The CSLA has operated as a virtual association since 2012, when I came aboard as its Executive Director. In addition to digitizing the entire organization's archive and offering member services virtually through our website we established systems internally which would support a virtual organization. For example, half the Board meetings and all the Executive Committee meetings are held by teleconference and videoconference, committee and council meetings are held monthly by tele- and video-conference during the year, then in person at the yearly Congress. Most notably, the CSLA put into place a committee work structure which supports volunteer participation virtually. The CSLA is a volunteer-driven organization and operates through its board-approved committees. The model we have in place is one where the composition of the committee is kept quite small (3-5 members, ideally, plus a chair) and is based on geographic representation and a variety of skills and experience. The committee is responsible for setting directions and strategies, but the tasks and actions associated with the committee are delegated to volunteers who join working groups for a short, predetermined period of time. This committee model has been in place for a number of years, and the association credits its high member engagement to this participation structure.
Because the CSLA has had its virtual model in place since 2012, with a membership and Board accustomed to working in this virtual environment, the pandemic did not really disrupt our workflow. Other than a short 2-3 week period when people were setting up and getting accustomed to their new home work environment, the CSLA was, for the most part, able to continue its operations. Except, of course, for our annual Congress, which had been scheduled for June 2020 in Calgary. Its cancellation was met with great disappointment, but tremendous support and understanding from the membership. A number of the committee and council meetings scheduled to be held during the Congress were held virtually, keynote speakers cancelled, registrations refunded, and session speakers cancelled, with a few interested in giving their presentations via webinar. Ceremonial events were deferred to 2021, as our award winners and Fellows-elect preferred in-person celebrations amongst their colleagues. Our 2021 Congress planning is going ahead as a hybrid model, where delegates can choose to participate in-person or virtually.
It is perhaps the uncertainty created by the pandemic which has posed the greatest challenge for the CSLA. When will it all end? Can we re-book our in person Board meetings? Will our May 2021 Congress go ahead? Will we be able to celebrate the recipient of the 2020 Governor General's Medal in Landscape Architecture with an in-person ceremony, alongside the RAIC's medalists? If not, what are the things we, as an association, can do to replace the last vestiges of in-person, human contact events? And will those alternative models be as engaging?
For the first time in its 86 year history, in June 2020, the CSLA held its first ever virtual Annual General Meeting. In keeping with our tradition of all in-person meetings being centered on the annual Congress, our AGM was almost exclusively held as an event within another event. We often struggled to ensure a quorum, with many members participating by proxy. This year, however, we ran a webinar-style, virtual AGM in June. We were unsure about the turnout. We did need to fret. We welcomed three to four times more participants at our virtual AGM than we have in any AGM, and their engagement with the staff following the meeting, offering to volunteer, offering feedback, was truly astounding and much appreciated.
The experience of an online AGM taught us that not only were members eager to participate in events outside the yearly Congress, but they would do so virtually. And they could participate in our traditionally in-person events without creating emissions, supporting the CSLA's mission of climate adaptation.
As we face 2021 and its continued uncertainty, one thing is certain for the CSLA. We will always have a plan B for our in person events, and trust that we can still engage our membership through alternative means, whatever they might be. And what have we learned as an association? That we were wise to consider a virtual association model early on. Originally, we did this for two main reasons: financial (a considerable savings in office space) and for continuity purposes. Setting up a virtual association forces you to get our house in order. You digitize your archives, you make your data shareable, you organize a variety of meeting platforms, you put project management systems in place to keep your team engaged, and you create systems to engage volunteers. You support your values, like reducing travel-related emissions in support of climate adaptation and, in the end, you figure out how to achieve your goals by aiming to become a professional body which is both nimble and alert. And really, what is the core role of a professional association if not that?
Michelle Legault, Executive Director
Canadian Society of Landscape Architects