The sudden and dramatic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has challenged both the operations and traditional thinking of organizations worldwide. Two leading association CEOs joined Venable attorneys to discuss the realities of leading their organizations through this period of crisis. The discussion addressed the ways in which organizations have adapted, best practices to move forward, challenges in managing finances and revenue, and planning for the future.
- Associations were created to support members. Embracing positive, honest communications, reiterating the ways in which an organization can provide relief, and sharing valuable, time-sensitive, membership-specific information are ways in which associations can support their memberships. The ability to be nimble and creative in delivering critical needs (certification training to ensure members can still work) and having the ability to offer financial relief (dues deferment) are tangible ways to provide value to members. Driving one-on-one outreach to members to ask what issues they're facing is also critically important. Dedicating an internal response team within an association creates the opportunity to deliver value to members that normal circumstances don't always allow. An association should filter and interpret the steady flow of information for its members, addressing specifically how issues will impact those members and what they should focus on. Associations can also adapt their own practices to fill gaps for their members (transitioning classroom training to online courses). Finally, associations can look ahead in times of crisis to identify trends that may enable future growth for themselves and their members.
- A pivot from strategic plans. Associations should maintain two key areas of focus in a crisis: keeping the organization healthy and serving its members. In general, refocusing priorities to provide resources to members and maintaining membership levels can guide new or existing strategic initiatives. Having to cut programming in the form of events and in-person training creates both need and opportunity. A crisis can result in organizations getting creative and shedding marginal programs that do not deliver high levels of value. Elevating the types and quality of programming an association offers will strengthen the organization in the long run. This type of refocus can also mean meeting strategic goals at a quicker pace. A crisis can allow organizations to push through resistance and accelerate timelines to deliver important resources to members now.
- Making the difficult decisions around event cancellations. Before mandates were issued placing limits on gatherings, board and organizational leaders were asked to weigh cancellation against the financial hardship it would bring. To make these decisions, intense levels of communication are required, possibly to the point of over-sharing information, while remaining steadfastly devoted to ensuring safety for all member participants. Strong relationships between association senior staff and board members help in times of crisis. If that level of trust doesn't currently exist, challenging times can provide an opportunity to work together, establish team roles, and have difficult conversations to establish a clear division of responsibility. Identifying the shared burden in times of crisis and working together to meet or exceed shared expectations can provide a powerful way to build trust moving forward.
- Remote workforces can be an asset to associations. A remote and geographically diverse workforce is helpful in times of crises. Dynamics can change with a fully remote workforce – there is often a noticeable uptick in communication. Virtual tools and web cams become important and allow "face-to-face" interactions to continue. Understanding how to manage workers remotely requires consideration, but many organizations are seeing that their workforce is performing well remotely. Remote workforces respond well to organization-wide investment in a strong and collaborative culture. With employees required to quickly jump into remote work, association leadership could trust in the ability of their workforce to balance the dramatic shift in the pull of their individual responsibilities – children needing remote learning guidance from home, for example – while remaining committed to deadlines and deliverables. If a strong organizational culture does not yet exist, times of crisis can provide room for growth. Building culture through delegation of work and shared decision-making, hiring and training of well-qualified employees who understand their roles, and remaining focused on stakeholders will pay off moving forward.
- Time to re-forecast budgets. Now is a good time to re-forecast for revenue reductions, limit expenses, and look for other sources of cash. Different options are available to nonprofits, including the new Payroll Protection Program, small business disaster loans, debt options, and bank programs available at low or no interest. This is also a time to examine furloughs or staff reductions, keeping in mind that honesty with staff is important. If they have not already happened, open a discussion with the board on staff reduction and crisis management philosophies. As a rule, remaining in regular contact with bank and investment advisors will keep your financial picture top of mind. In organizations with strong reserves, strategic spending from those reserves should be paused until the rest of the year unfolds.
Looking ahead – what will the role of associations look like and how can it be optimized?
Collaboration with other executives and the development of peer networks can provide a tremendous support system between associations. Members depend on their associations, so continually striving to do the right things will ensure that associations are an important part of members' lives, both now and moving forward. Association workforces have the necessary skills to do the work members need, which will continue to be important.