Associations can not only shape their sector, but also society at large

What role does sustainability play in the way associations work? And how can associations respond to financial challenges? We present both questions to two key players in the sector: Mike Morrissey (ESAE) and Evelyne Bardyn (Visit Flanders Convention Bureau).
Museum of Fine Arts Ghent (MSK) buitenkant - (c) Martin Corlazzoli

Interview with Mike Morrissey (ESAE) and Evelyne Bardyn (Visit Flanders Convention Bureau)

On May 22, the European Association Summit & Awards will take place in Brussels. Many hot topics are on the program, such as the importance of sustainability in the functioning of associations and the evolution of their financial strength. As a warm-up, we presented both issues to two experts in the sector: Mike Morrissey, President of ESAE (European Society of Association Executives) and Evelyne Bardyn, Head of Convention Bureau at Visit Flanders.

How can an association engrain sustainability into its DNA?

Mike Morrissey: "Associations are at a historical point in history where they can not only shape their respective sectors, but also society at large all while fulfilling their mission and vision for serving their members.

Following the relevant legislation passed recently by the EU Institutions for business to start reporting on their environmental, social and governance impact, and answering calls from their members, especially those from younger generations, associations can engrain sustainability in every aspect of their activities, from strategy and leadership to operations like events, advocacy, and communications and the ways that they interact with their members.

The purpose is not only for Associations to make themselves more sustainable, but also to start influencing their respective members and stakeholders, by providing them with the right tools and expertise."

Michael Morrissey

Evelyne Bardyn: "At Visit Flanders, sustainability is a cornerstone of our ambitious future vision "Travel to Tomorrow." The goal is to reinforce the positive power of tourism, and allow the destination to flourish as a qualitative place for visitors, residents and entrepreneurs alike.

Therefore, it is not so surprising that we focus on attracting impactful congresses that value sustainability. We want to help the associations that want to organize these congresses - and the sector in general - to work methodologically from an integral sustainability strategy.

Together with international partners - for example, within the Strategic Alliance of National Convention Bureaus of Europe - we are developing several initiatives. We set up pilot projects and invest in concrete tools and solutions around sustainability. We share best practices with the sector and with associations, helping them to engrain sustainability into their DNA."

What can associations do to reverse the trend of declining financial resources?

Evelyne Bardyn: "At Visit Flanders, we strongly believe in creating smart partnerships to tackle financial challenges more effectively. By collaborating on our projects, we can start to scale up, which greatly improves efficiency and makes a real financial impact. Associations can also team up with others to address sustainability issues.

We also strongly support integrating impact goals into association strategies. Impact needs to be a key part of how conferences are planned. We're working with other convention bureaus to lead the way on sustainability, inclusion, and accessibility, which helps reduce financial barriers for associations and other groups."

Mike Morrissey: "This is part of professionalisation in association management, which is at the centre of ESAE’s activities. Business-savvy and forward-thinking association executives, with the leadership traits that allow them to adapt to changes while steering the ship through any challenges, will have the trust of their respective Boards to make the appropriate changes in their strategy. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and the recipe depends on an association’s culture, membership, and the sector in which it operates.

Evelyne Bardyn


For many decades, making a surplus was considered by some associations as taboo, but while we all work for not-for-profits whose goal is not to make a profit, we cannot be allowed to lose money either as we need financial security to be able to plan ahead for the future. Associations need to be creative and inventive, using the opportunities that new technologies offer to their advantage. Additionally, they cannot stay stuck in their traditional revenue streams. The world is changing, and whatever model made sense in the past, doesn’t guarantee that will work in the future."