Association Forum Highlights Resiliency of Profession During First-Ever Virtual Forum Forward

Despite the restraints of a remote approach, the jam-packed conference was as compelling as it’s ever been

By Kim Kelly, CAE

ForumForward 2020

Forum Forward 2020 opened with a stretch and a downward-facing dog. Kristen Brogan, chief mindful living officer for On Target Living, led attendees through morning yoga. Throughout the day, Brogan would pop in to lead stretches, host a health and wellness video chat, and ended the day with a “build your own cocktail” demonstration.

From yoga to live video chats to panels of industry influencers, Forum Forward 2020 delivered a full-day experience. Although attendees were joining virtually—from home, from an office, or somewhere else—the conference experience was as compelling as an in-person event.

“Forum Forward has always served as a gathering place for association professionals, and we didn’t want to lose that sense of camaraderie and networking just because we went to a virtual format.” —Michelle Mason, CEO, Association Forum

“We wanted attendees to feel connected despite the virtual nature of the conference,” said Michelle Mason, CEO of Association Forum. “Forum Forward has always served as a gathering place for association professionals, and we didn’t want to lose that sense of camaraderie and networking just because we went to a virtual format.”

Association Forum’s education team went to work to pull off a one-of-a-kind event that had all the trappings of an in-person experience. They knew that an all-day online conference could be draining, which is why they incorporated plenty of breaks and wellness content. But, they were also contending with the use of new technology. CadmiumCD provided a sleek meeting platform that was far more robust than your typical webinar. Since many attendees were new to this format, Association Forum hired Karen Millsap to facilitate the meeting and guide everyone through the platform.

Millsap’s high-energy and conversational tone provided continuity to the day. She introduced the keynotes, offered tips on using the discussion and question features, and she popped in to tell attendees when to take a break or go grab lunch. By the end of the day, Millsap felt like a friend you were experiencing the conference with—exchanging notes and reactions to sessions.

Presenters struck a balance between providing insights into moving forward and also recognizing the challenges of this past year, given the pandemic, financial crisis, and social justice movement.

This year’s theme was “focus your future,” yet the underlying theme of many presentations was how to remain focused despite these uncertain times. Presenters struck a balance between providing insights into moving forward and also recognizing the challenges of this past year, given the pandemic, financial crisis, and social justice movement.

Artist Phil Hansen presenting during Forum Forward.

Artist Phil Hansen provided an opening keynote presentation that was both inspiring and engaging. From his art studio in Minnesota, Hansen took the audience on his personal journey to accept a diagnosis of permanent nerve damage in his drawing hand. He learned to transform his limitation into opportunities and create art not in spite of his challenge, but rather because of it. The presentation was peppered with interactive elements—like drawing on a smartphone app and submitting the images—as well as examples of Hansen’s incredible artwork. As attendees, it was easy to forget that we were tuning in from our home offices and we weren’t actually in the studio with Hansen.

Hansen’s main message was that we can all get creative with our limitations. He drew an umbrella to represent challenges in our lives and told attendees that each challenge is composed of two parts: a limitation and a self-limiting belief. For example, when Hansen was first diagnosed with permanent nerve damage in his dominant hand, he adopted the belief that he could no longer create art. The limitation was the nerve damage, but the self-limiting belief was that he couldn’t make art with nerve damage. Once he discarded that belief, he found new ways to make art.

Hansen’s message could not be more appropriate for these times. Many of us are meeting challenges in both our personal and professional lives due to the events of 2020. Whether our challenges are individual or affect our organizations, Hansen delivered a roadmap to meet them head on. 

After some stretching, attendees moved into the concurrent sessions. Some were live, some were recorded, and others were live video chats. Pre-recorded sessions were followed by a live chat, so that each session was accompanied by a Q&A no matter the format.

Nathan Chamberlain, CAE, manager, membership operations, American Association of Nurse Anesthetists, and Andrea Mitchell, director, content marketing, American College of Healthcare Executives, presented “Getting the Green Light for Your Idea.” They walked attendees through ways to think through and present an idea to association leadership. They also addressed the idea-vetting process at both large and small organizations and gave tips for navigating each structure.

“Now is the time to look closely and have conversations about how to eliminate duplication of effort.” —April Kates-Ellison, CAE, MS, vice president, member & client services, American Dental Association

April Kates-Ellison, CAE, MS, vice president, member & client services, American Dental Association, presented “Remaining Relevant for Members in the Midst of Change.” Kates-Ellison echoed Hansen’s message by challenging attendees to look at threats to their current membership programs as opportunities. “Now is the time to look closely and have conversations about how to eliminate duplication of effort,” she told attendees. She explained how the ADA is focused on streamlining membership and capturing a younger demographic to move the organization into the future. She shared detailed matrices and working documents during this comprehensive session.

In his session, “Network Like an Introvert: Valuable Tips for All Personality Types,” Erich Kurschat, owner, Harmony Insights, gave attendees tips on building their networks. Introverts are often thought to be at a disadvantage in networking situations, but Kurschat identified the natural strengths that introverts can bring to these opportunities. He also challenged attendees to dig into their own networking strengths and weaknesses and try out some of the tips he offered in the session.

Bob Wendover, president, Common Sense Enterprises, Inc., discussed decision fatigue and overwhelm in his pre-recorded session. Wendover detailed how today’s busy world is full of tiny decisions—many embedded in our technology—that drain us and contribute to feeling overwhelmed. His presentation was well-received by attendees trying to reclaim some brain space after months of remote work, remote school and remote everything else. Attendee Crystal Ruiz, director of operations and administration, American Ornithological Society, said “Yippee! I’m not crazy and the brain drain I have is REAL so there is hope.” The discussion was filled with likeminded comments about the struggle of living our fast-paced, overwhelming lives. Wendover offered some concrete solutions and tips for purging some daily decisions (looking at you, e-mail).

Attendees at the top level of their organizations were invited to the CEOnly Summit where a panel of CEOs discussed everything from governance and membership to being a compassionate leader. “Associations are a conduit to lifelong learning,” Sherrif Karamat, president and CEO of PCMA, told attendees. He went on to discuss the threat of corporations trying to fulfill that role and said that if associations aren’t nimble, they’ll lose that strength. He urged fellow CEOs to not let their projects die by committee: “you don’t need 10 task forces to tell you what your members are telling you,” he said.

The closing keynote offered “Lessons Learned Thus Far from the Global Pandemic” featuring: Joel Albizo, FASAE, CAE, CEO, American Planning Association; Kimberly Mosley, CAE, CPE, president, American Specialty Toy Retailing Association; Paul Pomerantz, FACHE, CEO, American Society of Anesthesiologists. The group compared their experiences and recognized the challenges this year has presented. But, they also offered hope for what’s to come by detailing creative strategies their organizations are implementing. Millsap summed up the group’s sentiments when she said, “we are all experiencing this together, human-to-human. We’re all in different boats, but the same storm.”

The full-day event ended with a cocktail demo by Brogan and some trivia. Attendees may have missed the free food and handshakes this year, but they didn’t miss any of the education. Forum Forward 2020 was an overwhelming success. This conference was the culmination of Association Forum’s tireless efforts to deliver top-notch education no matter the circumstances. The success of this event is a win for not only Association Forum, but the entire association community. As an industry, associations are stronger than ever and well-prepared to weather this storm.

About the Author

Kim Kelly, CAE, is the owner of Kim Kelly Consulting.

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