Why Associations Are Feeling Optimistic Now

A new report finds that associations feel things are looking up. And there’s good reason for that to continue—if they don’t get complacent. 

Optimists in the C-suite can be hard to find these days. Multiple surveys have found that CEOs are anxious about election-year politics, lingering effects of inflation, and what technologies like generative AI mean for their business. 

But the main takeaway from Marketing General International’s 2024 Association Economic Outlook Report [PDF], released last week, is that associations are generally feeling positive. According to the report, based on a 2023 survey of professionals from more than 300 associations, most associations expect to see upticks in membership (61 percent), nondues revenue (56 percent), and overall revenue (53 percent) in the coming year. And a majority of associations say that inflation will have no impact on their hiring plans. 

Part of that rosy outlook can likely be attributed to a substantial bounce-back in in-person meetings, and the revenue that comes along with it. The percentage of groups planning to offer only in-person events jumped from 39 percent to 61 percent this year, as more groups (42 percent) have seen an “increase in in-person meeting attendance compared to pre-pandemic levels.”

Though worries about overall morale have diminished, worries about productivity and collaboration are trending upward.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re found that “back to normal” unicorn that some people are still desperately seeking. For one thing, associations are still sorting out how to manage hybrid staff structures. While 30 percent of respondents require staffers in the office a certain number of days a week, the percentage of fully remote organizations is up: 26 percent, compared to 14 percent in 2021. 

Those arrangements appear to have escalated anxiety about managing employees: Though worries about overall morale have diminished, worries about productivity and collaboration are trending upward. And though respondents were sanguine about inflation’s impact on hiring, a substantial majority (72 percent) say that “operational cost increases” will be a top concern in 2024.

That disruption is matched by an unsettled situation when it comes to nondues revenue. A central lesson from the pandemic is that organizations can’t be passive and monolithic when it comes to revenue drivers—more than ever, they need to explore ways to engage members in a variety of ways. The MGI report suggests that organizations are getting the message: Large majorities of respondents say that their member messaging emphasizes education and training (73 percent) and networking (64 percent). 

Similarly, 67 percent say the top opportunity they’ll explore is “developing new products and services to assist members and member companies.” That’s a bit less than the 78 percent who said so in 2020, at a desperate, scary moment. But it’s enough to suggest they’ve taken the lesson. 

Will they continue to, though? Smaller percentages of associations say they’re “reevaluating and streamlining” their internal processes” or “increasing virtual professional development opportunities for members.” The general optimism demonstrated in the MGI report points to the resilience of the association model overall—the instinct for professionals to meet and increase their knowledge hasn’t gone away. But it can also erode without consistent attention to improving the member and staff experience. Associations learned it during the tough times; it’s worth applying the lessons when things are going well too.

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