How has COVID-19 Changed Your Associations Business Model? What are you doing as a CFO/COO to be a change agent in your Association?

Marc Charon, Chief Financial Operating Officer, National Quality Forum (NQF) moderated the peer-to-peer discussion among 40 Association CFO/COOs on May 20, 2020 for the Presidential Forum Roundtable via Zoom Web-conference.

For many Associations in attendance, COVID-19 has increased the profile of the Association vis-à-vis its members, the professional community, and the public at large.  The Association is being viewed as a trusted partner and an important resource for information about safety, industry operating guidance, and education in general.  One CFO mentioned their Association was offering emergency grants to Members, as well as 3-month extension on dues at no cost.  Another CFO mentioned that pivoting to virtual events and education has been very successful with larger attendance and therefore greater visibility for the Association.  While this has been less revenue for the Association, it also accounts for significantly lower costs without on-site conference costs (venue, food, hotels, etc.).  Diversification of revenue is an area that needs focus, but no quick fixes on that front were reported.

On the expense side, COVID-19 has altered the landscape significantly for many Associations.  One CFO mentioned that he is looking at every contract and re-evaluating the cost structure and/or necessity of the vendor.  Bonus and pay cuts were reported by several Associations.  Several Associations reported moving to outsourcing entire departments in order to have more flexibility with cost structure, as compared to having employees handle non mission related work.  If staff leave voluntarily, they no longer re-hire, but re-assign duties or outsource.  One CFO said travel expenses will never go back to the level it was before.   A couple of CFOs also mentioned that COVID-19 gave them an opportunity to re-evaluate marginal programs.  One Association stopped print publications that previously were sent out to Members as part of their dues, relying instead on online publication and the related reduction in cost.

On the balance sheet side, several Associations reported using reserves to ensure that staff could be retained during COVID-19.  With low interest rates, utilizing lines of credit were also recommended by a couple of CFOs as a way to have cash on reserve, and for additional peace of mind during times of uncertainty when Cash is King.   One CFO reported utilizing the Cares Act to take advantage of employee retention credit which will result in savings of over $200k by deferring payroll taxes.

Regarding the point about being a change agent, one CFO makes a concerted effort to reach out each week to all department heads in order to break down silos. Weekly staff town hall Web-conference meetings and “bring your pet” opens the human side to the current distancing situation. COVID-19 also has brought about new approach to member engagement.  The planning piece is very critical with the future still uncertain – if 10% drop in revenue we do “x”, if 20% drop in revenue we do “y”, etc.  A couple of CFOs mentioned that it was difficult to get the Board to either agree to utilize reserves, or to consider the discontinuation of marginal programs.

One Association reports they are starting virtual roundtable meetings with members so that they can each learn from each other during these unprecedented times.  Another CFO mentioned that their approach to member engagement in the future will be more streamlined and delivered differently — virtual platforms is now a year-round 365-day initiative.

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