We also always talk about best practices. I say, effective practices. We try to make things, "Does it work for you?" That's not the case. That's not a reality. We have to understand what is unique to our environment, what works for us and what is the new value proposition that our members are expecting and work towards those goals and try not to make one size fit all. We can all learn from each other. This is an opportunity for us to learn and then adapt those lessons learned to fit your environment. That's what the testing experiment is all about.

Michael Hoffman:

I think association forum can play a really important role in this future, which is as a convener and really saying, "We're going to give a kind of a neutral space to let people share practices and to create programs." How are you thinking about that? How is that affecting a bit of what your programming looks like and how you're partnering and how you're thinking about this moving forward?

Michelle Mason:

Well, we're certainly walking the talk at forum. We do believe that association forum is an agile, flexible organization. If we are using this year with more support and direction to test, experiment, take risks and most importantly learn from this year. The board is really pleased with the outcomes or some of the decisions that we've made thus far to satisfy our member needs. But we know, again, we are testing. Things are very fluid and we work very diligently to adapt to our current environment. In some cases, it changed weekly, daily, monthly. We just never know. What the board has approved of this fiscal year, the fiscal year started April 1st, was for our foundation to be more of a think tank. This is our second year actually convening the think tank within our foundation for members to test, experiment.

Michelle Mason:

It had conversations and debate around a topic that's truly impacting associations. Last year the topic was digital transformation. This year, the topic will be new business models. We bring leaders internal, external throughout the association community or the system. We look at generational participation as well, because we want to, again, design for the future and not just be so fixated on the past because we know things are changing. That's likely to take place in October of this year. We want to be positioning ourselves to share the insights from the think tank with the larger community.

Michelle Mason:

Another example of how we are testing and experimenting is that we know many organizations are reopening or considering to reopen their associations. So, we are in a process of collecting all of the different guidance documents from our members, from CDC, from the state and the city, and preparing a document for our members to consider utilizing. It is a document that will inform our decision making process. To help us with that we've convened an advisory committee that consists of real estate experts, air quality experts, architects, CEOs, our landlord, a building manager, just having conversation experience in disinfecting and sanitization and all of that. We really wanted be, to your point, being a convener, a community of experts to help us make informed decisions, and then use that as an opportunity for our members to consider as they're reopening their spaces.

Michael Hoffman:

Yeah. That's got to feel to a lot of folks like a very scary prospect, of having something that can be life or death, depending on the person and making decisions of saying, "One decision is we're going to open the office, but another decision is you have to come back or not." I think that having a set of protocols and a set of things that are not the expertise of these organizations and you bringing that all together, that's a really powerful service for your members.

Michelle Mason:

Yeah. It's just a guidance document. Again, this is our responsibility to members to help them be in a learning lab, help them learn from our experiences. Many associations, this is a phased approach. They're not rushing to open their office space, remote is actually working for them. We talk about this new reality of just the way of work will look very different as well.

Michael Hoffman:

Yeah. I saw something about your emerging leaders program. Would you tell me a little bit about that? I think when we were talking about generational change, business model change, obviously I think we need to bring in those younger voices.

Michelle Mason:

Yeah, absolutely. Our emerging leaders program is in its third year. We're excited to bring on a new cohort. It's a program designed for those 35 and younger, and it's a six month program. It's really focused, a community based program, it's cohort based to allow them opportunity to learn together over six month period of time. There are a variety of sessions that they engage in on a monthly basis. Many of our emerging leaders tell us they want access to the C suite, the CEOs. So, we've created that experience the day in the life of a CEO. Many are asking about professionalism and professional etiquette, so we've created that experience on how to help them to understand that. This year, the opportunity again, is to flip it from physical to virtual. That's what we focused on. This is really a great offering for those leaders who are rising in the association community and not only selfishly from a forum perspective for us to use this as an opportunity to support their success. Going through this program, we are now creating a community of young leaders that really want to be a part of the change within associations. We have direct access to them as well.

