By Joyce DiMascio

One of Australia’s most important “associations of associations” is enjoying a membership boom thanks to Covid.

CEO and founder of the Associations Forum, John Peacock AM, says the role of associations during difficult times has become very clear over the past 12 months as people have sought out “a stable force” and turned to their peak bodies.

This also applied to the Associations Forum which has had a membership boom.

The recently promoted general manager, Fatima Sunderji, said their organisations had picked up “a couple of hundred” new members over the past year.

That’s an extraordinary result and according to Peacock it shows that associations should never waste a crisis to show their worth.

In this story we talk to founder of the Associations Forum, John Peacock, who was awarded an AM on Australia Day this year in recognition of his work.

This award was bestowed for his service helping to professionalise the sector, his pro-bono work and for his volunteering over the past 20 years. The Associations Forum was formed in 2004 and now boasts more than 600 members.

The associations market is a staple in the business events market and drives thousands of national meetings and expos. It is a good window into what’s going in our sector and the economy.

The Associations Forum has a unique helicopter view of its 600 members across the not-for-profit sector covering both associations and charities.

Fatima Sunderji knows the Associations Forum well and has worked on and off for the entity since 2004. She is now its general manager entrusted with the role of running the organisation, keeping members happy and generating revenue.

She says that during Covid, the Associations Forum members were more available as “they weren’t flying around” so there was a lot more engagement.

“In addition, we also went out of our way to offer support to non-members,” she said.

This strategy has been key to attracting the high-level of new members, no doubt the envy of any membership-based organisation.

Like their members, the Associations Forum had to adapt to the restrictions of Covid and evolved its approach to the high revenue annual conference and trade show. Normally held mid-year, the event was rescheduled and run virtually for the first time in late 2020.

Peacock said the host venue, the Royal International Conference Centre at Brisbane Showgrounds, treated the Associations Forum well with its flexibility and non-punitive approach. “They were very good to us,” he said.

So with a vast community of members who run events to drive revenue and service their members – what are Peacock and Sunderji hearing?

“The members are telling us that life is getting back to normal – and most importantly, they are optimistic about the vaccine.

“The associations have been frustrated about border closures but they are more confident, but not buoyant about running events in the first half of the year,” John Peacock said.

Most of its members continued to engage their communities through 2020 by running virtual events and learning a lot in the process.

Sunderji says that many have a “virtual event hang-over” and their next step will likely be hybrid, even though she says this can be costly.

Most of the organisations within the Associations Forum have survived due to JobKeeper. Some have had to cut staff, some have given “renewal holidays” while others have been “forgiving about renewals”.

And while some associations are doing it tough, some have boomed and this directly reflects what’s happened in the overall economy. The outdoor, nursery and gardening, home improvements sectors have all done very well.

John Peacock sums things up succinctly – associations have to “deliver on their purpose in a different way”, with adaptability of plans and Boards and CEOs that respond appropriately to the environment.