Performance Under Pressure: Lessons From COVID-19 Success Stories

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These are tough times for almost every organization, but some for-profits are finding ways to make membership or subscription models continue to work for them. Here’s what they’re doing.

A lot of organizations are struggling right now as the coronavirus creates new challenges for their business models. But some are finding ways to thrive—or at least discover bright spots in an otherwise dreary time—by leaning into the membership model.

As a result, these for-profit organizations offer examples worth learning from in the association space. Among their strategies:

Don’t be shy, ask for support. Case in point: The Daily Beast, which has nearly doubled its membership growth rate since mid-March, according to Digiday. Site visitors are encouraged to financially support the media outlet, which currently is offering a one-month trial for $1 and says its coronavirus coverage earns only  77 cents on the dollar in ad revenue compared to other content. The Daily Beast also displays a “give more” option, which has raised the average order size by 35 percent, says Chief  Revenue Officer Mia Libby.

Offer promotions that help others. With millions of commuters working at home instead of consuming audio content on the way to work, it’s not a great time to be a podcast or an audiobook company. But membership in one audiobook firm,, jumped by 300 percent in March. What’s its secret? A campaign that supported its brick-and-mortar counterparts. According to Forbes,’s #ShopBookstoresNow campaign offered two audiobooks for the price of one, along with the pledge that the customer’s full payment would go to a local bookstore of their choice. The campaign not only helped local shops but gave the audiobook service access to a new audience.

Lean on your content offerings. Did you get sucked into the latest season of Ozark or the wacky weirdness of the Tiger King documentary? If so, you represent evidence that Netflix has been doing its job. According to Adweek, the company added 15.7 million subscribers in the past quarter. And it’s being realistic: “We expect viewing to decline and membership growth to decelerate as home confinement ends, which we hope is soon,” the company wrote in a recent letter to shareholders. Netflix has worked through a significant production backlog—it has filmed most of its 2020 shows already—which is helping serve its audience during a difficult time. When content consumption is peaking, emphasize your content game.

Leverage your natural advantages. During normal times, a service like Blue Apron can offer a nice change of pace for a family whose idea of a home-cooked meal is takeout. But during a time of crisis, such a service can be critical. Blue Apron’s first-quarter sales were up 8 percent over the prior quarter, according to, and the company plans on leveraging trends that have driven up subscriptions. “As we move into the second quarter of 2020, we are focused on driving customer retention and establishing longer-term consumer habits out of the heightened demand we have been seeing as a result of the impact of COVID-19, including stay-at-home and restaurant restriction orders and other changes,” said CEO Linda Findley Kozlowski. Many associations have advantages that can offer benefits during a pandemic, including online education and access to virtual networking and online member communities. As engagement in these offerings increases during the crisis, look for insights into how you can maintain that momentum long term.

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We Asked, You Answered: Your Work-From-Home Comfort Zones

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Association pros share their remote work environments and new routines as they find normalcy in a workday shaken up by COVID-19.

Work rituals don’t look like they once did—and they may not look the same for a while. Despite that, association executives far and wide are making do with their new work-from-home remote environments, and many are even thriving.

We recently asked Associations Now readers to tell us how they’ve created new comfort zones and routines away from the office. (Some even shared photos!) Check it out:

Tim Wilson

Executive Director, Western Arts Alliance

Early every morning, I take a 2- to 3-mile walk around the neighborhood before sitting down at my desk around 8. After lunch, I head back out for 20-30 minutes. The walks are restorative, allowing me to decompress, breathe, and re-center. Plus, it’s spring in Oregon and so beautiful out right now.

Melanie Seiden

Assistant Director for Membership, New York State Council of School Superintendents

I have an office in the basement, and I was always hesitant to use it. It’s kind of cold, I can’t hear what’s going on with the kids, but with the addition of a space heater I am gladly “getting away from it all,” and now I find this space almost a safe haven. I can focus on the work I need to get done while checking in with my colleagues and members to keep those connections alive. We might not be able to see each other face to face, but keeping connections alive right now is what will get us through this.

