As October approaches, we’re almost 10 months into one of the most challenging years in anyone’s memory, including nonprofits, as they strive to engage association members. The COVID-19 pandemic impacted nearly every area of our lives in 2020, and we’re not quite over the effects. Several businesses and associations suffered great losses this year, but there’s a silver lining to the pandemic cloud: we’ve also gained resiliency and strength.

At AJA Marketing, we work closely with a number of associations and small firms and yes, we did walk clients through a few rough patches in 2020. Yet, we’ve also witnessed some best practices in action. We’ve seen associations retain most of their members. In fact, some associations even saw increases in membership.

Associations have unique operation models compared to for-profit organizations. Their sustainability is entirely dependent on member engagement, year over year. Most associations cannot afford to raise membership fees/dues or offer “new products” like businesses are able to do. With many people out of work, most associations agree that now is not the time to increase membership dues. Many associations have taken this time to critically glance at their offerings, and in some cases, have needed to sunset certain services that are no longer sustainable or resonate with their membership.

Considering these unique challenges, how are associations keeping their members engaged through times of stress, anxiety and financial uncertainty?

Here are some of the key learnings we’ve discovered throughout the industry and with our awesome association and non-profit partners.

#1: Patience IS a Virtue

Think of one of the first lessons we all learn when it comes to any kind of crisis: Don’t panic.

While some organizations went straight into crisis mode back in March, others took a few breaths along with taking realistic stock of the situation. Associations learned to make adjustments and adapt to changing realities. Perhaps aggressive membership-boosting initiatives were postponed. Or events cancelled. Whatever the case, many associations adopted a pivot and prioritize approach to remaining operational for their association members.

Sure, some associations had to say goodbye to some employees or even reduce offerings to members. Staying the course is paying off for many now, though, as the country begins moving closer to our eventual recovery. “Our members are still reaching out to us and it feels rewarding to know we are still here for them,” says one professional services association based in Arizona. “We’ll be back to full capacity before too long.”

#2: Warmth and Empathy Matter to Association Members

Speaking of being there for members, the strongest associations throughout this period are taking an empathetic approach. They’re softening their overall communications and making efforts to understand what association members are going through–on an ongoing basis. In some cases, membership fees and dues deadlines have been forgiven/delayed.

Association members are dealing with uncertainty on multiple fronts. Of course there are financial concerns, but in a health pandemic a number of worries are on people’s minds. A people-first mindset helps associations connect and develop trust with members. This is true any time, obviously. But in 2020, it’s almost a lifeline.

A couple of associations we work with have developed marketing tactics around this idea. Friendly, even humorous notes from Board Chairs and Directors have made their way into official newsletters. Social media accounts are featuring more personal testimonials and encouraging members to connect virtually.

Which leads us to our next point…

#3: Connections are Zooming Along

It’s impossible to talk about how organizations survived in 2020 without mentioning the power of virtual technology.

Nearly all of our clients discovered overnight that they could manage to stay afloat and keep the day-to-day operations going thanks to remote and telecommute work. Many have been slowly returning to offices these days, but we’ve all learned together how agile and flexible we can be when necessary.

Thanks to Zoom, Google Hangouts, Skype and a number of other platforms, we’ve stayed in touch. We’ve stayed in business. And now many organizations are considering how virtual tech will change the way we run things like conferences and networking events in the future.

Many associations got creative and experimental with member programming this year. “Our annual conference was canceled. We did a virtual conference, but with new elements we hadn’t tried before,” says the AZ association. “Thanks to a Board member suggestion, we hosted a series of live panels that really opened up engagement with our younger members in a way we hadn’t captured prior.” As a result, the association plans to repeat this format again in 2021, even if a live, in-person event is possible.

#4: More Thorough Event Preparation & Planning

Events are a major source of revenue for a majority of associations. In 2020, events were canceled one after the other and unfortunately, that often meant great financial losses for even the largest and oldest associations.

Some associations were able to pivot and move events online, like the AZ association. However, smaller organizations without the necessary investment in technology and resources needed to forgo events because there wasn’t enough time to adjust.

That’s a valuable lesson to take away from COVID-19: take some time to develop robust contingency plans.

According to a PCMA article on the impact of COVID-19 on associations, 65% of respondents in a survey by the Association Laboratory reported they didn’t have sufficient insurance to cover the numerous expenses incurred from cancelling major events. Thirty percent reported having no event insurance.

Going forward, it’s clear that being prepared for even the most unlikely-seeming events is necessary. After all, if you want to take care of your members’ needs, you’ll need to make sure you’re first wearing your own oxygen mask in the event of emergencies.

Overall, the most important lesson to be learned here for associations of all sizes is to remain strong and willing to adapt. AJA Marketing has also had to adapt our tactics and strategies over the last several months. Were there rough moments? Sure. Did we even think of giving up on our clients? Absolutely not.

And we know you aren’t thinking of that, either. We’re here to support you and provide whatever you might need to change directions, get creative and develop new membership opportunities in a changing world. Don’t hesitate to get in touch with us if you need an outsourcing partner who’s committed to helping you provide maximum benefit to your members.