The Present and Future of Associations: How COVID-19 is Influencing Both Written by Shawn Smajstrla

Associations are as different as they are alike. These membership organizations represent an infinite array of industries and interests. But for all their diversity, there are similarities these associations all share – not least among them a new operating environment brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

How the organizations navigate this new environment can be influenced by their specific membership or industry, but most are staring down many of the same challenges presented by the current unfamiliarity and uncertainty.

That’s why MultiView gathered leaders from a few varied organizations for a frank and open discussion about what they’re facing and how they’re dealing with important association management concerns like events, membership and branding. Their insights, concerns and experiences provide valuable and useful perspectives for other organizations running up against similar challenges.

The conversation kicked off with some general thoughts about where association management might be headed, and out of the gate SPE-Inspiring Plastics Professionals CEO Patrick Farrey made the salient point, “I think we’re all kind of making up the new playbook as we go along.”

Farrey added that he thinks those organizations set up to thrive will do two main things: figure out what relevance and value means to their members today – which could be very different than it was three months ago – and to learn new lessons along the way about how to do business.

American College of Sports Medicine CEO Kristin Belleson touched on economics, asserting that she expects all associations will need to look at and understand their financials and expenses in a very different way, while needing to build some hybrid models for going forward.

Fellow panelist Jana Adams, Senior Vice President, Member Value & Experience at American Wind Energy Association, pointed out that AWEA’s members in different sectors were facing very different obstacles, which means her association must demonstrate flexibility to meet members where they are.

“We simply have to be nimble,” Adams said. “The way we did it in 2019 probably isn’t going to be the way we do it – even once this extreme phase has passed.”

Events
Clearly, the events industry has been battered by the pandemic, and events are a major part of association platforms. All five panelists acknowledged their organizations had already dealt with a major event cancellation.

Belleson said they had two meetings cancelled already, which had forced them to pivot toward online education. She revealed that ACSM had seen a positive uptake of its online content, and that the association surveyed members to gain insight into what they wanted from future digital meetings. Belleson capped her thoughts by predicting that the hybrid model for events will continue to play a role even as traditional, in-person events come back into play.

Offering some hope for the panelists and all associations, SPE’s Farrey offered some details on the virtual event his group hosted after cancellation of the organization’s annual conference. In its place, SPE ran a six-week program of content that was ultimately utilized by twice as many people as what had been registered for the live event.

Membership
Membership numbers are a concern for associations in the best of times, so there’s no doubt the current environment has fanned the flames. Most panelists agreed that drops in membership over the coming year are expected. For Karen Garrett, CAE, Chief of Communications, Marketing and Membership at the American Society for Public Administration, it’s not value that will drive the affect.

“I don’t think it’s that they’re seeing lower value,” she said, adding, “For us, I think the biggest challenge isn’t necessarily going to be relevance, because I think we’re very good at making ourselves relevant, but just [the members] having enough resources to stretch is going to be very difficult, and I think that’s going to impact most professions.”

Echoing Garrett’s position on relevance and value, Belleson noted that her organization has seen a spike in engagement with its content. Members are utilizing the resources the association is providing. Still, they did see a decline in first-quarter membership numbers.

Several panelists also confirmed their organizations were taking measures to offer members grace periods or deferrals of dues, but revealed they haven’t seen a lot of members request those options.

Branding and Marketing
At a time when trade associations are most needed for support and advocacy, the panelists agreed it wasn’t a time to pull back on marketing or building industry presence. All addressed their increased attention to social media, especially the social listening aspect of it. Other points raised were tapping into earned media and collaborating with similar (and sometimes competing) organizations. But all the increased effort comes at a cost.

“I’ve been spending upwards of half my day every day on extra marketing, extra communications and extra information sharing,” Garrett said. “Is that sustainable? No, it’s just not.”

Adams also pointed out that AWEA has been opening up content and resources beyond members, hoping to engage the industry as a whole, not just those who’ve paid dues.

Closing Thoughts
Circling back to the beginning, Farrey again touched on the point, “We have no idea what idea what 12 months is going to look like; we have no idea what 12 weeks is going to look like.” But he also waved the flag for all membership organizations, stating, “What we do know is that organizations like SPE and those represented here [on the panel] serve an even more valuable purpose at times like this.”

Before wrapping up, Farrey said he saw opportunities but also plenty of challenges. Adams pointed out how some of these challenges are fostering innovations.

“I think one thing I hope we take from this is that we’ve been forced to try new things,” she said. “Events, more than anything else can get tired … we’ve been forced to be really creative on how we’re delivering content, how we’re engaging members. So, can we take the pieces that have been effective and continue them?”

Also hitting on an element from earlier in the conversation, Air Conditioning Contractors of America President & CEO Bart James noted how his association is assessing and learning a lot about itself.

“We’re questioning how we use our resources,” he said. “If they become more limited, we’ll have more questions. We’re a 100-year-old trade association and we just had our first virtual meeting … there’s no way you can’t have some takeaways from that and to learn from it. Even if we do go back, the economy springs back and everything else is great, we don’t have to do stuff the same way we have.”

Building off that, Garrett asserted that the challenge over the next 12 months would be innovation and nimbleness.

“The organizations that can do all of that best and maintain their brand value in light of budget restrictions and travel restrictions and a whole new different world are going to be the ones on the other side of this who are doing OK. It’s not going to be easy.”

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