2020 Year in Review: The Association

Not since World War II has there been so much disruption in our world. The combination of the COVID-19 pandemic, appalling racial injustices, and a tense and heated U.S. presidential election made for a year unlike any other. It’s been difficult, with people feeling isolated, anxious, and unsure of what the future holds. At the low point of the economic downturn 22 million jobs were lost in the United States, and hundreds of millions of people became unemployed across the world. Higher education has been far from immune, with hundreds of thousands of jobs lost as campuses were challenged with whether to operate face-to-face or virtual (or both), and how to best go about that. In a nutshell, it’s been a nightmare. 

It has also been one of the most significant crisis in the history of the Association. Canceling our in-person Annual Conference at the absolute last minute, absorbing huge financial losses, and reexamining our efforts to confront racism has certainly tested us as leaders. In an age when information is so easily lost or misrepresented, we have decided to produce this Year in Review to capture the historical record of the times. We see it as both a physical and digital artifact for future generations to better understand the significant events of 2020. The major articles in this issue are focused on how our campuses were challenged by the pandemic, racism, and climate change. In this introductory piece, we will summarize what has taken place in the Association: the challenges, opportunities, and actions that have guided our work this past year. 

Annual Conference 

The start of 2020 was similar to most years, with lots of energy and excitement focused on preparing for our 100th Annual Conference, scheduled for March 15–19 in Atlanta. However, as we inched closer and the coronavirus made its way to the United States, excitement changed to caution. By the end of January, the World Health Organization had declared a public health emergency, with the United States following suit a few days later. In February, we watched as the death toll in China rose, and the Centers for Disease Control noted that COVID-19 was growing into a pandemic. At this early stage there was little understanding of the virus, and there was no indication of how fast it would spread.  

The timing of the conference coincided with this moment of confusion regarding the trajectory of the coronavirus. If the conference had been two weeks earlier, it would have gone off without a hitch. That wasn’t the case, and ACUI leaders had to make decisions on the information that was in front of them, which was rapidly changing. Here is a glimpse of what unfolded. 

Tuesday, March 10 – On an emergency call the Board of Trustees voted to move forward with the 2020 Annual Conference as planned, with the addition of a remote attendance option. Although there would be lower numbers, general feedback from members was that they planned to attend. The feeling was that the in-person conference was important to members. It builds community and energizes the membership.  

Over the next 24 hours, the situation would dramatically change across the country. States and universities announced travel restrictions and limits on large gatherings of people. Registered members contacted the Central Office indicating they would no longer be able to attend.  

Wednesday, March 11 – The ACUI CEO and two staff members travelled to Atlanta to begin onsite preparations for hosting the conference. A second emergency board meeting was held to consider many issues regarding whether to move forward with the conference, ranging from contractual commitments and financial liabilities, to the health and safety of attendees. In the end, the board voted to postpone the 2020 Annual Conference. We can only succeed or fail through our values, and member safety is always our first responsibility. In the face of limited information, how fast things were changing, and a growing sense of risk, no other choice was possible.  

Little did we know how these circumstances were only a precursor to the similar scenarios ACUI leaders and members would need to navigate. 

Pivoting our Programs 

During the weeks following the announcement to postpone the Annual Conference, the Central Office team quickly increased the scope and reach of the Association’s online resources. ACUI has always stood as a resource for our members to share strengths, talk about challenges, and celebrate accomplishments. Facing a global pandemic, an economic crisis, and a rising reckoning with racial injustice across the world, our members and volunteers turned to ACUI to be in community, to understand, and to adapt.  

Sometimes challenge plays midwife to creativity, and so it was with our postponed conference. Loss became opportunity in May when we leveraged our shared new world of online meetings and working together while staying apart to build our first-ever virtual conference. Over two days, we were together building community on panels and sharing some of the delayed joys Atlanta had promised. It was not what we wanted or might have had. However, it was our community coming together, and it was what we needed. These virtual experiences cannot replace the in-person ones we have missed. Yet replacement is not the question; how we adapt and grow is. Looking forward, we will use them both to expand access and grow our community. 

