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Take advantage of change: When we no longer see change as a threat it becomes an opportunity

By Jennifer Spear

We often see change – any change – as a threat, but in reality it is just an “offer” and it’s our job to accept the offer. It certainly doesn’t mean that we have to like it or agree with it, but we do have to accept it: to acknowledge that it has occurred and decide how we are going to react. An offer can be any change, new constraint, feedback or suggestion, or the reality of “what is.”

For associations to take advantage of change, they need to:

• Accept the offer

• Challenge the assumptions

• Focus on members

• Yes And…


The global pandemic is a BIG offer and in 2020 everyone on the planet had to accept it. For associations, it impacted many aspects of their work and it impacted their members. For the first time, everyone everywhere was facing similar challenges at the same time, and not just at work but at home and in all aspects of their lives.

For many associations, one of the most obvious examples of the impact is their annual conference, hit hard by the inability to meet in person. According to CSAE’s Financial Operations Report, meetings and events account for over 15 per cent of an association’s revenue. On March 13th it was announced that in-person meetings were off the table because of COVID-19.

Not being able to gather in groups, not being able to design, attend or plan live, face-to-face events was the offer – and we had no choice but to accept it. At the beginning, we had no idea how long the situation was going to last and many associations with conferences in the spring postponed them until later in the year. For those with conferences planned for the fall, some wanted to wait and see what would happen. There was no script for this.

CSAE’s annual conference and showcase was planned to be live in Halifax, November 2-6, 2020. On March 13th the venue had already been booked, the team at Discover Halifax was deep in design for hosting this group of influential attendees, speakers were submitting their ideas for education sessions and exhibitors were negotiating contracts.

When we all first went home in March, the thinking was, “of course we will still be able to meet in person in Halifax at the beginning of November.” When we were all still at home in May it became a less-likely scenario. With a broken heart, Danielle Lamothe, VP of Learning and Innovation for CSAE, announced to her team that there could be no live in-person conference but there would be a virtual event. The offer had been accepted.


Moving an association’s key event to a virtual setting could be disheartening, disappointing, frustrating and annoying. Having to change plans in the middle of the planning is not enjoyable. But, when we can accept the offer we can then challenge the old scripts of what a conference looks like. When we are no longer constrained by physical space or time we can design something new, despite all that appears to be at stake.

Some assumptions of live, in-person events:

• Connections

• Choice

• Consecutive days

• Capacity

• Costs

• Travel

However, when you accept the offer of going virtual you can release some of the constraints of producing an in-person event and explore new opportunities.


In considering how to best transition the conference to a virtual event, CSAE focused on their members’ needs, realizing that many were dealing with the same challenges as CSAE. Their own associations had plans that were unexpectedly interrupted. The members were IN change, in that messy middle of change where things were more uncertain than certain. CSAE wanted to provide value and demonstrate what could be possible when accepting the offer of going virtual.

Being in the swirling mess, where too many possibilities exist and too few obvious answers are present, can be disorienting. However, if you allow yourself to be curious in this space, opportunities can be uncovered, discovered, created, curated, developed and produced.

By accepting the offer and focusing on the needs of their members, CSAE was able to successfully re-design the conference experience.


“Yes And” is a term borrowed from improvisational theatre: Yes – we will accept the offer (anything that is said, done or brought into an improv scene is considered an offer), And – we will build on it in a positive way (to move the scene forward).

Yes we will have our conference virtually, And we have an opportunity to do new things and create a new experience for our members.

For CSAE, no longer being restricted by space or time offered an opportunity to not just plan an online event, but to provide real value to members. By accepting the offer and challenging the assumptions of in-person events, a new model was born.

The CSAE virtual conference was scheduled for November (YES). However, its members needed help now – while they were IN the change – to navigate the unpredictable landscape. So rather than waiting for November, the conference was launched in June, with several online learning opportunities including Think Tanks (AND), where members helped to shape the priorities and programming according to their own immediate needs and interests.

CSAE had conducted a survey of its members earlier in the year and found that there were five topics of most interest to association executives. Each Think Tank focused on one of those topics, with participants meeting once a month. I was fortunate to be one of the Think Tank facilitators. Whoever registered for the conference could join as many of the Think Tanks as they wished. This was an opportunity to dig deep into the topics, share learning and experiences, ask fellow executives what they did, and share successes. The Think Tanks were mastermind groups on specific topics and the executives got to work on their issues while still IN the change.

Typically, when we seek support, information or education, it is when we are experiencing a need. Organizations and speakers offer courses and education when they have scheduled it into their calendar. Often, these two incidents do not occur at the same time.

Instead, the Think Tanks were offered at the right time – executives coming together IN the change to talk about how they could navigate through the change and plan how to emerge intact, stronger and better.

Despite their talents, Danielle and her team would not necessarily have thought of the Think Tanks had they been able to plan the usual live, in-person conference. It was because the “normal” was disrupted that they were open to accepting the offer, inspired to design this most critical member benefit at the time their members most needed it.

The example of how CSAE approached the threat to their annual conference as an opportunity helps demonstrate how accepting the offer of change created unique advantages and benefits that otherwise would have not been realized. With the standard script no longer in play, associations can, in fact, rewrite the narrative and find innovative and valuable ways forward, to the benefit of their organization and their membership as well.

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