Group uses event to highlight contributions of associations to society while acknowledging the financial troubles faced by many groups
ASAE CEO Susan Robertson addresses attendees of the association's first virtual annual meeting in prerecorded opening remarks.
Aug. 14, 2020
By Walt Williams
More than 13,000 people logged into ASAE’s first-ever virtual ASAE Annual Meeting and Exposition this week as association professionals sought expertise about how to keep their organizations and careers afloat amid the worst economic downturn in recent history.
This year’s three-day meeting busted attendance records, more than doubling the previous record of 6,092 people who attended the annual meeting in Chicago in 2018. One likely reason for the high turnout was the 2020 meeting was free to ASAE members and $99 for anyone else. Another was the virtual format, which allowed people to attend from the comfort of their homes instead of traveling to Las Vegas, where the meeting was to be held before the pandemic nixed those plans.
The event comes at a time when most associations have seen revenues fall amid a wave of meetings cancellations and members cutting expenses. Still, ASAE struck an optimistic tone, stressing the services associations provide to their members.
“COVID-19 hit. You know what I find remarkable? That few, if any, associations shut down. Nobody said, ‘We’ll see you when this is over,’” ASAE CEO Susan Robertson said in opening remarks. “Instead, associations swung into action. You took education and meetings online. You developed guidelines and resources. You advocated vigorously for members caught in the economic downturn. And in many cases, you provided a place for your members just to talk and to connect.”
ASAE itself has so far weathered the economic storm relatively well, Robertson said during a virtual conference with reporters. The group hasn’t laid off staff and won’t tap into its reserves until 2021. It also has increased total membership by 8%, helped in part by its decision to extend all memberships for three months for free. The group currently has 50,086 individual members and 2,027 organizational members.
ASAE has converted the remainder of its 2020 events into virtual offerings but is holding off making any decisions on whether to hold next year’s events in person. Robertson acknowledged this year’s annual meeting won’t pull in the same amount of money as a live meeting but added all the group’s events are insured.
“We’ve been able to protect our finances that way,” she said.
ASAE Annual Meeting virtual lobby.
Attendees at this year’s event logged into a virtual lobby from which they could navigate into expo halls featuring dozens of vendors and several chat rooms divided by topic areas, such as careers and public policy. They also had access to roughly 100 speaker and educational video lectures, all of which were prerecorded and will remain online until the end of August.
ASAE kicked off the event once again highlighting its commitment to diversity, with Robertson flatly declaring “Black Lives Matter.” This year marks the 100th anniversary of the organization, and as part of that, the ASAE Research Foundation released a new report highlighting the positive impacts associations have on society.
That impact is something ASAE is stressing as the group continues its advocacy push to get federal aid to associations. It is pushing for a federal Pandemic Risk Insurance Act modeled after a similar program for terrorism passed following the Sept. 11 attacks. So far that effort has made little progress.
ASAE also is urging members of Congress to make 501(c)(6) groups eligible for the Paycheck Protection Program, which provides forgivable loans to businesses and organizations financially harmed by the pandemic. Language doing just that has been included in stimulus packages introduced in both the House and Senate, although the latter would exclude nonprofits if they receive more than 10% of receipts from lobbying and lobbying activities comprise more than 10% of receipts. The sponsors of the provision have also proposed limiting eligibility to organizations with fewer than 150 employees, although the bill currently caps that amount at 300.
In addition, ASAE is urging Congress to pass the Skills Renewal Act, which would provide workers who have been laid off or furloughed a $4,000 tax credit to pursue post-secondary skills training and skills development. Associations are a major source of skills training in the U.S.
ASAE will be continuing its advocacy push amid a hunt for a new CEO. Former CEO John Graham died from cancer in January after leading the organization for more than 16 years. Robertson was named interim CEO before the group’s board of directors promoted her to head of the organization for 18 months. The group is also developing a new strategic plan.
Steve Caldeira, CEO of the Household & Commercial Products Association and ASAE board chair for 2020-21, noted that associations have been hit especially hard by the pandemic. His group represents businesses that are thriving amid the renewed focus on cleanliness, but it has lost revenue in the seven figures as a result of four canceled meetings.
“So we need to reimagine who we are during times like this,” he said. “ASAE is no different from that regard. We are all trying to manage through that … so we can continue to serve our members in the best way possible during unprecedented times.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was originally posted on Aug. 12.