30 Sep 2021

The Evolution of Member Associations

Henry Aldridge, Head of Trade Associations, CBI


Returning to my desk at Cannon Place recently felt extremely odd, with everything exactly as I had left it many months earlier. Whilst the paraphernalia on my desk had not changed, so much else had.


Putting this report together has been fascinating in casting minds back to what expectations were when we were first told to go and work from home. We were caught up in crisis mode, working so hard to support members whilst juggling all the many personal challenges that came with living and working thought the pandemic.


With so much uncertainty associations sprung into action for their members, but alongside the immediate priorities of representing members, working with government and helping members navigate guidance, the best leaders were thinking of the future and learning lessons to improve their member proposition, relevance and organisational resilience.


News headlines have made for grim reading over the past week. Front pages across the land have been filled with tales of industries in difficulty, as the UK has seemingly lurched from one supply chain problem to another. Escalating gas prices, a shortage of CO2 and cancelled fuel deliveries have seen people panic buying petrol and retail industry warnings of potential food shortages, as well as widespread fears of substantial hikes to household bills.  


It wasn’t supposed to be like this. This summer was expected to represent a watershed as we emerged from Covid restrictions to move full steam ahead towards recovery. Yet instead, business has effectively swapped one set of crippling difficulties for another – and once again, bold and urgent action is needed to restore the confidence and stability which businesses crave. 


The upshot of all this is that it has triggered a worrying shift in mindset for many businesses. Whereas the majority had been eyeing recovery and growth, they are now focused instead on simply coping. If this is allowed to continue, it will represent a major threat to our recovery – and again as associations we are dragged into the short term at the expense of long term thinking.  


Overall this report shows a remarkable commercial resilience in the sector, with membership retention strong and a renewed appreciation for the role and purpose of associations. We must build on this to ensure that this relevance is maintained. There were also important lessons learnt about the ways in which to engage members and also in the employee-employer relationship. We knew so much more about each other seeing into each other’s living rooms each day, and had a greater appreciation for staff wellbeing, communication and the importance of flexibility.


Those organisations that can build their businesses around these principles will thrive, particularly given the competition and challenges around recruitment at the moment.


There are other challenges as we come out of working from home, and business returns to a full autumn programme of events. Anecdotally we have seen activity return to high levels perhaps sooner than we expected and it is important that we ensure that we look after our teams and ensure they have the precedence of choice when it comes to attending events, and ensuring they feel safe and comfortable doing so.


The main takeaway I think we have learnt from this period is that colleagues and teams went to extraordinary lengths to support their organisations and members, all the while dealing with their own personal challenges. This brought great results for our organisations, and opportunities to thrive in the future. However, as we move from crisis (which has arguably not abated) and look at how we adapt and capitalise on our hard won relevance we must be mindful of our staff wellbeing and risk of burnout.


Thank you to those who participated in the survey, I hope you find the report interesting and I look forward to seeing how our sector adapts and evolves to seize the opportunities in front of it.


Download your copy of the report here.