Michael Hoffman:

Yeah, that's great. I can imagine how an individual organization can only really focus on their own business and how they run and all of that. So, you giving this perspective across organizations and having that cross pollination is I think, again, a really interesting, important role that you're playing there.

Michelle Mason:

It's just for them to start creating their professional network. Our goal and our hope is that by participating in these cohorts, they will have life long, or career long friends throughout.


Michael Hoffman:

Yeah. Yeah. That makes sense. Do you see this as a profession that's attractive? Are you seeing the best and the brightest come to the association world and how do you see that? Is that something that the whole community needs to work on in terms of conveying the message of the importance and the important role that associations play?

Michelle Mason:

Well, I think it's the community's role to just tell our story, to convey a message. I do think that this is a profession that is a sector that the best and brightest are in. I think it's very silent sector as well, that's why the community voice is important. We all need to tell the story about the importance of the association community. Here in the Chicagoland community alone represent, associations, or prior to COVID pre-COVID, three million in economic impact. Associations are businesses. Well, the vast majority of association for membership organizations are organizations and as you know, we're not included in the federal stimulus relief packages. We clearly have an opportunity to tell our story, to help our congressional leaders understand the value of associations, that we are businesses, we do employ. We make a strong contribution to our economy. Yes, I think it will be a profession, a sector that's around for a long time. I believe based on what we've experienced over the past several months and what we all will experience in future months and years, it will only bring us stronger together as a united sector.

Michael Hoffman:

Yeah. If somebody isn't involved with the Forum, what's the first thing they could do to see about your programming or events? What would you recommend, somebody who would listen to you here and say, "This is an organization I want to be involved with."

Michelle Mason:

Whoever wants to be involved with Forum, we appreciate that. But, I would say go to our website and check out what we have to offer www.associationforum.org. Also email membership at Association Forum. Or if you would like to call any one of the team members, they're more than happy to answer any questions. Welcoming environment, as I mentioned is that it's very important to association form. It is one of our core values. We believe now with the whole virtual, we also need to be high tech, high touch, and that's important to us as well. We just encourage the variety of ways to reach out. We strongly encourage those who become involved to be engaged. That's how you get the value from your membership. For example, Michael, you raised your hand and said, "We want to help you more with video." We absolutely need that support. We are a small organization with a very large impact, but we need partners like you to deliver our mission. We believe that partners make it possible.

Michael Hoffman:

Yeah, that's great. Well, I'm very delighted to be talking to you and to be part of this community. One of the events, your premier event later in the year at the end of the year, holiday showcase, has been really one of the best events that we've gone to bringing people all over, not just from Chicagoland, but all over from the industry. There's a great learning program there. As a vendor, it's been a terrific opportunity to meet with people in the industry and tell them about what we can do around video and why that's important. I'm sure you're going to figure out how to recreate that experience for vendors sponsors to be able to make those connections because I don't have to stand on my feet for all day and that's fine as long as we can be part of the community.

Michelle Mason:

Absolutely. Our goal this year is to continue with making those connections. That's a value proposition of how they showcase, end of year opportunity to do business and to reconnect before we enter the new year. That's certainly our goal this year, like many organizations we had to pivot and so holiday showcase will be virtual, but we are very confident that we will be able to have an experience in a virtual space that you will receive a great value from as well. As I mentioned earlier, it's about experimenting, it's about testing and bringing these new, different practices for us into our future business model.

Michael Hoffman:

Excellent. Well, Michelle, thank you so much for taking the time to chat a little bit today. Your perspective is really welcome because of where you sit and the breadth of things that you see and that you're connected to. I really appreciate it.

Michelle Mason:

Well, thank you, Michael so much for the opportunity and we appreciate your partnership with Association Forum. Be well.

Read more like this:

Create more engaging content with Gather Voices

Unleash the power of real voices from your community and deliver 10X more video — see how it’s done when you request a demo today!

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.