The association business is a people’s business. Personal relations and interactions are the very core of what associations do. However, we need to assess if the current organizational setup and meeting structure, as well as the internal and external communication, is still up to the challenge – or if associations needs a critical review of how they operate. Now is the time to ask the following questions: are all members up to date with the latest developments of our industry? Is there a platform for members to network and share their news and the challenges they are confronting with? Come to think of it, these questions might lead to some necessary re-organization.
Stability as the basis for change
Associations are used to constantly adapting their structures and working in accordance to economic realities, change in membership structure, or with policy makers to respond to regional or geopolitical challenges. The recent covid-19 outbreak has emphasized one key element once again: associations play a crucial role in the life of their members as they provide stability and solid organizational structures to act and inform internally and externally about the sector specific challenges.
Stability means having a long-term vision, transparent structures, and the possibility to adjust quickly to new situations. The business model of trade associations is to represent sectors (or subsectors), and advocate for industry positions towards policy makers. This is in most cases a long-term endeavour. In the context of this terrible outbreak, stability and reliability are the big strengths of associations. In times of uncertainty and regional or national crises, association structures and procedures allow to be normally fully operational. Reliable information and trust are the ingredients to develop reputation and allow for the long-term strategic positioning as an industry and towards policy makers.
Association structures are often solid, they have grown historically, and carefully adapted to new situations. They are the backbone of every association’s work and provide the necessary continuity, but they also have to adapt to the fact that we live in a world of constant change: in the last years alone, associations were confronted with different and often unrelated fundamental developments: digitalization, fast changing geo-political landscapes and regional shifts, global environmental challenges, and now the covid19 outbreak.
In order for them to respond to unforeseen circumstances, associations normally have the possibility to set up ad-hoc working groups or task forces. In some cases, they have specific committees which are most of the time in ‘hibernation mode’ and only re-activated from time to time on a randomly recurring dossier or issue.
Adapting structures is more important now than ever. Depending of the size of the association, a smaller executive board can oversee decision-making processes on behalf of the board in times of crises and where speed of reaction is of essence. These adaptions are not replacing existing and established structures, but they can help to safeguard an existing organizational setup.
From an external view, political structures can help with the positioning of an industry in a crisis. In the US and Europe, decision-making and representation follows an increased formalized structure. Advocacy has to follow strict rules: transparency registers, lobbying code of conducts, publication of meeting reports by officials, etc. Understanding these procedures is essential to conducting proper advocacy activities. In times of uncertainty it’s those procedures that can keep systems operational. However, in order to be able to act and react to unforeseen circumstances these external mechanisms are only an additional element to navigate a crisis.
How to implement risk in the association model
While the political systems most of us are operating in can help safeguard procedures and help maintain an operational level, risk assessment on an association level is key, so the allocation of new resources to respond to a crisis can be properly set up.
Associations need to establish platforms and forums where their members can find relevant information and exchange on global and regional political, societal and economic developments – this is of course also valid in times when there is no obvious, imminent threat. Early warning systems based on key industry indicators can help to first inform and later -if necessary- alert membership – and allow to be prepared and come up with possible scenarios and the best solutions for the members. These platforms need to be established as an integral part of an association’s operation and structure. Not only a board level, but also on a committee level.
At the European Flavour Association, we have updates from national associations, and they are an integral part of all our meetings. Associations are invited to bring topics forward well in advance before board meetings in order to make sure threats are identified at an early stage. Internal and external newsletters can help to keep membership always informed. The relations and formalized exchanges with related sector associations increase the awareness on broader topics and possible long and short-term challenges.
The next crisis will come
Many crises or natural disasters are of course not foreseeable. However, in the case of the covid-19 outbreak, the potential risks and impacts were to some extend known for some months before they hit Europe and the US. Here, early information and exchange, and a worst-case scenario planning, have helped to estimate and calculate financial or organizational risks – for the association and its members alike. Associations need solid structures, but they also need to reassess their structures and implement early warning systems once this crisis is over… and until the next one comes along.