A call-to-arms for associations and nonprofits to lead wisely and fearlessly into a new, post-pandemic future.
Right now you’re focused on the catastrophic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, and with good reason. Association and nonprofit leaders around the world have been forced to postpone or cancel conferences, programs and events, the economic lifeblood of organizations big and small. The cascading impact of the resulting budget pressures, combined with remote work and overall economic uncertainty, are placing associations and nonprofit organizations under great strain.
This challenging new financial reality will have tough, long-lasting consequences for the vast majority of associations and nonprofits. Most community-driven nonprofits fund their initiatives through a combination of membership dues, certification programs, training, and events, the last of which generate revenue from attendees, sponsorship, and trade show exhibitors. All of these are in peril.
COVID-19 travel restrictions and the corporate budget pressures arising from the pandemic have created a perfect storm, and recovery will be slow. Even when travel is possible again, companies who exhibit, sponsor and send staff to conferences will no doubt be cutting travel and marketing budgets. In a post-pandemic world, individuals themselves may hesitate before boarding an airplane, staying in a hotel or gathering in large groups.
Things will never be the way they were before. And maybe that’s for the better.
What are associations for?
It is easy to confuse purpose with activity. Leaders at associations and community-driven nonprofits, societies, colleges and councils spend their days organizing conferences and training events, hosting networking events and attending meetings of one kind or another. It’s easy to start believing that the purpose of organizations like these is to orchestrate and attend events, but it’s not. Events are just activities. The purpose of an association is to connect people.
Associations connect people so they can share information, collaborate, solve problems, build business and advocate for each other. Before COVID-19, associations achieved this by hosting in-person conferences, meetings, training and networking events. Now, in a post-pandemic world, we must find new ways to achieve this purpose.
Your industry, your community, your country and the world all need your association to do this important work of connecting people now, more than ever.
What do your members need, right now?
One of our best clients is an association that connects long-term care home operators caring for tens of thousands of seniors who are exceptionally vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus. Another is an association that connects distribution logistics professionals responsible for keeping the warehouses and supply chains running through this unprecedented crisis. Still another exists to connect corporate travel executives, an industry decimated overnight by COVID-19.
Wouldn’t you agree that all three of these professional associations are more valuable to their members now?
All three have been forced to cancel marquee events, with serious financial consequences, and yet members desperately need to connect, share, collaborate and solve big, unprecedented problems. Indeed, all three of these associations are already connecting members in new ways, and they are actively seeking out virtual alternatives to in-person conferences, training and events that can serve them in the post-pandemic world.
One of these clients organized a facilitated conversation about the future of the industry, and had more than 160 people register in less than 12 hours -- that’s how powerful the need for connection is right now. Another has met the challenge by hosting daily virtual briefings to keep members up to date on fast-moving news and political developments.
All of these offerings have been popular and effective because the purpose of an association is not to bring people together in a room, it is simply to bring people together.
Why your association is more important now, than ever before
Associations are the only established organizations with both the power and authority to do the important work of connecting people right now. Your individual member organizations are in crisis, and even the best leaders are facing unprecedented challenges; there is no approved playbook for a global pandemic. Where else can they turn for solutions, but to their industry colleagues? Who else can facilitate this critical connection, but associations?
Your activities are changing, but your purpose remains the same. You still have all the tools you need in-hand. You still have your membership roster, with phone numbers and email addresses, and your members still need you to provide information, training and networking that meets the extraordinary new challenges of a post-pandemic world.
You still have your list of sponsors and exhibitors, with phone numbers and email addresses, and now more than ever they need you to help them establish and maintain connections with the members who use their products and services. Members, exhibitors and sponsors all need you to be advocating effectively with governmental and non-governmental organizations.
Whole sectors, entire industries, individual companies and countless individual workers need their leaders to be well-informed and working together effectively to help our economy and our country weather this storm.
Who better to lead this work than a professional association?
Now is the time to rethink and retool
We’ve had four weeks to overcome our collective shock, adjust to working from home and mourn the loss of the business model that has sustained associations and nonprofits for a century or more. It’s time for a paradigm shift.
Instead of thinking of this as a forced transition to a second-best alternative, consider the enormous benefits of retooling your organization.
- Dramatically broaden your organizational reach. In-person conferences and training opportunities are only accessible to companies and individuals who have both the money and time for travel. This makes them exclusive, by design. By contrast, online training and networking is available to anyone with an internet connection. Take this extraordinary opportunity to tap into new professional audiences and get ready to grow your organization.
- Deliver more value to more people. Instead of offering one six-day, in-person training accessible only to those who can take a week away from work and family, you can offer a three-month, on-demand training for anyone with an internet connection and two hours a week to invest in their education and professional growth. Record it once, sell it again and again; build real industry capacity while creating sustainable revenue for your association. This is just one example of how leveraging digital technology can help you offer more value at a bigger scale -- there are many, many more.
- Diversify your member benefits. Was it ever wise to put all your membership benefit eggs in one basket? If your conference was your top (or only) membership benefit, now is your chance to diversify. Do you offer a reliable, curated weekly email summary of critical industry news? Are you really leveraging your website to showcase thought leadership, emerging best practices and groundbreaking new ideas? Have you established an online community where association members can connect, share and collaborate? Are your social channels delivering real value to prospective members?
- Diversify your sponsor and exhibitor benefits. Companies sponsor your events and exhibit at your trade show because they want access to your members, who are prospective buyers for their products and services. If you were only offering that access through a conference, the COVID-19 pandemic only revealed an existing problem. Digital marketing opportunities abound for professional associations, and forward-thinking organizations have long offered advertising opportunities on websites, emails, webinars and social media. Where else might you facilitate connection between your members and the businesses who serve them?
- Master virtual event technology. In their heart of hearts, most association leaders knew this was coming anyway. The internet has been around for half a century now and virtual conferences have been on the horizon for a long, long time. Now they’re here -- and make no mistake, they’re here to stay. Why not consider the possibility that your members will love learning and networking online? After all, it’s incredibly practical, more economical, and far more accessible to most working people. Does it offer the same convivial, serendipitous networking opportunities as a traditional three-day conference? Of course not. There will always be an important place for in-person events, and they’ll resume soon enough. Right now, though, you can invest in mastering virtual event technology, and set your organization on a path to growth.
Don’t Look Back
If you remember only one thing from this article, remember this: Don’t look back. There’s nothing there for you, for your association, or for your industry as a whole.
The COVID-19 pandemic will transform our culture in ways we cannot yet imagine, but one thing is certain: Life will never be the same. Even when the travel bans are lifted, people will be reluctant to board planes; companies will be cash-strapped, debt-laden and gun-shy; the economy will be slow. Association leaders who sit and thumb through their old playbooks while they wait for things to get back to “normal” will quickly find themselves at the helm of irrelevant, dying organizations.
Ready or not, change is here. It’s your job to lead your industry wisely and fearlessly into this new future. Your staff, your members, your sponsors and your sector are depending on you to connect them, now more than ever.
If not you, then who?
Walter Willett is Associate Partner of Sponsorship & Exhibit Sales at AMP.
Karen Kleiss is Creative Director at AMP.