The return to The Center for Association Leadership’s (ASAE) Annual Meeting & Exposition brought almost 5,000 people to Nashville in August after two years of virtual experiences. With more than 100 sessions, the gathering focused on opportunities created through disruption. “We need to lean into a perpetual state of learning,” said ASAE President and CEO Michelle Mason.

“The rate of change has accelerated over the last two years. Let’s take all those learnings and the innovative thinking we were forced to address into the next reality so we can continue to build and be more resilient,” she encouraged.

Safi Bahcall, physicist, biotech entrepreneur, member of President Obama’s council of science advisors and author of Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas that Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries kicked off the innovative thinking with a presentation titled, “Nurturing Crazy Ideas.”

Nashville-based founder of Jumpstart Health investors and Jumpstart Nova, the first Black healthcare venture fund in America, Marcus Whitney, followed with a presentation titled “Inspiring Change by Embracing Innovation.”

The show-stopping finale was a presentation by GRAMMY-nominated musician and LGBTQ advocate Cidny Bullens, who shared an emotional story of learning to sing with your authentic voice.

As part of embracing experimentation and risk-taking, the conference prioritized local community thought leaders and new programs. The Opening Celebration at Ascend Amphitheatre included performances from renowned guitarist and vocalist Regi Wooten and GRAMMY, ACM, CMA, AMA and People’s Choice Award-winning super group Little Big Town.

The ASAE Research Foundation’s The Classic at Wildhorse Saloon boasted performances by Wendy Moten and acclaimed country artist Phil Vassar. The Closing Celebration at Fifth + Broadway, Nashville’s newest downtown development, featured special performances by Joe West and chart-topping pop singer/songwriter Ben Rector.

Community First

The 2022 Annual Meeting & Exposition agenda covered the current disruptions of sustainability; diversity, equity and inclusion; and workforce challenges with an eye toward finding new solutions using new association business models.

“All of these issues are converging at once and our members need to prioritize based on their needs,” Mason said. “Our responsibility is to give them access to resources to address those disruptions; that is why we are bringing leaders together to think through problems in uncertain times.”

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While Mason said the organization is committed to delivering omnichannel content to make learning accessible, ASAE 2022 Annual Meeting & Exposition didn’t include a virtual option because she wanted to focus on in-person relationship building. A revamped Associations Solutions Marketplace at Music City Center convention complex featured more than 300 sponsors and acted as a one-stop destination for finding the right products and service providers to help their associations achieve success.

The first ASAE Global Summit brought together 100 society for association executive representatives from Dubai, Singapore, Europe and beyond to talk about shared challenges. ASAE’s resources for expanding associations includes a Global Management series of studies examining the strategies and operations of associations doing business outside the United States and a Global Maturity Assessment online tool that enables association leaders to assess their readiness for global success.

Another first in Nashville was the launch of community pop-ups for Black CEOs, LGBTQ+, Latinas and other groups. The identity-based gatherings at the beginning of the conference were continuations of groups that started online and helped to attract a larger audience. Once there, Mason reported that many interacted with others and learned they have a lot in common with the wider group. “Community is powerful. When we leverage our platform to allow groups to meet like that, it creates a richer experience,” she said.

Rebuilding the Pipeline

Another new initiative aimed at rebuilding the association middle management pipeline is ReadyMe, which provides a combination of virtual and in-person training to nurture resilient leaders building on ASAE’s Conscious Inclusion strategy designed to fill the gaps of DEI training. “We need to develop our leaders in a more strategic way to combat the draining of the pipeline,” Mason said.

Meeting Community Needs, a community-focused CSR program, worked with Hands On Nashville to deliver materials for local school teachers to use in their classrooms and food packs for local residents experiencing food insecurity. A $20,000 donation will help to continue funding the work.

The 2023 ASAE Annual Meeting & Exposition will be held at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta, Aug. 5-8, 2023.

Michelle Mason: A Year of Listening

ASAE President and CEO Michelle Mason took the reins of The Center for Association Leadership a year ago from interim CEO Susan Robertson, the first woman to be president and CEO of ASAE in its 100-year history. The two took up where longtime CEO John Graham left off when he passed away in 2020.

When asked about highlights from the last year in an interview at Grand Hyatt Nashville on the closing day of ASAE 2022 Annual Meeting & Exposition, Mason was enthusiastic.

“I started with a listening tour,” she said. Through Zoom meetings, hopping on a plane and attending gatherings in the Washington, D.C. area, where ASAE is based, she met with staff, association members and industry partners. “I realized that ASAE needs to be an agile association responsive to member needs,” she said.

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She developed a three-pronged mandate. “First, I had to get the organization back on a stronger financial operating footing,” she explained. After almost three years without an in-person meeting, it was important to format a strategic framework to be viable regardless of what happens. “We now have new tools to make it possible to meet in person,” she continued. “We need to bring people together in a community setting, but we also need to meet members where they are.”

The second piece was cultural. She had to manage reopening the office and bringing the team back together. “The culture piece is so important,” she said.

At the same time, she was committed to expanding ASAE’s global footprint. “Partnerships and collaboration are key because we have limited resources. I am proud of being known as a collaborative organization,” she said.

Finally, she focused on what would be required to build the industry’s talent pipeline. “Diversity equity and inclusion will be integrated in everything we do,” she said.

“I love traveling,” she said, reflecting on the miles booked on the road over the last year. “I am focused on uniting the association community, that means traveling to where they are.”