Teresa Evans-Hunter

Executive Director, North Carolina Retired School Personnel

Keeping a schedule. I get up, walk the dog, shower, get dressed, check on the kids’ school schedule, and then walk down to my makeshift office in our guest room. I have my wall calendar hanging on the closet doors and track deadlines, reminders, and projects my staff may be working on. I set my alarms for the many Zoom calls and webinars, as well as breaks to get up and walk around the neighborhood, provide homework help, and prepare meals.

Lisa Billock

‌Senior Coordinator, Event Services, SmithBucklin

A balance between seeing the outside world and having a focused view is key. The weather alone can have such an impact on daily attitude, and the light provided can make or break video calling. Rain or shine, light or dark, however, the view of just a bit of nature (urban nature or leafy foliage) connects my small workspace to the greater picture that life does go on outside of my cubicle. Remembering things do progress and we will have a world to return to helps motivate and move forward now that my daily in-cube visual of my goals isn’t an option.


Tobin Conley, CAE

Strategic Consultant, Technology Management, DelCor Technology Solutions

Two things are essential for me to have a productive home office. First, I need desk space (which is why I commandeered the dining room table). Second, I need natural light—this not only helps keep me from looking like I’m from witness protection in Zoom meetings, it also reminds me that there is still a big beautiful world out there, and someday (who knows when) I’ll rejoin it.

Lisa Junker, CAE

Director, Publications, Communications, and Marketing, Entomological Society of America

I’ve definitely found that I need a way to mark the shift between “work” and “home” at the end of the day—my commute used to give me time to downshift, and now that’s gone. Exercise of some kind seems to do the trick nicely—even a short walk lets me discharge some stress energy and get into a more relaxed frame of mind.

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[Webinar] Mission Critical: How One Association Transformed its Live Event to Virtual in Record Time

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This is not a typical story. The American Association of Suicidology’s annual meeting had been growing steadily in recent years. When their reimagined conference couldn’t take place in Portland, Ore., in late April, staff and volunteers went into overdrive to transition the physical meeting to a virtual one in a matter of days. They knew how critical it was to deliver much-needed content to their global community.
Jonathan and Colleen will share the unvarnished truth about what they learned, what they’d do differently and the surprising results of the efforts of their team. Join VCC’s free webinar and take away lessons you can apply immediately to your event strategy.
Date: Thursday, May 7, 2020
Time: 12 noon – 1 p.m. EDT
Conference Architects and Speakers:
Colleen Creighton, CEO, AAS
Jonathan Singer, PhD, AAS Board President and 2020 Program Chair
Sarah Michel, VP, Velvet Chainsaw Consulting

Register Now

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Cancel, Postpone, Go Virtual? How to Make Critical Decisions About Your Meetings

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A look at how three associations came to decisions related to their group’s largest event and often biggest revenue maker: the annual conference.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced associations to make difficult but critical decisions that often come with significant financial implications. One piece of association business that’s been greatly affected is conferences and tradeshows.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to either speak with or listen to a number of association executives describing the critical decisions they’ve had to make around their events. While each situation is unique, the reasons why they made the decisions they did are sure to resonate as you consider your own meetings. Here are some of their stories.

Be Flexible

The International Trademark Association was planning for its 142nd Annual Meeting to take place in Singapore at the end of April. More than 10,000 attendees and 160-plus exhibitors were expected, but as the pandemic spread through Asia and Singapore was becoming a focal point of the outbreak, INTA decided on February 15 it would move the meeting to a location in the United States in May or June.

“It was a very difficult decision—one that required a lot of negotiation with our partners and our vendors,” said CEO Etienne Sanz de Acedo. “But, ultimately, health and safety were our top priority.”

However, as INTA was working to secure a U.S. location for its rescheduled meeting, it decided to hold off again due to “fast-moving developments and escalating uncertainty of the public health crisis.”

In early April, INTA announced a that now-combined 2020 annual and leadership meeting would take place in Houston in November. While INTA plans to open registration sometime in early June, Sanz de Acedo admits the situation is evolving and that a lot can happen between now and then. “While this is unprecedented, what I’ve learned is that this is really the time to encourage flexibility in terms of how you think, how your staff thinks, how you work with your partners, and what you offer to your members. It will make a real difference down the line.”

Keep Members in Mind

The Institute of Food Technologists’ 25,000-attendee Annual Event and Food Expo was scheduled to take place in Chicago in July.

