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Managing an Association during a global pandemic, with no playbook

How many times in the past 8 weeks have we read that these are unprecedented times, or we are navigating unchartered waters? It is true, and consequently no one can claim to be an expert in the situation we are in. What’s our benchmark for how things are ‘usually’ dealt with in a global pandemic?

For us, as an Association Management company, routine is important. Tasks are cyclical. We keep things organized for associations we manage. We keep things current for the members. We continually improve and ensure the associations do not become stagnant. Then, on March 16th, our perfectly laid out day was thrown out the window.

Suddenly, we had the weight of so many decisions. Looking back now it’s ridiculous that we even thought we had a choice at the time, but on March 16th we had the very real and overwhelming task of deciding if we should continue with our planned activities or postpone. For days we were making decisions and re-assessing as things were changing so quickly. Finally, after about 10 days of building contingency plans, we realized this was not a short interruption.

Our days since then have been filled with filtering through resources, websites, blogs, new programs, awareness campaigns, news stories, and political announcements. Every article I read relates to each of our clients in different ways.

Most businesses need to outline a company policy for their staff during COVID-19. But as an Association, we have more than one mandate. We must prepare a policy for our Association staff, but we also represent hundreds or maybe thousands of members who are all in a different situation during this pandemic.

What do members need from their Associations right now?

Sensitivity and Solidarity: Your membership is likely made up of people who are 1) suddenly unemployed, or 2) overworked as essential services, and 3) everything in between. We are uniquely unified as an industry but divided in the experience we are living. Each of our members work for a different company with varied policies, expectations, and employment status. The two ends of the spectrum could not be further apart: some people love the ‘new normal’ and have found joie de vivre in little things they had forgotten, while others are finding this extremely difficult and overwhelming as they lose all ability to function in solitude. Be kind. Don't assume. Listen. Be understanding.

Availability and Reliability: Associations work for their members. ‘Supporting members’ is likely in the Mission Statement of most Associations. Administering an association is likely a job that can be relocated to a home office in compliance with the public health directives. But don’t think of this time as down time. This is when our members need us to do the research, be an advocate, and find solutions for the industry. These are very busy times for Association administrators and executives. If you have a regular newsletter that goes out, keep sending it. If your members expect to hear from you at a particular time, don’t let them down. Our business is taking care of our members and our members are still counting on us. Be reliable, current, and dependable. Advocacy: Everyone is affected with this pandemic. How has the industry you represent been affected? Whether it has increased or decreased business, changes have occurred, likely with permanent effects. This global pandemic has changed how everyone does business. If this has resulted in a need for advocacy, policy change or education, we need to be at the forefront, leading the way. Represent! Plans for the future: Even if we had to postpone every activity for 2020, we, as an organization, need to have a positive outlook ahead. Post new event dates in your Association calendar, even if they are a year away. Don’t put off things you can do virtually! Replace some of the current activities with online ones. Don't be scared on online platforms, you will have no choice but to use this for the next several months. Let members know you are still working for them. We are in a period of transition, but not at a standstill.

Keep your Board engaged: Our in-person Board of Directors meetings obviously can't take place for a while. This does not mean the Board is suspended. Keep your Board up to date with how the pandemic is affecting the industry and what we, as an organization, are doing to support our members and the sector we represent. Do this by hosting your board and committee meetings by video conference , not conference calls or emails. If you don't have a go-to system for video calls, get one. Chose a platform, sign up for the membership, learn the tools, and host meetings with confidence. This demonstrates that you are adapting to the situation and your Association is resilient. Take control.

Flexibility: This goes without saying, people need us to make allowances right now. If memberships are due and some are still unpaid, you will likely choose to work with your members to find a solution that is manageable for them. You can certainly do things like voiding late fees, extending deadlines, arranging a payment plan, etc. If you administer programs with submission deadlines, extend the dates and keep your website up to date with new details. This proactive approach will ensure members are not put in the position of asking for flexibility, which would only add to the angst of their situation.

Become a relevant source of information: We have been sorting through all the information on the global pandemic, not because we are avid readers, but because we have a responsibility to our members to provide them with a reliable repository of information pertinent to the industry we represent. We should not share every piece of coronavirus information that comes our way. Members rely on us for things relative to the industry they are paying us to represent. They can trust we have vetted the COVID-19 Resource section on our website for them. Don’t underestimate the value of having this resource handy, current, and organized. Stay relevant, don’t get complacent. Concise and timely communication: All our inboxes have been hit with detailed specifics on how every company we have ever heard of is ‘dealing with COVID-19’. It’s laughable, how many emails we are getting on the subject and impossible for anyone to keep up. That said, it’s our job, as an Association, to communicate with members. So, do we fill their inbox? Use discretion and think long and hard before sending an email about another government announcement or program. Your members are probably following this quite carefully on their own. Part of being reliable and dependable is putting tools in place like the resource section of your association website and keeping your social media up to date. And in the spirit of normalcy, if you do send out a regular newsletter, send it with all the current announcements. Just refrain from sending an email every time you hear about something your membership would want to know.

Levity: These are tough times, no doubt. But as human beings, we need to laugh. We need some lightheartedness. It’s okay to be pleasant or to share comical relief. Social media is full of memes and sarcastic jokes at COVID-19’s expense (and a few politicians), and it’s fine to think that some of these are just hilarious!

My advice to Associations has always been to avoid the status quo. This is the biggest threat to an Association, yet it is the most difficult thing for most to avert. Well, my fellow Association Executives, now is the time! Did you step up to the plate during this time of crisis? Were you a leader for the industry you represent? Or have you been sitting back, ‘waiting to see how things pan out’? I don’t think any of us can walk away from this situation without a long list of how we can do better, and what a great opportunity that presents!


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