The worst thing about a crisis can be the uncertainty surrounding the outcome. We all have coping strategies to pass the time before there’s a verdict on our well-being. One of mine is gathering information. When I’m not sure how a situation will unfold, I collect data, connect with colleagues, tap my network, and become a compulsive student of the unknown.
Right now, my ear is glued to the ground. I’m monitoring how associations are responding to the pandemic and documenting the most innovative approaches. I’ve had conversations with leaders of all stripes. Some have found an opportunity to showcase their organization’s value and others aren’t sure whether they will survive. Without exception, no one can say what the future will bring.
To take a more formalized approach, we convened the .orgCommunity Think Tank (virtually, of course) as well as several other leadership groups to discuss what the short, mid, and long-term impacts of COVID-19 might be for our organizations and the industry.
The dialogues were characterized by contrasts. On the one hand, the possibility for increased relevance, growth, and new beginnings in the long term. On the other, extreme volatility and precarious economics with no clearly defined end in sight. Both sides of this coin play out against a digital revolution that adds another layer of disruption. The only certainty is inevitable and continuous change.
The following is a recap of some of our observations.
Short Term—Through August 2020
In just two months, this virus has profoundly changed the way we perceive our personal lives and our work. It has simultaneously stripped away the superficial, changed ingrained habits, forced us to look backward, pushed us to think forward, and kept us frozen in our tracks.
The short term is a period of reaction and contraction with a laser focus on the immediate operational and financial needs of the organization. There is no time for superfluous programs or activities. Leaders can use their soft skills to make a significant positive impact. Empathy with those who are challenged by isolation or overwhelmed with frontline service, transparent communication about the association’s status, and immediate adaptation to current circumstances is critical.
A strong organizational culture and vision will help employees to cope with the stress of isolation and additional challenges associated with families working and studying from home. Where culture has not been a priority, the struggle will be more acute.
Mid Term—From September 2020 Through May 2021
This is a period of assessment, dialogue, and gathering information to guide the future. An evaluation of the organization’s initial response to the crisis will reveal weaknesses that should be addressed and strengths that can be maximized. Trust has either been enhanced or diminished based on the quality of the communication and responsiveness of the management team.
By now, there should be a good understanding of the association’s financial status and long-term viability. There may be hard decisions to make concerning staffing. If programs or activities were suspended during the short term, it’s a good time to evaluate their future. Are they important to member engagement or a drain on the organization’s resources? Frank conversations with the board can help to jump this hurdle.
Stabilization should be slowly occurring as staff become accustomed to new work styles and supervisors have a better understanding of how to motivate and manage their teams. As a consequence of remote work and outsourcing, some organizations may reevaluate their need for office space.
Among the significant activities we’ll be seeing through a new lens are:
Most associations didn’t jump on the virtual meeting bandwagon until the music was about to stop. The annual, big-tent blowout was still the king of revenue for many groups. Unfortunately, associations with limited reserves, who canceled that event, may suffer lasting consequences.
We’ve learned the importance of a diversified portfolio the hard way. Associations that are not planning a virtual conference are, at least, investigating the mechanics and considering how online gatherings could be incorporated into their communities. Many groups are also looking at the possibility of organizing multiple, smaller local events. This approach could reinvigorate chapters and components, which had been falling out of favor for several years.
Bite-size learning, once a growing trend, may be suspended while people are homebound and craving more immersive experiences. Some groups are organizing virtual town meetings and forums. These are an opportunity to gather real-time information on member needs. Future meetings may routinely include a combination of virtual and in-person activities and presentations.
Government affairs professionals may find themselves with an increasingly significant role to play as public policy develops around workplace and health issues. Associations have an opportunity to provide information, education, and guidance concerning new work methodologies such as telemedicine.
Massive unemployment, lost productivity, and salary reductions will impact how both industry and individuals view the relevance of association membership. Groups that were able to quickly provide members with helpful resources may see a resurgence in engagement. Those who were slow to respond may experience significant declines, especially as members prioritize their time in different ways.
A more creative, collaborative approach will be needed as companies begin to reassess their relationships with associations. Over the last few years, there has already been some pullback from sponsorship; if associations are unable to offer value that impacts the bottom line, this decline in non-dues revenue will continue.
Long Term–June 2021 and Beyond
With knowledge and experience managing the virus, we will be standing on firmer ground. There will be an opportunity to reimagine business in light of lessons learned and changes we have been forced to make. Associations will have become more resourceful and adaptive. They will be finding creative ways to make the shift from up close and personal to at a distance but engaged. As the workplace continues to change, associations can provide a source of identity and community for the growing number of freelance and contract workers.
Across this timeline there is one constant: members must be at the center of every action and every initiative. If we focus attention on their needs today and are adaptable and innovative enough to provide that support, then the chances are good that our organizations will grow and weather an uncertain future.