Since the meeting represents 70 percent of its annual revenue, and 20 percent of attendees come from outside the U.S., IFT began discussing the impact the virus would have on their meeting back in January. Staff also started conversations with their event cancellation insurance broker, as well as an adjuster, about a what type of claim they might have.

By March, “as things continued to unfold, it became clear that many of our stakeholders were becoming increasingly focused on keeping the food supply in this country and around the globe moving,” said CEO Christie Tarantino-Dean, FASAE, CAE.

Knowing that in-person attendance would be dramatically reduced in even the best scenarios it laid out, IFT made the decision to transition to virtual. “Really that decision largely came down to knowing our members and our vision, which is about a safe, nutritious, sustainable food supply for all,” she said.

Admit What You Don’t Know

With one 200-person international event planned with a partner and two summer events on the horizon, the 11-person staff at the Online News Association (ONA) didn’t have its 3,000-person annual conference, scheduled for late September, top of mind leading into March.

“March was just putting out fires, and we weren’t able to take a step back,” said CEO Irving Washington, FASAE, CAE. “But for those of us who have later meetings, I know we can’t get too comfortable.”

That realization sank in after he heard from several colleagues who had to make quick decisions about their meetings. They told him, “Whatever decision I thought was cautious hasn’t been cautious enough.”

Unlike INTA and IFT, Washington’s organization has some time to consider options for its annual meeting, which accounts for 60 percent of its revenue. ONA has used that time to design a framework around scenarios and try to envision what the world may look like in the months ahead.

“Where we are is, we’ve talked to all key parties and laid out 11 decision-making criteria that we’re looking at specifically for the annual meeting,” Washington said.

While ONA can’t predict what will happen these next few months, the staff understands there’s a good possibility the conference will transition to a virtual event.

“Our mindset is to just open it up and tell people what we’re dealing with and why we need the support of either registration or donations, and just be as transparent as we can and authentic about the annual meeting for this year,” said Washington. “We all have to be OK with the sentence, ‘We don’t know.’”

What have you relied on most when making decisions about your organization’s conference given the COVID-19 pandemic? Please share in the comments.

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Should You Waive Fees for New Members?

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Many associations are wondering what to do about membership dues during the COVID-19 pandemic. As you consider that question, remember that what works for one association won’t necessarily work for all.

The National Limousine Association announced at the beginning of April that it would waive fees for new members because of the “devastating effects of COVID-19.” NLA President Robert Alexander said the decision was based on a desire to help the entire industry weather the crisis.

Before the pandemic, Alexander said, NLA might have streamed a members-only live webinar on, for example, how to apply for a loan under the Paycheck Protection Program. Now members who have joined for free can participate because there are no barriers to entry.

“We’re hoping that if they find value in what we’re doing, they’ll stay and become full-fledged, dues-paying members,” he said. “We want to support them in the long run.”

The decision to temporarily offer free membership—from April through June—has yielded an uptick in traffic to NLA’s website, a significant increase in Facebook followers, and excellent feedback overall from new and existing members. “Our videos are being viewed twice as many times as we have members,” Alexander said. “It’s working.”

But what works for one association does not always translate into results for another association. Sheri Jacobs, FASAE, CAE, president and CEO of Avenue M Group, recommends that organizations consider their “gut intuition” and brainstorm to determine whether waiving member fees is right for them by considering a whole list of options. Then, before making a significant change that could affect the organization financially, she advises collecting other data points to inform the decision.

Jacobs set out four steps as a roadmap to a decision if you’re considering a dues waiver in the current crisis. You can use the same process to weigh any substantial organizational change.

Take a quick survey. The response rate is usually good because members want to share, and they also want to know what other members are doing. Ask: How have your business operations been affected? How long do you expect the financial impact to last? What are your pressing concerns?

Think it through. Ask yourself what the financial implications of waiving member fees are and what the long-term effects will be on your organization.

Take risks, but plan for mistakes. Try to get comfortable taking risks, but go in knowing that missteps may happen. If the idea works, great. If it doesn’t, learn from the mistakes. Celebrate both, and appreciate what you’ve learned.

