Three Post-COVID Opportunities for Association Relevance

8th December 2021

In this special Boardroom contribution, Mary Byers, CAE and Harrison Coerver, authors of Race for Relevance: 5 Radical Changes for Associations, make the case for a leaner governance structure, a revised product line offer and a ‘digital first’ mindset.

The global COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc with associations for the better part of the last two years. Canceled conferences and trade shows; adverse financial consequences; staff working remotely; boards and volunteers working virtually–and that’s just the beginning!

But in every cloud there is a silver lining. Consider the following three opportunities that COVID represents for associations:

Governance Opportunity

The pandemic required quick decisions on major issues for all associations. Decisions regarding meeting cancellations; contract renegotiations; staff reductions and furloughs; work from home policies; virtual board and committee meetings; and deployment of reserves, just to name a few.

Based on our discussions with hundreds of association executives, we learned full boards had little to no role in most of these decisions. They were made by the association’s officers, or by the Chair and CEO, and in some cases by the CEO alone. The board was informed, not involved.

This experience provides associations with the opportunity to reevaluate their governance structure. What did we learn about governance performance during the pandemic? How did decisions get made and who made them? If we had the opportunity to design our governance for optimum effectiveness during the pandemic, what would it have looked like? Most likely it would differ from what we currently have.

Most would agree that the future environment for associations will be dynamic and fast changing. Perhaps not with the intensity of the pandemic, but an environment that requires nimble decision making and frequent pivoting to react to changing conditions.

Take advantage of this opportunity. Ask yourself three questions: 

  • What are the biggest opportunities for the association in the next 3-5 years? 
  • What are the biggest challenges for the association in the next 3-5 years? 
  • What is the right size and composition of our board to capitalize on those opportunities and deal with these challenges?

The flaws of our bureaucratic legacy governance structures have been exposed by COVID-19. We’ve seen how smaller, competency-based boards increase effectiveness and nimbleness. The pandemic offers an opportunity to rethink governance. The question is: how many associations will take advantage of the disruption to do so? 

Product Line Opportunity

The association’s “product line” is the inventory of all its programs, services, events, and activities. Everything we do.

The pandemic applied a “stress test” to association product lines. A stress test assumes highly unfavorable conditions and determines the impact on the association. How did your product line hold up? What programs and services were in demand? What member benefits languished during the pandemic? While some offerings have been temporarily disrupted (e.g., meetings), what programs did the pandemic expose as obsolete, tired or of questionable value?

Take advantage of this opportunity. Conduct a comprehensive evaluation of your product line and weed out the marginal programs and activities. (Go to and click on “Free Resources” to download our Program and Service Matrix with instructions on how to do this.) Ask yourself some tough questions: 

  • What is the utilization trend for this offering: is it in growth, maturity or decline mode? 
  • How does this benefit perform financially? 
  • What percent of our members use it? 
  • Knowing what we know today, would we start this program or service?

In our experience, execs report eliminating up to 25% of their product line after conducting this analysis.

The benefits of a narrow product and service line are significant. Communication of valuable programs are no longer cluttered with marginal offerings. Staff and financial resources are focused on winners versus losers. And the association’s competitive position is improved without the drag of underperforming efforts.

Digital Opportunity

If the pandemic taught associations one thing, it was that we underestimated our members’ acceptance of all things digital. Everybody Zoomed. Webinar attendance surged. Everything from grassroots advocacy to fundraising switched to digital platforms.

The pandemic provided a digital tailwind for associations. We experienced five years or more of advances in digital delivery in the first 12 months of COVID. As the pandemic comes under control, the temptation will be to “go back” to how we used to do things. Resist this and develop a “go forward” strategy that taps the considerable potential of digital-first thinking.

One thing all members of associations have in common: they are consumers and their experiences as consumers is rapidly going digital across the board. Social media, online banking, retail, telehealth, dating apps, gaming, entertainment, and on and on. It is hard to deny that they will expect an enhanced digital experience from their association.

Mary Byers, CAE and Harrison Coerver are association strategy consultants. Between them they have consulted with more than 1,700 organizations. They are the authors of Race for Relevance: 5 Radical Changes for Associations (a revised and updated 10th anniversary edition was released last year) and Road to Relevance: 5 Strategies for Competitive Associations.

If you think this digital explosion is temporary, consider the following facts. Alphabet (the parent company for Google, YouTube, Fitbit, etc.) had annual revenues of $182 billion and profits of $40 billion last year. Meta (which is the parent company of Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp) has 10,000 employees working on virtual reality and augmented reality and will add another 10,000 next year. What do you think this means to the future of digital technologies? Think of the impact of these tech giants as they invest billions of dollars and thousands of engineers in future advances and digital developments. Could it be that we haven’t seen anything yet?

Take advantage of this opportunity. Capitalize on the tailwind the pandemic provided. Ask yourself these questions:

  • How much time are you spending exploring how you can exploit this digital surge? 
  • What percent of your total expenses are allocated to investments in technology? 
  • How are you developing your staff to embrace the digital potential?

This isn’t an option; it is an imperative. If you want a short cut to irrelevance, ignore the digital opportunity.

Intentional governance, product line discipline, and a digital-first mindset are three major opportunities presented by the pandemic. Capitalize on them now. Associations that don’t won’t win the race for relevance. 

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