Associations Are Communities

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It’s time to act like it.

Several weeks ago, when it was first becoming apparent to association executives (and everyone else) that the coronavirus pandemic was, in fact, going to be quite serious, most of the industry discussion seemed to revolve around “Do we REALLY have to cancel our conference? What about our revenue!”


Yes, it was appalling.

I do get it – many associations derive 30-50% of their annual revenue from their conference or trade show, and – at least at that time – hotels and convention centers were being utterly intransigent about negotiating. (I’m guessing they’re going to have to change their tunes. I’m also guessing a lot of lawyers are going to be quite busy litigating this for some time.)

Fortunately, we’ve all regained our senses, and conversation has shifted to various incarnations of: How can we do right by our members and broader community right now?

There’s no one answer that’s going to work for every association.

Basically everyone is cancelling or postponing any big events for at least the next several months. Some are refunding reg fees across the board, while others, looking to move events to the summer or fall, are holding onto those fees for the moment, while reassuring registrants that cancellation and refund rules will be significantly relaxed.

Many associations are standing up COVID-19 discussion groups in their online communities and making them available to the entire profession or industry, regardless of their usual practices for non-member access.

Association execs are also considering options for dues renewals, granting extensions by request, pausing renewal campaigns, or even extending everyone automatically across the board.

Staff teams are vetting ways they can support local chapters that are heavily dependent on in-person events and run by small – or no paid – staff.

One thing that seems really important to me is: Think through how the pandemic is affecting your particular profession or industry, and respond accordingly.

If your association serves any segment of the hospitality industry, this is a MASSIVE crisis. You are going to have to take drastic steps to try to help keep your industry and association afloat. That may mean suspending dues entirely for some significant period of time, drastically changing – or curtailing – the services you offer as a result, and almost definitely dipping into your reserves.

If your association serves a profession or industry that’s not being as significantly impacted, you may want to look to what you did to weather the September 11 terrorist attacks or the 2007-2008 Great Recession for clues as to what you should do now.

Some industries that are being heavily impacted are not being heavily financially impacted. Grocery stores, for instance, are doing great financially, but they are in crisis related to supply chain and staffing. Medical personnel are absolutely still hard at work and getting paid, but they are dealing with significant personal and professional stress related to fears of being overwhelmed with patients, of the need to quarantine from their families at home, and of falling ill themselves. University faculty are already facing the fact that their students are not returning this term, and K-12 teachers may be facing that in the near future. They have to adapt – quickly – to remote instruction and assessment.

Everyone is dealing with significantly disrupted day-to-day life, and uncertainty about how long it’s going to last.

Many states and localities are moving quickly to pass emergency relief legislation. The federal government will get there eventually. Your members may need guidance about what’s available to them and how to get it.

How can you repurpose staff – membership, meetings, GR, IT, professional development – to help your community with their REAL challenges right now?

If you have some members who are willing and able to get on the phone with you and have frank conversations about the pressures and worries they’re facing at the moment, CALL THEM. Right now. And then bring your team together to do their best thinking about how your association can pivot to respond to those needs, which may be VERY different from what you all normally do and provide. Your association is their community. You can help them.

Now is the time when we in the association world MUST look at the world from our members’ perspective, think carefully and empathetically about what they need from us, and respond accordingly.

Photo by Mike Erskine on Unsplash