Make it sensible. Before you make a decision, be prepared to demonstrate that doing nothing was a bigger risk and have the data and due diligence in place to back up your decision once you make it.

“The bigger risk is sitting there and doing absolutely nothing. By showing that you are not averse to risk, you’re demonstrating leadership,” Jacobs said.

Echoing former ASAE President and CEO John H. Graham IV, FASAE, CAE, who died earlier this year, she said, “If you’ve seen one association, you’ve seen one association.” She added, “Even if there are similarities in your organizations, do your own due diligence.”

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Conference Go/No-Go Decisions in a Pandemic

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This is the second in a series of blog posts, written collaboratively by our team, which uncover lessons learned in advising dozens of our clients on their events in the time of COVID-19. Although each situation has its own unique issues, we hope you find nuggets to help you with your disruption response and planning.

Scenario Planning

Where lead time permits, work through at least three scenarios – optimistic, pessimistic and somewhere in the middle. We like using an outside resource to set the scenario goal post. The Conference Board has the best we’ve come across so far:

  1. May Reboot – quick recovery
  2. Summertime V-shape – deeper contraction, bigger recovery
  3. Fall Recovery – Extended contraction

For each scenario:

  • Define the new event experience. Is it still in-person, virtual or a hybrid?
  • Estimate the impact on registration, exhibit and sponsor participation and revenue.
  • Identify expenses that can be cut.
  • Think outside the box on where you should make new investment.

Lead Time and Transparency

In the beginning of this crisis, organizers of major conferences and trade shows were canceling with very little lead time. We started out recommending that our clients communicate a go/no-go decision date two weeks prior to opening. Now that we have a better idea of the severity of this situation, we’re recommending setting a go/no-go decision date eight weeks prior. This aligns with March 15, 2020 CDC guidelines for postponing or canceling mass gatherings (250 + participants).

Best Practice – Set a firm date for making your decision to move forward, postpone, cancel or shift to virtual. Promise your community that you will update the website every two weeks leading up to that. Don’t break that promise.

Refunds and FAQs

For refunds, take the lead from what airlines and hotels are doing for individual cancellations. The best practice that has evolved is to give exhibitors and attendees options:

  1. Apply all or part to next year or a virtual experience
  2. Opt for a full refund, or
  3. Donate to the foundation

Whatever options you provide, it is wise to put together a good FAQ page on your event website. The Institute of Food Technologists recently pulled the plug on their July show in Chicago. Since McCormick Place is now a hospital, that’s probably a really smart move. We are very impressed with the FAQ they put together.

Check out more ideas and rationale in With Event Refunds, Do the Right Things.

What advice would you add for scenario planning and predictions? What other refund options have you considered?

Other posts in this series: Leading Through the Pandemic: Generosity + Empathy = Future Brand

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Virtual Events: Strategy Before Execution

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My mother used to tell us that “things are going to be different” as we drove home from our annual summer beach vacation. It was her way of getting the family focused on the upcoming routine and discipline of school and work. I remember feeling that her words were both a warning and a promise of adventures yet to come.

That lesson is easily applied to the challenges that lie ahead for associations considering alternatives and augmentation of their future live events. While live events are likely to rebound, they will likely look and feel different—and virtual events are most certainly going to play a larger role.

Strategy—and Transparency—First

Our inboxes are suddenly full of marketing emails from companies touting their virtual platforms. Associations must make smart decisions in selecting providers. But I’d argue that it’s not about the platform alone.  It is the strategy around going virtual that is far more critical, just as creating your objective—the why behind an event—is most important for live programs.

It also seems like every organization is trying to keep their brands relevant by offering virtual content to members and customers. I fear that “webinar fatigue” is quickly setting in. Senior leaders are not going to engage in webinars longer than an hour if at all.

As you develop a virtual-event strategy, be mindful of creating fresh content or perspectives and avoid the same old formats. No one wants to waste his or her time on a virtual event that is primarily a commercial for products and services. I’ve seen several webinars that have been advertised as providing content, but were basically bait-and-switch events designed to generate leads. It’s fine to offer resources (either free or fee-based) but don’t obfuscate your message or impact by immediately reaching out to participants with marketing messages.

