March 11, 2020

Update: IOA Cancels 2020 Conference

In an email sent late today, the International Ombudsman Association said it had finally decided to cancel its 2020 annual conference in Portland, Oregon. Registrants will be entitled to a full refund. Conference organizers are still working on ways to share content from conference speakers.

Here is the full email sent to IOA members:
Dear IOA Supporters:
The IOA Board of Directors has made the difficult decision that, due to unanticipated circumstances beyond its control, it must cancel the IOA Annual Conference as well as the pre-conference sessions and professional development courses scheduled in Portland, Oregon, 27 March–1 April 2020.
The Board reached this decision only after concluding it would be impossible to hold the conference as planned. The coronavirus continues to spread in Oregon (and elsewhere) and the number of COVID-19 cases in Oregon continues to increase. This has resulted in the Governor of Oregon declaring a state of emergency in Oregon in addition to other emergency declarations that have been issued by the CDC, WHO, and the governors of many other states. Indeed, just today, the World Health Organization made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic. The Board’s decision reflects its determination that proceeding with the conference under these circumstances could endanger the health and well-being of conference participants. In fact, many people who had previously registered have already canceled due to travel restrictions and health and safety concerns.
In addition, the number of speaker and panel presenter cancellations to date has substantially impaired our ability to deliver a meaningful conference and pre-conference experience to members and attendees. A special task force of subject matter experts and leaders, together with staff, is working with the Conference Committee, Professional Development Committee, and hotel representatives in Portland to explore options such as postponing the conference and pre-conference offerings, delivering modified programming at a later date, and/or holding virtual programming. None of those options, however, change the fact that the Board determined it needed to act now to cancel the conference so IOA and those who were hoping to attend the conference will have certainty in their conference planning. We will be announcing more details as they become available.
For those who had planned to attend, IOA is working to minimize any inconvenience. Full refunds for registrations will be processed soon—please stay tuned for a confirmation of your refund. Your patience is much appreciated as our team will be handling a large volume of transactions.
We would also like to take this opportunity to recognize the outstanding work of the Conference Committee in designing what promised to be an exceptional conference, the Professional Development Committee in organizing valuable pre-conference courses, and countless other volunteers who contributed to making this year’s gathering one to remember, including program presenters and professional development instructors. We realize the IOA Annual Conference is one of the most valuable benefits to members and supporters, cherished by many as a chance not only to learn but also to connect and network in person. Although we will miss seeing everyone in Portland at the end of the month, IOA is exploring creative options to capture and share as much #IOA2020 content and experience as possible at a later date, as noted above. Please stay tuned!
We will soon be posting an announcement from the CO-OP® Board regarding accommodations to address the lost PDH credit opportunity resulting from the cancellation of the conference.
We are thinking about you all and will be working on ways to stay connected and support each other through the IOA website and other creative venues. In the meantime, the conference’s cancellation is uncharted territory for IOA, and we appreciate your patience as we work through this challenge and explore the best path forward. The latest conference updates and information can be found on our resources page.

If you have any questions, please contact IOA via email at
Thank you for your close attention to this information,

Marcia Martínez-Helfman
International Ombudsman Association
President 2019–2020

Charles Howard
International Ombudsman Association
Executive Director


  1. If we are alive, where is IOA 2021? Is there an opportunity to go to Portland in 2022?

    1. Contracts are already in negotiation for the next two years' sites. In light of challenges in the current crisis, we may need to add some terms

  2. In many ways the last few weeks have seemed to put into clear focus for me the best and the worst tendencies of IOA. The best: people coming together, caring about the well being of folks beyond themselves, and a lot of people putting in A LOT of extra time to try and navigate complex circumstances unfolding in real time.

    It also showed real weaknesses, though, that I think extend beyond just these circumstances. We seemed continually behind the ball and slow to act, in part because communication and decision making is very tightly held by a very small group of people, and IOA is over-reliant on volunteers who are doing work on top of their professional responsibilities (and who often feel under-valued and unheard by those who hold the power). Ironic for the association of ombuds, but no less real.

    I am grateful the decision was finally made, even if it came late in this public health crisis. I am hopeful we can also take some time to catch our breaths and reflect on what comes next, both for the conference and for how we work together. 

  3. Jen Schneider3/12/2020 4:53 PM

    I’m not sure IOA’s response was especially slow. These decisions are hard, and every organization with which I’m associated has only made this level of critical decision in the last 48 hours. I literally ache for those who work more than full time in their day jobs and also spend hundreds of hours planning a conference that won’t happen. I think that, in the end, it was the right decision, but I applaud IOA and SBI for their proactive, thoughtful, reasonable response to this unforeseen crisis. Is what it is.

  4. Thank you, Jennifer, for acknowledging the challenges the COVID-19 pandemic has presented for the 2020 IOA Annual Conference.

    The decision to cancel the Conference was one made after extensive due diligence to ensure that the Board was acting responsibly and in accordance with its fiduciary obligations to the organization. We began exploring our options as soon as it became apparent from media reports that there was a likelihood that the health crisis could impact our ability to deliver a meaningful conference in an environment that was safe for all participants. It required input from and coordination with the Conference, Professional Development, Finance, and Communications committees, as well as our staff who, in collaboration with volunteers, are our direct connection to registrants, sponsors, exhibitors, program presenters, course participants and instructors, the venue, and other suppliers. On a daily basis, staff and volunteer leadership have been continuously engaged in information gathering and discussions that led to the ultimate decision to cancel the 2020 Annual Conference. To have made the decision sooner or without this due diligence would have been premature and irresponsible and could have negatively impacted the IOA and its ability to serve its members over the long term. By proceeding in this deliberate manner, we have substantially mitigated the extent of any potential liability to the organization.

    For those who were not involved in these night and day, seven day a week discussions, it may be difficult to fully appreciate all of the threads that are woven together to bring about this annual event that is so valued by our members (never mind the unraveling needed to cancel). Nevertheless, IOA members can be sure that our volunteers and staff will continue to work tirelessly together to do our very best for our organization and remain fully accountable by name.

    Marcia Martinez-Helfman
    President, IOA 2018-2020

  5. Much as IOA decisionmaking was not ideal and even opaque in this crisis, "efficient and decisive decisionmaking from a large consultative body" is kind of an oxymoron. I think the challenges IOA faced in acting quickly and decisively in the face of the rapidly evolving COVID 19 crisis come primarily from the innate human inability to understand non-linear change and rapid destruction of the status quo. I don't think those things will change anytime soon, although some leaders are better at it than others.

    One more concrete improvement IOA could make: Be more aggressive in negotiating hotel contracts favorable to IOA as an organization. Cookie-cutter contracts from the management company have proven less-than-ideal for IOA compared to other organizations dealing with conference cancellations decisions at the same time. IOA's staff who work with volunteers on a regular basis are very responsive and work super hard, but like all association management companies, SBI as a corporation wants all its clients line up uniformly and just do what they're told. And IOA as an organization is not one to line up uniformly... even internally.

    We also need legal counsel on retainer to review our contracts in advance and prepare for unexpected challenges better. Trying to pick up the pieces after a crisis occurs is not optimal, to put it mildly. This may require some financial outlay up front, but COVID 19 frustrations demonstrate the costs of doing otherwise.