6 Actions Your Association Should Take During this Uncertain Time

Written by the Avenue M Team

(Image: Adobe Stock)

As we are still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the full extent of its impact is unknown, but we can reasonably predict that this will affect almost every industry in the U.S.—and that means we can reasonably predict it will affect almost every association that serves a U.S. audience.

Avenue M recently launched a brief survey to record how COVID-19 is impacting the association industry, and the results show that many association professionals are increasingly becoming more concerned about COVID-19 negatively affecting their association’s financial health and stability in the next year. Although many association professionals are undoubtedly scrambling to address the havoc caused by this pandemic, now is also a crucial time for those professionals to start taking short- and long-term actions that will fortify the health of their association.

Below are several key recommendations for associations of all types.

Short-Term Actions

Make some of your content available and accessible to the broader professional community: Now is not the time to limit access to vital information that can help members and nonmembers better deal with this crisis. Several associations and organizations outside of the association industry (e.g., The Washington Post) have already begun to offer free access (for a limited time) to resources, articles and content to help their audience through this difficult time. And their actions are being embraced and acknowledged as the right thing to do at this time.

These are unprecedented times. We can’t rely on past decisions or experiences to guide our actions. With a focus on mission achievement and outcomes, associations are more likely to strengthen their position and place in the hearts and minds of their community.

Revisit your recruitment and retention campaigns: Though recruiting and retaining members should still be a priority for associations even now, consider testing new approaches, messages and incentives. Although many people are spending more time online right now, they are likely being inundated with even more content than usual. Recruitment campaigns often (rightfully so) focus on the value that membership provides. Campaigns should still be about value but more specifically about the value the association provides to its members during these difficult times.

Remind members and nonmembers of the resources and content that your association has that are directly related to COVID-19. Collect and share stories of how members are adapting and responding.

Bring your community together through virtual round tables. Provide virtual round tables for members and nonmembers to connect and discuss how COVID-19 is impacting them and what steps they are taking in their region to combat the challenges they are facing.

Monitor the conversations to evaluate where there are gaps between your association’s existing portfolio and the emerging needs of the community. We recognize participation in a round table might not be feasible right now for some people, especially healthcare practitioners. However, exchanging ideas and fostering community are especially important for these sectors in this crisis. As suggested above, consider opening online community forums, online networking opportunities, etc. to nonmembers to remove any barriers at this time.

Be prepared to lose some members, but make plans now for how to gain them back: With an economic shock as widespread as the one we are currently seeing, it’s inevitable that no matter how valuable membership in your association is, some members may allow their membership to lapse. Identify alternative payment options to address immediate cash flow problems. If there is a specific segment of your membership that is likely to be hit hardest, consider significantly reducing dues for this segment when it’s time for renewal. Though money may be lost in the short term, if members can be retained, your association can hope to still receive future revenue from these members.

Long-Term Actions

Brainstorm ways to diversify your portfolio and expand online offerings: Based on Avenue M’s Association Industry Benchmark on COVID-19 survey, many association professionals indicate their organization will cancel in-person events in the coming months. According to our recent survey, although most association professionals anticipate their association focusing more on providing online engagement opportunities to members in the coming months as a result of COVID-19, fewer are looking to diversify their portfolio of offerings and revenue streams. For associations that rely on their annual meeting for a significant percentage of their overall revenue, this can be devastating.

Although many associations will be converting in-person events into a virtual format, online events may not generate the same revenue an association receives from an in-person event. The economic reverberations from this crisis are likely to mean smaller budgets a year or two later, affecting future attendance at in-person meetings. Therefore, any association that hosts an in-person meeting—even if it is not suffering financially from a last-minute canceled meeting—should start thinking about alternative revenue streams.

Prepare to evaluate your membership model even before the dust has settled: With so much uncertainty on when we will be past the peak of this crisis, it is hard to predict to what extent this will impact your audience, their future challenges and their needs from membership. Don’t wait until the full impact of COVID-19 on the community you serve is clear; revisit your membership structure and assess whether it still meets the needs of your audience. Budgets will be tighter, and the ROI of membership will be even more important than before COVID-19. If your industry is facing significant upheaval, your association may need to consider dues restructuring to allow different levels of affiliation.