Association Economic Outlook: Should You Return to Normal?


In the fall of 2019, a poll of 373 association executives indicated that a large portion of them saw a potential recession in the horizon but were not preparing for it. There was a “wait and see” attitude. Then came the pandemic just a few months later which accelerated the economic downturn. 2020 has been a year of “unprecedented” events and none of us could have predicted its impact across industries and communities around the world.

One year later, Marketing General Inc. conducted another poll with 541 association executives, asking many of the same questions. This time, there were interesting insights as executives were navigating the “new normal” and contemplating what might be in store for 2021.



The Year of the Pivot

Association ImpactIn-person conferences and events are a major source of revenue for associations. According to The Association Impact Snapshot produced by the ASAE Research Foundation, by June of 2020, showed that between 30% – 50% associations polled had moved their events to an online version.

According to the MGI Association Economic Outlook Report released in October, 78% of associations postponed their annual events and 77% held it online. Interestingly, member engagement in associations increased overall this year!  The poll did not ask whether associations were planning to offer online or hybrid events in 2021.


Confidence About 2021

In spite of a challenging year, 81% of association executives have a positive outlook for the new year ahead. They feel their associations will weather the recession and the pandemic and continue to serve their members. But the obstacles anticipated include lack of revenue to develop programs, staff to launch new programs, expertise to launch or  redesign events/programs, resistance to take risks, and the slow pace of Board or senior leadership decision-making.

Regarding membership, 23% are confident to see an increase, 32% expect no change, while 39% are expecting to see a decline in 2021.

Association Confidence



A Return to “Normal” in 2021 or a New Envisioned Future?

Although most association executives are pining to go back to how things used to be with bringing members together face-to-face and counting on live annual events for their livelihood, other leaders like Joy S. Davis, American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists, are sending a different message as she describes in the article Normal is Over(rated) For Now. Rather than going back, which is backwards, Davis suggests that associations need to “start thinking our way forward.”

Road from 2020 to the futureDavis says it’s important for association executives to admit that “normal wasn’t great” and most associations were not innovative and had become complacent. By going back to the way things were being done would mean that nothing was learned through the pandemic.

This is a chance to refocus on why the organization exists and to engage in opportunities to try new ways to serve members and stakeholders. Perhaps it is best to remove the option of going back to the pre-pandemic times.

I agree wholeheartedly with Davis that “Now is always happening and the future is the only thing you can change. Stop talking about normal and getting back to it. Start talking about where you’re going and what you’re doing, even though it’s harder, and the numbers are less impressive than before, and we’re not sure when we’re going to reopen the office. Give up on the ‘return to normal’ and be what you can be today and be incredibly proud of that. Understand and create what a good normal is for you and your organization right now. It’s all going to change anyway, you know. It always does. That will always be normal.”


Cathi Hight helps organizations manage constant change, develop customer-loyalty and “work smarter, not harder”. She is an organizational development consultant and president of Hight Performance Group and the developer of The Member Retention Kit, A New Approach to Tiered Membership and the Work Smarter, Not Harder program. Learn more at



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