COVID-19 Presents an Opportunity for Professional Associations

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What benefits does your nonprofit truly bring to the communities you represent? Prior to 2020, many professional association members likely ranked networking high on the list of value received from their dues. So, what is a board to do in an era where traditional venues for creating connections are no longer viable?

The world as we know it has been flipped on its side and the future is uncertain for most industries not centered around cloud computing. Luckily, nonprofits have a distinct advantage that most traditional businesses do not: they are formed to provide value over profit.

Professional associations have a unique ability to bring people together. Whether it is through education, lobbying for a common cause or hosting events, members are intrinsically linked by what the better part of their days are dedicated to: their jobs. Nonprofits in this space have an engrained opportunity to shine in times of change, and we are already seeing creative efforts to keep our communities connected.

In April 2020, Redstone Agency hosted a digital round table on the importance of membership organizations. Our three panelists from CEWIL Canada, IGDA and MomTO all shared innovative ways they were keeping their stakeholders engaged, including:

  • Hosting weekly meetings open to their entire industry (no membership required)
  • Using innovative platforms like Hopin for events that allow for one-on-one networking and a virtual exhibit hall
  • Sending guests swag bags by courier
  • Facilitating social groups within video games to create shared experiences

There are many ways to engage our communities, and we’re just starting to touch on what that means without in-person socialization. Some other interesting efforts from Canadian nonprofits we’ve seen include:

  • OAGEE making all of their formerly members-only classroom resources free to teachers everywhere.
  • SMCC’s Beers & Cheers: An opportunity for colleagues to catch-up in a social environment.
  • CSAE Trillium Chapter’s Association Efficiencies Using Virtual Strategies: An event that was scheduled to take place in-person, then was quickly adapted to be offered through Zoom. To keep participants engaged, they moved between panelists often, used breakout rooms for participants to interact with one another, and had a facilitated desk-tapping break.

These are all fairly simple ways that associations can change how they show value to their members through events. What works for your community will likely differ from others. This is one of the advantages of being an association: your members share a unique connection to your mission.

There is an opportunity now for your board and staff to come together, forge a new path and strengthen community connections in different ways. Digital events are certainly not the only way forward. Your association’s edge might come from focusing on promoting the digital resources you offer, the advocacy you engage in or the advantages of holding your credentials in a competitive job market.

Every organization, professional association or not, still has some tough questions to ask themselves. What advantages do you have? How can you redirect your efforts to help now without negatively impacting your long-term goals? Will your long-term goals matter without short-term action?

A recent survey on the early effects of COVID-19 published by the Canadian Society of Association Executives showed that 32% of nonprofit participants were not financially viable for a full year. This is an alarming statistic, but it does not have to be the end. By adapting the delivery and promotion of member benefits in meaningful ways now, professional associations have an opportunity to strategically position themselves as essential in the minds of stakeholders. Leading, not only to a sustainable future, but a better connected one.

If you look at history, innovation doesn’t come just from giving people incentives; it comes from creating environments where their ideas can connect.

-Steven Johnson

How are you adapting to a world without in-person networking? Are you looking for help innovating? Have some great ideas to share? Feel free to connect with me by email here.

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