While ACUI’s programs were moved to virtual delivery for the remainder of the year, the change in format allowed for different types of engagement. For example, the IPDS New Professionals program and Aspiring Directors Institute were transformed to be five-week cohort-learning programs. Forty-eight participants took advantage of panel discussions, roundtables, and forum discussions. Ninety-five professionals registered for the virtual Student Organizations Institute, where colleagues shared common challenges. As noted by this participant, “It’s nice to feel like there are people who understand and are in the same boat as you in terms of confusion and not knowing where to start with some issues in this virtual environment we are in with students.” All eight regional conferences were also held virtually, allowing members to connect, learn, and celebrate. Over the course of the year, total online programs increased by 400%.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion 

The tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and many more Black people this past year have not only generated protests and calls for racial justice, but also stressed the importance for us to examine how we can do more to overcome racism and anti-Blackness on our college campuses and in the Association. As the central meeting and gathering place on a college campus, the union must always be where all members of the campus community feel welcomed and included. We must continue to improve, offer programs that promote inclusion, and challenge students to examine issues of social and racial justice. 

Anyone familiar with ACUI knows we put a lot of emphasis on our educational delivery, and certainly that has been a focus with social and racial justice in the past year: making many resources available on our website and introducing several book clubs, campaigns, and tool kits. In 2020, our Board of Trustees led the strategic direction of the Association’s DEI work, allowing the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Program Team to focus on delivering educational content to improve members’ social justice competency. The DEI team developed a new podcast, with episodes addressing race, mentorship, self-care, and more. Regions and our Community for Multi-Ethnic Professionals and Allies held healing circles, the LGBTQ+ Community led several Safe Zone trainings, and we collaborated with other associations on an Around the Globe webinar series. Similarly, a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion monthly workshop series was established, with the goal of addressing oppression and equipping members to create more inclusive spaces on college campuses.  

We remain committed to this work and to moving the Association forward. Based on a 2019 assessment of the organization using the Global Diversity and Inclusion Benchmarks, several recommendations were implemented. ACUI hired a new diversity, equity, and inclusion program manager in addition to our senior diversity officer. New procedures were put in place to foster greater inclusion and accessibility at ACUI events. In mid-2020, ACUI announced the changes resulting from five equity audits conducted to review volunteer practices and procedures. Among these, the definition of “volunteer” was expanded to include more short-term opportunities, application and selection processes were simplified, and requirements were reduced (eliminating the need for an institutional support form for most positions). Finally, ACUI established a leadership and career development program for mid-level professionals from traditionally marginalized identities, which we call Closing the Gap. The inaugural cohort had 11 mid-level professionals and seven senior level supporters.  

Certainly there will be successes and failures on our campuses and in the Association. We will continue to provide DEI resources and programs, and to assess how we can continue to improve. 

Financial Position 

Similar to college campuses, the pandemic and subsequent economic recession have dramatically affected the Association’s financial position. For example, while canceling the Annual Conference and student programs and moving all of our programs to a virtual format was the best course of action for our membership, the end result has been a significant loss in revenue and a negative balance. We will provide some insight into the financial challenges and adjustments made this past year, but clearly a business model that does not include revenue to cover its expenses is not sustainable.  

The greatest financial risk associated with canceling the Annual Conference was a $700,000 contractual penalty with the host hotel, the Atlanta Marriott Marquis. We were fortunate that the hotel accepted our claim of force majeure, removing this liability. We still had fixed expenses associated with the conference and knew that the loss of all other face-to-face programs for the year would have a large impact on our year-end financials. To mitigate the situation, we put into place some significant and difficult budget reductions, such as shrinking our office space by half, reducing our workforce by five people (20%), and moving The Bulletin to digital-only format. At the same time, we explored new opportunities to increase revenue, including providing Association management services to two different associations, producing “ready to go” content for campuses to deliver student training virtually, and expanding our facilitation of virtual conferences and events to other organizations. Finally, we were fortunate to receive a forgivable loan through the federal CARES Act, which helped offset some of payroll expenses over an eight-week period.  