Five Steps to Success

Following are some lessons we have distilled from talking with dozens of clients and attending many recent virtual events:

  1. Have a clear strategy
  2. Engagement is necessary
  3. Deliver timely and relevant content
  4. Establish metrics and measurements
  5. Offer additional resources

Refer to this short, recent video, in which my colleague Sarah Michel offers some practical suggestions for making your virtual events successful.

What steps have you taken when designing your virtual event? If they are here to stay, why?

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Leading During a Pandemic: Management From a Distance

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Workers’ increasing comfort with remote work and videoconferencing will outlast COVID-19, says PMI CEO Sunil Prashara. That’s good news—and a warning sign.

These are disruptive times for associations, their staffs, and members. But a month of learning new ways to connect and communicate does have some benefits, according to Sunil Prashara, president and CEO of the Project Management Institute. We’re more attentive, and doing more: “What we’ve found is that productivity levels have gone through the roof,” he says, on a video call last week, and he credits that productivity to the new everyday work culture of video calls.

But that newfound productivity only comes thanks to some particular actions at the leadership level. And in some ways, the new culture surfaces up new challenges for leaders. Here are a few of his thoughts on what leading teams looks like now, and what the people in charge should be alert to.

Gone are the days of doing a conference call for the sake of having a status update.

People are more focused now. Now that our colleagues are all floating heads on screens, the usual means of reading body language and other social cues aren’t as available to leaders. But it may not be as necessary for the moment, Prashara suggests. “There could be 30 people watching, but I’m just seeing you’re face and you’re just seeing my face—therefore, it’s a bit more intense,” he says. “There’s more of a likelihood that you’re going to be listening a little bit more attentively.”

A leader can put that newfound focus to use, Prashara says. “With that intimacy comes a sense of ownership. If you can convert that into a sense of ownership and a sense of purpose and a sense of mission, then you don’t have to manage as hard.”

But that focus only sustains itself if meetings have a clear purpose. Save the everyday check-ins for emails. “Gone are the days of doing a conference call for the sake of having a status update,” he says. “Most of the calls I’m on, they are ones where there’s something operational happening and we have to make a decision.”

The nature of videoconference discourse is different. Brainstorming and strategy sessions don’t work the same way now. (For more on that, see my post last month on virtual board meetings.) That means sidebars and discussions—and arguments—have to give way to a more patient kind of conversation. “It’s very difficult for people to talk on top of each other because the system can’t handle it,” he says. “People will give people the opportunity to finish a sentence before they talk and etiquette starts to get creative. You don’t even have to define it—it starts to happen.”

But that new discourse will press managers to receive input differently, and with more patience. “There is no parallel processing anymore. It’s all done in serial.”

We may be sticking with this. Which may be a problem. Associations, which often rely on conferences and events for much of their livelihood, are understandably eager for the moment when it’s safe to get together in person again. But Prashara warns that when that moment arrives, many people will be in no particular rush to convene. “There’ll be some things we are doing now that we will take into the new work ecosystem,” he says. “We’ll ask ourselves, Do we really need to have offices everywhere, and do we need to travel as much? We’ll be doing a lot less travel, and we’ll be interacting differently. In the past, if we had a chapter that asked to attend, I would say, ‘I can’t because I’m on my way to Paraguay to visit a chapter there.’ Now, I can say to four chapters on the same day, ‘As long as the timing works, I can attend all your events.’”

Prashara recognizes that the benefits in terms of connection now the bottom line at risk. That means leaders are charged now with thinking about what expansion looks like for your ranks. “Project management is too small for what it is that we do now,” he says. “We are now addressing change makers. Companies are going to look for people who can convert an idea and make it a reality. There are 44 million project managers out there that we can influence and enable, but when you look at change makers, the market is actually 750 million. Our sphere of influence is just increased a hundredfold because of what’s happening.”

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National Volunteer Week: Associations Say Thanks During a Strange Time

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Groups big and small are giving their volunteers a big shoutout this week in honor of National Volunteer Week, with many crediting those volunteers for helping even when stuck at home.

In a lot of ways, the important work that volunteers do never stops when it comes to associations. Whether those volunteers are board members, advocates working in their free time, or those who help out at events, their services keep associations running.

