"I work hard to keep my edge"

Allison Summers, executive director of Zonta International, talks to AMI about job-hopping, mission and purpose, and the value of meeting in-person...

JL You’ve been with Zonta International for nine years now. What have been the biggest shifts from an organisational perspective in that time?

AS: I didn’t join a sleepy organisation nine years ago, but they weren’t particularly advanced in terms of technology. Now everything is in the cloud and we're all about cyber security and data privacy! The impact of technology in that time has been huge and it has enabled us to do more with our brand presence. We have cohesive branding now, a consistent voice in our publications and newsletters, and the digital platforms have allowed us to increase our content. We've also seen societal change. Zonta works for gender equality and women's rights, but societal change has given people different opinions on what that means, and it's a little sad because in some countries we’ve seen real progress but in others, not as much as you might think…

JL What does it mean to work for an organisation that explicitly does good? This is an organisation that is aiming to empower women, help women live lives that are free of violence, to be treated on an equal footing to men. What is like to lead an organisation like that?

AS My expertise is operations and to apply that to a mission-based organisation makes me feel positive on a daily basis.  I use my skills to help others change laws, or support domestic violence shelters, or contribute to women’s programmes at a very local level. In fact, we have this lovely section on our website called Share Your Story where we invite our clubs to tell us what they’re doing to help women. That’s the favourite part of my job: if I get stressed and overwhelmed, I just go to the page and see what’s happening. At an international level I make sure that we are following the right non-profit laws, such as maintaining data privacy, so our members don’t need to worry about those things. It can take one little mistake for an organisation to get sued and this organisation doesn’t deserve that.

JL Some association executives seem able to jump from one association to the next, regardless of the industry or speciality. To them the challenge is clearly managerial. Do you prefer a cause?

AS At my last organisation, SITE, I felt equally as committed to helping the business owner members do what they needed to do best in the incentive and travel space because that’s people’s livelihoods and that’s good for the economy. I believe in small business and global culture and citizenship. So, I think you can be equally committed to both. But, if an executive director has not personally figured out in their head how they are connected to the association’s mission, if they are there for the pay check, it’s misery for everyone! And there are executive directors who just want to jump up their pay check! On the flip side I’ve been told I’m on the edge of being undesirable because I’ve stayed here too long! I hope that’s not true because I work hard to keep my edge.

JL The pandemic must have exacerbated some of the issues women are facing right now.

AS There’s a lot of data about women having to pull out of the workforce, because of home-schooling their children, and it’s going to take us years to make up that career gap. When women stayed home, families were losing significant household income and that impacts everything. I’m a huge proponent of networking and growing one’s influence and personal brand and women were sacrificing that as well by either staying home, choosing to only work from home or not making time for professional events once the world opened back up. But I can understand the compelling reason for the choice. The cost of childcare in the United States, for example, is crazy and the impact of Covid with having nowhere to send your kids…it was just a problem all around.

JL You recently held your hybrid biennial convention at the new Hamburg Convention Centre, your first in-person meeting since the pandemic. How did it go?

AS We really wanted to meet in-person because as a global organisation it is the one time when members can come from all over the world and share education and vote on bylaw changes, biennial goals, our international service programmes. But our challenges were many because the new convention centre had multiple delays and it turned out we were the first international convention in the new CCH, the new meetings space building! It was very difficult for us to work on our Covid-prevention strategies, for example, when the convention centre hadn’t even been built and hadn’t executed any events before us.  Every day we would check to see if Germany would change its Covid laws, and if our member countries would relieve Covid testing for people returning home. We even had a risk plan pre-defining if the board members or staff or vendors get stuck in Germany who would be paying for it! So many things! The other twist was Germany was taking in a significant number of Ukrainian refugees, so we had a period where the German embassies in other countries were closed for visa registrations.  We had many members who had purchased plane tickets but then they couldn’t get their visa appointments, particularly in Africa and Asia. So, our incoming president, who lives near Hamburg, was personally calling the German officials to persuade them to open and make appointments for our members in these other countries and that was successful on some counts. In the end we had a great event with attendees from over 50 countries.

JL So, what were the numbers like?