At the end of the fiscal year, the projected net loss for the Association was $226,000, which is a huge amount of money for the size of our organization. Similar to college campuses, we have worked hard to mitigate as much as possible to continue to be financially viable, yet there is still a steep uphill climb. Looking toward the future, the other area of concern that will affect the Association’s financial stability is membership. Just as enrollment is the single-most important contributor to the success of a college, the same holds true for membership within an Association. At a university a drop in enrollment means less income from tuition and fees to support academic programs and campus services, and with an association, a drop in membership means less dues to support programs and services. We have been proactive to seek out membership renewals, offering incentives to commit early, and emphasizing ACUI’s quick and innovative response to meet member needs during the current crisis. We know many of our campuses will have to make difficult decisions based on tighter budgets due to the pandemic, and are hopeful that renewing an ACUI membership will be an important line-item to keep.   

Finally, recognizing the financial pressures higher education is facing as a result of the pandemic, the Board of Trustees established a Financial Assistance Fund for campus community builders. Money raised is used for grants to support those who do not have institutional funds available for professional development due to the pandemic. Grants are available for membership dues and for students and professionals to participate in ACUI programs. At the close of the year,  over half of the $50,000 goal for this fund had been raised.  

Strategic Plan 

This year has been anything but business as usual. At heart, the Board of Trustees’ role is to provide stewardship, financial oversight, and strategic guidance to the Association. Keeping this in mind, the critical piece this past year was to address short-term needs while being mindful of our post-pandemic future. During April, the Board decided to put a hold on our long-term strategic plan and maintain a short-term strategic focus to sustain the Association. This pivot freed the Association to make the necessary choices to survive the initial crisis. In July, the board and full Leadership Team met virtually for two days. During this meeting, the priorities of the Association based on our current situation were reviewed and discussed. In August, the board approved a revised set of Strategic Guideposts and Annual Priorities, which will be in place through the 2022 Annual Conference, allowing us to both respond to this moment and preserve our core commitments to building a better future. The Association hopes every member will become familiar with these new guideposts and priorities. 

Strategic Guidepost 1: 

Advance campus community through social justice and education to overcome racism and anti-Blackness. 

We seek to support professionals’ social justice work to address and overcome individual and systemic racism
in our unions and on campus, in our Association, throughout higher education, and across society. 

Annual Priorities

  • Ensure equitable distribution of power in recruitment, retention, and volunteer opportunities. 
  • Provide resources for our members to create spaces that are actively anti-racist. 
  • Review individual and organizational actions to understand their contribution to structural racism. 

Strategic Guidepost 2: 

Actively engage members and promote the Association to ensure the continued success of ACUI. 

Recognizing the financial impact, of the pandemic on institutional support for professional development,
our focus is to adjust our educational content and demonstrate value to our members. 

Annual Priorities

  • Examine membership dues, taking into consideration incentives to encourage continued membershipand avenues for effective communication. 
  • Enhance current and develop new opportunities for virtual engagement and access for members. 
  • Demonstrate the value of membership through innovative and evolving programs and services. 
  • Deepen institutional connection to ACUI. 

Strategic Guidepost 3: 

Identify viable strategic solutions to ensure the financial stability of the Association. 

The Association must continue to prioritize its use of resources, mitigate expenses, and grow non-dues revenueto successfully withstand the current recession. 

Annual Priorities

  • Invest personnel resources and energy researching and securing nontraditional revenue streams whileensuring that those streams align with ACUI’s values. 
  • Consider social responsibility, good stewardship, and financial well-being when making decisions, including financial investments of the Association, 
  • Examine ACUI corporate partnerships, and reimagine the program to create ongoing engagementwith the membership. 

The Board of Trustees, Central Office staff, and all of our volunteers are committed to this strategic plan, and each has set its goals to contribute to the success of these guideposts. In our day-to-day work and through the strategic guideposts that have been set, the Association will continue to advance campus community, and to support our members as we all navigate a changing world. 

Reflecting on this past year we have been confronted with a lot of challenges, and rather than shying away we met them head-on. We have been innovative and resilient, and while we are far from being out of the woods, we are optimistic about the long-term future of the Association. Looking realistically at 2021 we expect it to be another difficult year, and it will take years to fully recover. However, our Association, which is now 106 years old, will continue to support college union and student activities professionals, and to advance campus community, far into the future. Adjusting to the pandemic has positioned us to think creatively and to find new ways of delivering our programs and services. Such initiative and ability to adapt is one of our strengths, and that is what will push us forward to success. This is why ACUI will continue to support and make a difference for our professional members, relentlessly transforming what we do to meet their needs.