And that remains the case when a viral outbreak puts the world in a topsy-turvy state. With that in mind, here are just a few of the associations honoring their volunteers during this year’s National Volunteer Week:

School Nutrition Association. Schools around the country don’t have students going to them, but the nutrition part of the School Nutrition Association’s mission remains essential as its members navigate COVID-19. In a message to its volunteers, SNA President Gay Anderson praised the volunteers: “Whether during normal times or the current times we are in, you guys are the heart and soul of our association, and we so appreciate your volunteerism.”

American Farm Bureau Federation. In a statement on its website, the federation’s senior director of member engagement, Robin E. Kinney, noted that its volunteers work year-round, “giving unconditionally of their time and commitment and using their talents to enrich the lives of others.” However, she emphasized that the group’s volunteers have picked up the pace even more in recent weeks. “In the face of the historic coronavirus pandemic, these volunteers continue meeting the needs of others in new ways as they repurpose food, sew masks, and organize appreciation events while continuing to fulfill roles they volunteered for when life was moving at its ‘normal’ hectic pace,” she said.

National Glass Association. “During these times, so much of the news is negative that we thought we would share something positive,” said NGA Chair Chris Bole in a video highlighting the group’s volunteers, including those who serve on committees. “We could not operate without your efforts and without your expertise,” he added.

ALS Association. In a video created for National Volunteer Week, the ALS Association gathered its board members to discuss the ways that the disease has affected them and their loved ones and why that encourages them to volunteer. “Each of them were inspired by personal connections to ALS and are committed to do whatever it takes to continue our momentum in the fight—especially during a global pandemic,” the association states on its website.

Humane Society of the United States. With more than 2,000 active volunteers in its organization and upward of 90,000 volunteer hours last year, the Humane Society noted that its volunteers are assisting with efforts such as checking in on animal sanctuaries and keeping an eye on wildlife markets even during the COVID-19 crisis. “During the coronavirus pandemic, despite their own personal and professional challenges, they are stepping up to help us at a time when we need their help the most, with more dedication and determination than ever before,” said president and CEO, Kitty Block, in a blog post.

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Daily Buzz: Avoid Online Meeting Madness

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How to decide who speaks—and who goes next—during virtual meetings. Also: Pick the right association management software on your first try.

Meetings are most productive when everyone has the appropriate amount of time to speak. Virtual meetings are no different, but the digital setting means hosts need a different approach to managing the conversation.

“Determining who goes next during an online meeting discussion poses additional challenges to those of a face-to-face meeting,” says Adrian Segar of Conferences That Work. “That’s because we don’t have all the signaling options that are possible when all participants are physically together.”

In an online setting, a round-robin meeting won’t work. Instead, have the meeting’s facilitator choose who speaks next.

“For a small group, the facilitator’s memory may be sufficient to keep track of who has spoken and who hasn’t,” Segar says. “Alternatively, meeting platforms generally allow the host to display a list of participants, and the facilitator can use a screenshot of this list to invite and track who goes next.”

If everyone in the meeting has a webcam, the facilitator can also have participants raise their hands when they have something to say. Then, the facilitator says aloud who will speak next. Just don’t forget mobile users.

“If you have a few people on phones, the facilitator can check in with them periodically, asking if there’s something they want to contribute,” Segar says.

Meeting platforms such as Zoom even have a “raise hand” button that alerts the host.

AMS Selection for First-Timers

You may only go through an enterprise software buying process a few times in your career. Here’s a guide for first timers – #assnchat #AssociationAnswers

— Protech Associates (@protechcloud) April 20, 2020

When choosing new association management software, you might not know where to turn. To get a clearer picture, the AMS selection process should begin with information gathering, says Brian Smith, business development representative at Protech Associates.

Pick a few colleagues to create an AMS selection committee—they’ll be the ones leading the charge. From there, work to gather information on top AMS vendors and what your association needs from the software.

“Have stakeholders from each key department add their system ‘must haves,’ and use the list to help narrow your field of options,” Smith says.

Other Links of Note

Have an audit on the horizon? Blue Avocado breaks down what nonprofits need to know.

To turn your business idea into a startup, you need a clear and realistic plan, says Martin Zwilling oin Business Insider.

Looking for new ways to host virtual events? Event Manager identifies 10 cool ideas from around the event industry.

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