The Indispensable Partner to Members
During a crisis, organizations support members invaluably
by Dan Tjornehoj, CEO and Bob Harris, CAE
Associations must forge through the pandemic realizing they are needed more than ever to guide and support their members. Stop to think about it. The essence of association existence is to work as a group to address the needs of members. This is an opportunity for associations to be their best.
We are positioned as a trusted confidante with members. Our value is to “ask,” then “listen,” to members’ challenges during this unprecedented time.
The Minnesota Veterinary Medical Association (MVMA) was founded in 1897. As the pandemic struck this spring, we had to first be sure our members were designated as an “essential service.” Then we helped members identify the services they could perform. Following that we had a call to action to collect and get personal protective equipment to critical areas.
We created guidance for workplace and client safety. We asked governmental authorities to ease workplace restrictions for medical professional members to return to a more normal workplace while still maintaining worker and client safety. Without the collective and coordinated role as an association, this might not have been accomplished. When you think about it, our association has been positioned for a coordinated response to crises for nearly 125 years, having survived the Spanish Flu, wars, and recessions.
Outline of Success
Here are the principles that worked to position the association as an indispensable partner and trusted resource:
Leadership and Staff Readiness
As the book, Good to Great, offers, without the “right people on the bus” it is hard to advance. It is critical to have a team of dedicated association leaders and professional staff in place. During this challenge, board and staff must innovate and adapt, able to “think outside the box.” Regular meetings, remotely, have allows the team to brainstorm, and respond to urgent issues.
This is no time to have a staff person or board leader to become paralyzed due to the ongoing challenges or claim that “the work required isn’t in their job description.” The spirit of cooperation and determination are the qualities needed in times of crisis.
Well ahead of a crisis, the association invested in technology, including workstations easily moved outside the office. The voice over internet phone system allowed for phone systems to function seamlessly whether working in or out of the office setting. We were ready when the state government required staff to work from home. Staff’s familiarity with web conferencing software was also critical in transforming meetings and education to highly successful online programs.
For several years, our members have been offered the option of live and online continuing education. Moving to primarily online education during the pandemic was no problem because it was already in place. Some members, especially those in rural or distant locations, prefer and are accustomed to the webinar format. Webinar attendees have a similar experience as the live attendees with the ability to ask questions throughout the session. The same concepts and technology have transformed our board, committee and task force meetings during the pandemic crisis.
Now more than ever, advocacy and lobbying should be a priority. Most government agencies have focused on the pandemic, diverting from their regular policy issues. MVMA “repurposed” their lobbyist’s role into other areas. For example, the association scheduled “Advocacy 101” sessions with the lobbyists hosting web conference sessions to make members more effective as constituents and stakeholders. Since some association members may have some extra time during the crisis, we thought it would be a good idea to educate members about issues affecting the profession. We can help them be better advocates for the profession as well as identify and aggregate their concerns.
In addition, since most of the pandemic has been managed by executive branch office holders (president, governor), we asked our lobbyists to develop messages and shift communications from legislators to our state governor and his administrative team. This may not be something that lobbyists are accustomed to doing but since they are likely paid or contracted, why not have them serve in a slightly different capacity as you work your way out of this crisis.
For more than a decade, the association has built savings reserves by moving surplus revenue into savings. Most associations maintain an amount equal to six to 12 months of operating expenses in reserves. Many boards are cautious about dipping into reserves, proclaiming, “those funds are for a rainy day.” This pandemic is a storm and reserves should serve to meet association needs. Having the IRS designation of 501(c)6 organizations, trade associations tend to be ineligible for federal PPP stimulus funds. Now is the time to use reserves to keep a full staff and continue meeting member needs.
The finance committee, treasurer and executive committee were called upon to assess the impact of the crisis on the budget, creating a contingency plan. The association should be ready if the crisis continues, impacting conferences, membership, sponsors, and advertisers, for example. A healthy association should have a reserve fund and a contingency plan in place even if it does not have to be used.
It is easy to think of the association as a line item in a member’s budget that could be eliminated during this economic downturn. With the right leadership team, technology, agility to transform and financial resources, an association can be at its best. While members focus on survival, they need the association for expertise, resources, advocacy, training and encouragement. The association’s message should be, “we are your indispensable partner during this crisis.”
About the authors:
Bob Harris, CAE, provides free governance tips and templates at www.nonprofitcenter.com. Dan Tjornehoj is the executive director of the Minnesota Veterinary Medical Association (MVMA).