AS When we’re in Europe we typically get around, 2,200 delegates – 40 percent of our members are in Europe so that usually gives us a good number. And that would have been our target pre-Covid, but this time we were encouraging both in-person and a hybrid option. This was a challenge as a lot of our members hadn’t participated in a virtual event, so all they knew was Zoom. And I think a lot of meeting planners had this challenge, getting across that a convention is not a Zoom meeting, there is an actual interactive platform that will allow you to connect and network and do all these lovely things. In the end we had just over 1,700 attendees in-person and over 500 do virtual – and we were very pleased. We’d have appreciated more but change and adoption in new technology for our membership group was difficult. Financials are still working themselves out because when we booked Hamburg, we were relying on 2,200 full paid registrations in-person but it was vital that our members convened, conducted business, and enjoyed fellowship as a global community.

JL Did you make any structural changes to your event?

AS We reduced the in-person keynote speaker time and expanded the workshops to make the programme more compelling for people to come in-person and did more member recognition activities. Onsite meeting planners are having to think even more about their onsite experiences. I’m not saying we got everything right, because there were limitations in planning due to not knowing what Covid was going to allow. But I think we’re on the right track. If that in-person draw isn’t good enough, people won’t come.

JL: I’m hearing that members are starting to ask serious questions of association leadership when it comes to the sustainability of their in-person meetings, particularly the large flagship events. Have you had any experience of this?

AS: Oh, absolutely! We are not an every-year convention, which helps, but we are bringing delegates from all over the world, from New Zealand, Japan, Finland, Canada, Uruguay and more and that has an impact. The board has discussed if we need to extend to every four years, but it’s hard because if people figure out that meeting is not essential in their lives it’s hard to get them back. I believe in the power of meetings and meeting in-person, so it’s a difficult question. We will continue with our virtual component, that will never go away, so people can make their personal choice. But this is why meetings have to change! People want to make connections and hear themselves speak. Right now, looking at our 2024 convention in Brisbane, I’m trying to encourage more ‘salons’, places where people can sit and express their opinions on a topic, without that feeling of being spoken at, because if people have to get on a plane, they want to know that they count as a human being. There’s another evolution of what collaborative events will look like that we’ve yet to see.

JL What does Zonta’s membership structure look like?

AS: Individuals join a local club, the club is a member of a district, and the district has a regional board and governor leader and then we have an international level that services everybody. We also have supporting members who can join Zonta International as direct individuals. These are people who want to be a part of Zonta in some way, but don’t want to be a member of a club, because their life doesn’t allow for it in some way, or they’re just not interested. We are seeing that club life is not as strong in the United States than it was in the past, but in Asia we have an extremely strong culture of clubs that’s growing, so in each continent it looks different. We are at the start of a new strategic plan, which will determine where we go next and how we can keep our mission strong.

JL I imagine an organisation like yours must be sensitive to pricing, particularly around events?

AS Yes, our members are very fee sensitive as they typically pay personally for their registration and travel. We try to figure out our total expenses for a destination and project a rough number of attendees and then ask ourselves: ‘Can they afford it?’ and ‘What can we do to get the fees down?’ It’s not a trade association where it’s a business expense, and our members would prefer to give their money to help women, so we are very price sensitive. We don’t have a different fee structure, based on individual home countries, but sometimes our districts will have grants to make sure clubs have a delegate to send to convention.

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JL What has been your biggest accomplishment in the last nine years?

AS Endurance. We run a very lean staff and we’ve continued to make impactful changes to operations, to communications, to technology and so I think it takes a vision to see where we need to be - whether the board thinks we need to be there or not - so that stick-with-it-ness. We have highly engaged volunteers with opinions. Not just opinions, but very passionate opinions. I’ve stayed. I’ve given them stability. And because of my staying the staff has stayed. You see associations who have major staff turnover, and it just stops everything.

JL And the biggest challenge going forward?

AS Adjusting for the future and having the members believe in it. You look at an organisation that’s over a hundred years old that was able to stay relatively similar in its structure and in its mission and then in the last decade we have really talked about effecting root causes impacting women and girls and motivating our members to do more advocacy more influencing of government leaders. Some members still just want to do good in their community and that’s fine, but to capture the hearts of a new generation and how they want to help women and effect change in the world, that’s the biggest thing. How do we do that without disenfranchising our forty-year-plus members?

JL Which women have inspired you most in your career?

AS: Early in my career there weren’t women I could really learn from. When I became the executive director for SITE, the women that were the incentive industry leaders really inspired me. The two who come to mind are Fay Beauchine and Mary MacGregor. I remember Fay pushing me saying, ‘Don’t ask for permission, just do it!’ There was just something with working with those ladies that was what I needed at that stage in my career. And this is why I’m so passionate about networking. If you don’t find those people who can lift up your career, you’re going to stay stagnant.