Volume 77 | Issue 3
May 2009

Executive Director's Column: Great expectations

Marsha Herman-Betzen

On March 22, economist Thomas Friedman wrote in his New York Times op ed: “I’ve never talked to more people in one week who told me, ‘I listen to the news, and I get really depressed.’” No kidding! I certainly have had trouble sleeping lately. My recent tossing and turning may have less to do with depression and more to do with my choice of reading material before turning off the light. Currently on mymarsha112008 nightstand is “Trade Associations Hit Hard by the Recession,” “Beliefs, Behaviors, and Attitudes in Response to the Economy,” “The Council of Higher Education Management Associations Economic Forecasting Survey,” and the “Recession’s Impact on Non-Profits.” And while reading fiction would surely have helped me sleep more soundly, I have been comforted to know ACUI is not alone.

In this the last of a three-part series focusing on the economy and higher education, my column concentrates on associations. It would not be an overstatement to suggest many of our higher education sister associations are feeling the effects of campus travel bans. Everyone is intently watching attendance at each other’s annual meeting, trying to forecast its own conference’s success. The American Society of Association Executives and the Center for Association Leadership’s impact study surveyed 8,500 members from 97 diverse associations, including ACUI. Although 73.1 percent of all respondents think that their employment situation next year will be about the same as it is now, their opinions about association involvement were telling:

  • Of respondents, 49.2 percent said their membership dues were paid by employer, and 43.3 percent said they would drop their membership if their employer stops paying. More specifically, 28.9 percent of millennials (those born after 1977) said that if their employer stopped paying membership dues, they would drop their membership. This compares to 18.1 percent of boomers.
  • Of those who attended a face-to-face association event last year, 57.9 percent report a high probability of doing so this year. That means four out of 10 in the associations’ strongest market—last year’s attendees—show at least some hesitation about returning.
  • The assumption that online alternatives to face-to-face meetings will increase seems overstated. In this study, out of those that attended a face-to-face meeting in the past year, only 3 percent said there was a high probability that they would attend a virtual event this year.
  • The study also suggested that respondents are deciding not to travel to events that are closer to home in an effort to save money for larger events (like our annual conference) that are farther from home and more costly to attend.
One of my dear executive director colleagues bemoaned to me on our weekly pity-party telephone calls, “I am losing my hair, I can’t eat or sleep, and I have bitten my nails down to the nubs! How am I going to be a good steward of the association’s finances, try not to deplete all of our reserves in one fell swoop, and continue to be responsible for the livelihood of my devoted staff?” I assumed she was asking me a rhetorical question and did not answer.

The good news is that ACUI is in much better shape financially to handle this current downturn than anytime in our long history. Effective strategies are in place for closer monitoring, expense reduction, quarterly financial reporting, and revenue generation. The staff department heads have become good financial managers, anticipating the daily bad news and suggesting cuts in expenses and ideas to generate additional revenue two months into the first quarter. Volunteers are still donating their time and, at least this year, most have received institutional support. We have a knowledgeable, engaged, and supportive Board of Trustees that has kept the economy as a priority on its agenda. Student programs to date have broken attendance records with all-time highs for Clay Targets and Poetry Slam, which means there is still money out there especially for students. And we have reserves!

The bad news is that with the reduction in travel dollars, the annual conference proved to be one of the most significant areas of concern. While we had budgeted for a 16 percent reduction in attendance, the final registrations showed more than a 34 percent reduction. Despite all efforts to reduce expenses, the annual conference did not meet our budgeted net. Luckily, our host for the 2009 annual conference, the Anaheim Marriott, worked with us as a true partner to minimize attrition fees.

While things could get worse, I have the confidence in the team that has been assembled—of both volunteers and paid staff members—to lead the Association to better times. “There is nothing more powerful than inspirational leadership that unleashes principled behavior for a great cause,” said Dov Seidman, the CEO of the ethics and legal research firm LRN, in Friedman’s column. He went on to say, “What makes a company or a government sustainable is when its employees or citizens are propelled by values and principles to do the right things no matter how difficult the situation.