The pandemic was a wormhole. It hurtled us into the future with no time to prepare for that demanding new reality. I am still evaluating the lessons learned. One message that rings loud and clear is the importance of connections.

Isolation taught us the value of the relationships and the technology that sustained our communities.

I’ve told these stories before, but I’m referring to them again because they highlight advice that can help associations find stability when chaos threatens.

Partner for Support

Healthcare and restaurant workers were among the most severely affected by the pandemic. Nancy MacRae, CEO at the Emergency Nurses Association and Kristine Hillmer, President and CEO of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association, steered their members through the challenge. Civic and government partners played pivotal roles in their ability to provide that support.

Nancy’s Story

“Working with public institutions was especially important during the early days,” Nancy recalled. “We advocated fiercely for our members to get protective resources. Fortunately, our professional reputation was already established. We were invited to the White House and sought out for forums and opportunities to make new partnerships. As the pandemic continued, the focus evolved. But the relationships we cultivated over years were critical in the early days.”

Kristine’s Story

The goal of the Kitchen Cabinet was to talk about the great things restaurants do in Milwaukee.

“I’ve always understood the importance of relationships,” Kristine noted. “But COVID reinforced that lesson. Here’s an example from my experience. Pre-COVID, we had a program called the Milwaukee Kitchen Cabinet. The goals were to talk about the great things that restaurants do in their communities. And, through those stories, to develop relationships with the media and elected officials in that market. We leveraged our connections during COVID by organizing a weekly call to convene the key players. When the Public Health Department was looking at how to reopen safely, they had a sounding board, and we were able to collaborate to develop successful solutions. This exchange of ideas is a powerful partnership for everyone involved.

“On the other hand, in Madison, where we didn’t have a Kitchen Cabinet, collaboration on reopening was much more challenging. There was no working partnership with industry and public health. That hammered home the connection between relationship building and trust.

“Today, in Milwaukee, the group has gone on to consider public safety, another issue that’s critical for restaurants. I never imagined that as the President of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association, I would be on a first-name basis with the Milwaukee Police Department Chief, the Milwaukee Fire Department chiefs, and public health officials. The relationships built pre and during the pandemic have solidified those partnerships.”

Strategize for Strength

I don’t doubt that these alliances were win-win situations. Nancy and Kristine’s partner organizations certainly derived benefits from their collaboration. And, that value was shared throughout their respective communities.

The pandemic will not be the last catastrophic disruption or paradigm-changing event. I can’t remember a time when the cultural, political, and economic environment was fraught with so much uncertainty.

Moving beyond our usual parameters toward strategic cooperation, collaborations, and even coalitions, is an important source of strength for associations. These statistics from ASAE’s Center for Association Leadership’s 2023 State of the Association survey provide compelling reasons for seeking strategic relationships. Associations that have strategic partnerships are—

You want allies who will provide a hedge against the unexpected.
  • More likely to achieve their goals.
  • Seeing a 10% increase in revenue and a 15% increase in member engagement. 
  • More likely to be successful in advocacy and public policy.
  • More likely to be seen as thought leaders in their field. 

Seek Lasting Value

Of course, there are all kinds of partnerships. Some are alliances in name only that don’t deliver real benefits to either party. Others are the kind of thoughtful relationships that are born from mutual esteem and shared ideals.

Sponsorships are the model that we’re all most familiar with. However, those interactions tend to be transactional and transitory rather than mutually supportive. It’s the difference between a simple handshake and a deeply realized commitment.

You already have plenty of acquaintances. What you want are allies to provide a hedge against the unexpected. If your foot slips on the tightrope, your partners might be the safety net that stops a fall. Look to the corporate sector, government, civic, or other associations or non-profit organizations to find collaborators who will add value. 

These dynamics characterize partnerships like Nancy and Kristine’s:

  • Mutual benefit over a broad range of issues and experiences.
  • Ongoing cross-functional activities that deliver lasting value.
  • Initiatives that impact a broad audience or community
  • Outcomes that deliver strategic goals and objectives for all participants.
  • Equal effort from all partners to produce those advantages.

Building supportive relationships requires an investment of time and effort. That’s probably why we don’t see more of them. The board meeting agenda, the website update, and filling staff vacancies, are everyday tasks that make it easy to defer activities that don’t require immediate attention.

Take my advice and make finding your safety net mission-critical. Review the strategic plan and explore where there are goals that could be advanced through relationship building. Evaluate your current community and identify where expanded representation might be beneficial. Look for partners who could–

  • Help your members achieve policy or practice goals, provide community support, or enhance their public credibility.
  • Offer opportunities that advance each partner’s mission.
  • Inspire and support the improvement or innovation of products or business practices.
  • Broaden your audience and increase your visibility.
  • Provide access to resources such as professional development, non-dues revenue, or other member-friendly services that enhance engagement.
  • Help your association elevate its reputation.

Fill Gaps

A strategic partnership should offer more than one or two of these advantages. When Brent Gibson* was Managing Director of the National Commission on Correctional Health Care Resources Inc. he told me this story about what motivated him to seek out productive partnerships.

NCCHC is not a typical association. There are no members. Brent describes the organization this way. “We are a very serious accrediting business. Writing and surveying for standards compliance is a primary activity. With this kind of structure, there are limited sources of revenue. We needed to create new strategies to generate financial resources. Being sustainable is as essential for a nonprofit as it is for any other business.

“Deliberately identifying new or additional customer services is one path that associations and other nonprofits can take toward growth. Historically at NCCHC, all technical assistance was based on support for accreditation, and we didn’t focus on margin.

“It became evident that, due to the complexity of the operating environment, there were services outside our realm of expertise that were not being provided. We were perfectly positioned to contract with experts who could solve these complex problems for our customers. You have a choice to either say, we can’t help you or you can figure out how to fill in the missing pieces. It may take some mental wrangling. But the bottom line is don’t be afraid of a calculated risk.”

Look Outward

Every group, no matter how successful, has these “missing pieces.” Study your data and understand your audiences to correctly identify where you could add impact. Then stop looking at the usual suspects for support. Turn your perspective outward. Reach beyond your current community. Use foresight, innovation, and strategy to find partners who bridge the gaps.

It’s called disruption for a reason. There are events you couldn’t possibly imagine or plan for. But you can build a safety net—a web of sustaining relationships that also provide a broader playing field rich with unexpected opportunities.

Brent is currently principal consultant at Avocet Health.