Current Affairs

Answering Member Needs at Times of Crisis

10th April 2020

With the trajectory of the current COVID-19 pandemic taking us into uncharted territory, there’s never been a better time for associations to rethink the way they operate and deliver (more) value to their members. As the first part of a special series where the members of Boardroom Advisory Board share their challenges and insights in light of a surreal situation, we’re looking today at how they deal with member expectations, requests and what they do to help them navigate this unknown environment.

Words Remi Deve

Challenges facing associations are vast and oftentimes unlike that of a typical business. They also can vary depending on the type of organization, whether a professional society or a trade association for instance. With Boardroom Advisory Board members representing different industries, it doesn’t come as a surprise their experiences sometimes differ in reaction to the crisis that affects us all. But, at the same time, they recognize they are all being very reactive delivering value to their members, and even providing them with new services or products.

New resources

“As an academic association, our members are dealing with the suspension of academic years and figuring out how to continue research while also being full-time parents and teachers,” says Jennifer Fontanella, Director of Operations and Finance of ISA, the International Studies Association“We have begun collaborating with other associations to provide virtual networking opportunities that we lost from the convention as well as provide resources to our members from recouping financial losses from cancelled travel to data for the many academic papers that will be written about the global effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Likewise, the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases (AASLD) has been very active in this arena, as Matthew R. D’Uva, CEO explains. “We completed a comprehensive clinical insights paper and have been offering clinical webinars weekly to outline COVID-19 procedures for our members, and have made a commitment to update the document on a regular basis along with weekly webinars through the pandemic. Additionally, we have issued a number of policy statements as part of a coalition of Gastroenterology Societies. Our scientific journals have also issued a fast track call for manuscripts related to COVID-19 to allow us to get the science about the disease out to the community. Finally, AASLD has also created a resource page to catalogue and communicate both AASLD and partner resources in real time,” he says.

At the International Association of Public Transport (UITP), according to Mohamed Mezghani, Secretary General, many actions were launched, all designed to support their members and to advocate for the sector. Guidelines with specific recommendations on how to deal with coronavirus in public transport, a closed LinkedIn Group for networking and best practice exchange, webinars, an Open Letter to the EU Institutions to advocate for support for the sector, launch of a social media campaign on social media… all this was done in reaction to a situation that nobody could have foreseen.

With such initiatives, every member of Boardroom Advisory Board, starting with Silke Schlinnertz, Head of Growth at Euroheat & Power, is happy to report that, at this stage, no one has seen a decrease in membership yet, though as, Mohamed Mezghani, Secretary General of UITP, points out this is also due to ‘great’ timing – for lack of a better word. “As of today, we have already invoiced 90% of the membership fees of the year (according to our annual target) and 50% of the invoiced amount has been paid,” he says. “This is a little lower than the previous year, but the difference is not very significant. Nevertheless, we see a slowdown of payments more from the private supplying industry than from the public transport companies.”

D’Uva notes, however, that AASLD’s annual dues billing system runs from July through June 30, so they will know soon if membership has been affected. “With our members out working in the community and engaging with the society, this is not our immediate concern,” he says. “Our members are actively working right now. Our Annual Conference is planned for November so we will be watching the effects of conference registration on our membership numbers. We are a bit concerned about our members ability to pay, but we are perhaps more concerned about our members have the time and capacity to actually submit their dues renewal with so much happening for them professionally.”

Consolidating the value proposition

Of course, there is a general concern in associations across industries about the effects of a possible recession which might follow the current outbreak. Associations need to be vigilant and, more than ever, prove their value to their members. “Critical situations are exactly when associations and networks are most needed: this is when we can go beyond the threat and create new opportunities to consolidate the association’s value proposition,” reflects Giuseppe Marletta, Managing Director Europe of ACC , the Association of Corporate Counsel and President of the European Society of Associations Executives (ESAE).

“Unlike associations with an individual membership base we as a trade association feel less the impact of the crisis at the moment,” explains Schlinnertz, Euroheat & Power. “Individuals need perhaps more immediate help, whereas trade members are coping with the situation. That being said, we are reaching out to each and every member to see how they are doing, and this is possible as we have a little over 100 members. A lot of phone calls are being made to ensure we stay connected.” So, the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t changed anything per se, though reviewing meeting strategies and offering more online content to substitute for cancelled in person meetings will be obviously in order at some point.

In this context, the digitalization of associations will happen sooner than later, and opportunities for digital conferences are being explored. ISA had historically been slow to provide virtual attendance during our conventions, primarily as an excuse to keep registration rates extremely low,” explains Fontanella. “The risk of having to cancel another annual convention is a great opportunity for us to offer more virtual opportunities into our program. As we are just beginning to plan our 2021 program, we are having daily discussions regarding the different areas that would lend to virtual engagement throughout the year. ISA was forced to cancel not only our annual convention, but two summer international conferences, in South Korea and Morocco, and are engaging in potential backup plans for six fall conferences, and actively looking for digital solutions.”

This article was written by Boardroom Chief Editor Remi Deve. The right to use it, in parts or in full, has to be granted by the Publisher.

Sense of community

If this crisis can have one positive effect, it’s the creation of an even stronger sense of community and belonging, all of the members of our Advisory Board agreed on. They all see much more readiness to share information, to support what others are doing, more dialogue between competitors amongst their members, but also between associations. “For example, it took us few hours to find a consensus with other trade associations on a common statement which in other occasions it would have taken days without necessarily finding a common ground,” remarks Mezghani.

I think that this is a fair statement to say there is great opportunity to work together,” says D’Uva. “We are working even more closely with the broader healthcare community in collaborative ways to share information and resources. I also think it is a really important time for association leadership. CEOs and our volunteer leaders are being asked to show leadership by our members and we are continuing to find ways to do so and to engage our members to help us do this effectively. Our members and their institutions are looking to associations like ours to provide guidance, support and information. I believe associations exist to provide this crucial leadership through our ability to harness the power of the community to take action.”

It’s important to create new opportunities for members to learn and network, “by showing our empathy and proximity at a business but also at a personal level,” Marletta points out. Today the special element is that we’re a community which is “physically distant”. For us, like many other associations, the community building is done primarily at in-person events and this has to be adjusted today. We still promote a sense of community but through an innovative approach to fit the special circumstances,” he concludes.

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