The Future of Membership Associations by Alastair Barr

Published: 08 Sep 2020
Last reviewed: 22 Jan 2021

Alastair takes a broad perspective and reflects what's on the minds of membership professionals since the start of the pandemic - digital transformation is certainly a key component of any future strategy.

The Covid-19 pandemic hit populations and economies around the world with huge force in the first few months on 2020. Few saw it coming and no one had it listed on their risk register. Membership associations were affected in various ways and had to react quickly.

To find out what membership associations and trade bodies are doing in response to the coronavirus pandemic, both as short-term tactics and long-term strategic changes, a series of interviews were held with senior leaders from a range of sectors. The interviews were conducted by telephone or video conference call between June and August 2020. It was agreed with participants that all comments would be anonymous – which helped ensure frank and insightful feedback.


The impact of Covid-19

Many associations are facing a serious financial situation due to the loss in income from events, sponsorship and advertising.

However, the pandemic has in some ways reinforced the value of professional associations and provided new ways for them to serve their members.

The emphasis has been on doing things differently. Events have been cancelled and there has been more focus on pushing information out to members.

Associations have turned to online services to support their members. It is an opportunity for associations to remind their members about the services that are available and what the organisation is doing in light of the Covid-19 crisis.

Webinars are now far more popular. They are easy to set up and large numbers can take part from many locations.

Organisations with an international membership base have seen an increase in members attending online events from across the globe. Attending events face to face was previously not practical or feasible for many but now they can participate wherever they are based.

One respondent had all their staff working from home and estimated productivity to have increased by 30-40%. All meetings, events and training are now being done online.

At the same time, some organisations have reported an increase in the need for pastoral care, looking after their staff and members in challenging and stressful times.

At least one large association took the bold step to train their staff to call all their members. This provided a chance to check in with members, tell them what the association is doing to tackle the situation and what help is available for members.

There has been more acceptance of online events and meetings -- often there has been no alternative. Governance and approval procedures have been speeded up as quick decisions have needed to be made.

Feedback from members has often been positive. There are reports of members praising their association if it has helped to increase visibility of the role they are playing during the pandemic.

Many members are turning to their professional associations for help and advice in these difficult times. Members will be able to judge how responsive their association has been and the consequent value they receive. This in turn could have an impact on member retention rates further down the line.

The tone of membership communications has been altered, to move away from being sales- driven to more considerate and compassionate.

Some organisations have given away free services that were previously paid for, such as online events. However this is a short-term tactic and associations realise it is not sustainable.

Sectors that have been badly affected by Covid-19, such as travel and tourism, have had to furlough a significant proportion of their staff, who have then turned to their professional or trade association for information and advice. One organisation reported visitors to their website had doubled and there was a ten-fold increase in delegates joining their webinars.

In an attempt to attract new members, some organisations have introduced special offers and reduced their membership fees. This has had a positive impact: new members see it as fair in the current situation and see immediate value for money.

However, some associations reported that new membership applications are being delayed as staff are not available to process them. Cancelled and postponed examinations will also have an impact on the number of those eligible to apply and going on to become members of their professional association.

With opportunities to meet students and potential members face-to-face being curtailed for the time being, efforts to attract new members will be hindered.

Retaining members may also be a challenge. Some who have been furloughed or made redundant might not renew their membership when due to do so – time will tell.


Lessons learned

Professional associations and trade bodies appear to have held up well, considering the challenging circumstances, but have been functioning with limited staff and resources.

Whatever people say about that much-derided term the ‘new normal’, the feedback shows membership associations are not expecting to go back to the way things were. The pandemic has been an opportunity to do things differently. Organisations have had to react swiftly. Obtaining acceptance for new schemes and changes has traditionally be a lengthy and labourious process in membership associations, with multiple tiers of approval required. The pandemic has shown that quicker decision-making is possible.

There are signs that members appreciate the efforts being made to support them during the pandemic and have reacted well to the switch to the online delivery of services.

There is little evidence to suggest membership numbers are declining. In fact some associations reported an increase as people want access to information and support from their representative body.

Associations are questioning the need for office premises. Do they really need grand buildings that were once a status symbol but are now largely empty and a substantial overhead cost? With staff working remotely and cost savings being a high priority, some associations are looking to cut back on the buildings they own or rent.

The relevance of the membership proposition has been brought into sharp focus during these difficult times -- being there for members in a time of crisis and delivering immediate value has become key. Projects that were planned have been brought forward to help members and improve efficiency.

The pandemic has showcased the need for professions related to health and wellbeing. This may serve to strengthen the status and need for associations representing key workers and consequently reflects positively on the organisations themselves. This in turn can elevate the image of the profession.


The future

A crisis can lead to lasting improvements. To paraphrase a recent article from management consultants McKinsey (July 2020) ‘don’t miss out on the opportunity for profound and lasting change’.

Over the years some associations have become bloated with services, trying to give more and more to retain members and justify the annual membership fee. Now may be the time to think smarter, not necessarily offering more but giving greater attention to the value, relevance and timely delivery of services.

For associations facing insurmountable financial difficulties, this could lead to more mergers and takeovers. There is nothing new about professional associations and membership bodies combining resources, but the coronavirus pandemic may just be the catalyst to accelerate the trend. Strength in numbers is recognised by the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE, July 2020) which notes: mergers between associations in the same field may provide a lifeline where ‘the two organisations can emerge better together’. This may particularly be the case for associations that do not have adequate reserves to tide them over.

Covid-19 will have a lasting impact. Associations have risen to the challenge, with many becoming more nimble and acting quickly to serve their members. Members will continue to look to their professional association and representative body for impartial and reliable advice. The more agile and responsive associations will survive, and professions and society will be better for it.

Acknowledgement: Thank you to all those who took part in this research project and generously contributed their time and information.

Copyright © 2020 Alastair Barr

Alastair can be contacted at:
E: [email protected] | Ref: Research Project article,18.8.20