Image of two cyclists biking a safe distance apart through an empty landscape

Membership Organizations in the Time of COVID-19

The world has become a different place from what we knew a few weeks ago, and that place changes daily. We are all coping as best we can personally—and I hope that involves staying home as much as possible, for safety’s sake.

On the professional front, every type of organization is experiencing new challenges and threats. Membership organizations are in a special situation, facing business challenges coupled with a responsibility to serve members with changing needs. I’m seeing organizations in the healthcare field step up and advocate passionately for their members and constituents, demanding the supplies and working conditions they need to be safe and fulfill their mission.

What else can membership organizations do to help their constituents when so much is in flux? Here are some ideas.

Take nonessential things off their plates—and yours. At a time when we may be stretched to the limit and facing information overload, adaptation is easier when we can offload nonessential tasks and eliminate distractions. Let’s talk about email. If you and your members are anything like me, you’re getting emails from all directions—more than ever. Some of the emails are important and time-sensitive (closures, cancellations, health guidelines, more cancellations), and some of them are just ‘noise,’ like COVID-19-related announcements from businesses you may have patronized only once. (Shoutout to the smoothie place I visited once last summer . . . and, Unsubscribe.)

None of us needs more emails creating ‘noise in the channel,’ nor do you need to spend time writing them. So, stop all your nonessential emails for a couple of weeks until things settle.

Knowing when to communicate less is actually a discipline you can retain long after the current pandemic abates. In the website redesigns I lead, this is a constant theme—what disused content can we eliminate (and not worry about producing and maintaining anymore), so we can focus on what’s really valued?

Another example: I’m on the board of a small not-for-profit, whose executive director was struggling to find the writing time and content for a weekly newsletter. I implored her to look at readership analytics, survey her distribution list members, and see if she could transition to a monthly newsletter instead. In the end, readers were amenable and have been happy with the the monthly newsletter, which contains more valuable information than the weekly format. And the executive director is more productive now that she has regained time for strategic pursuits.

Ease some worries. We all have more than enough to worry about these days. Some of our worries are caused by unpredictability and the unknown. Membership organizations are in a position to remove some of these worries by being decisive and taking off some pressures. For example, one of my association clients deferred membership renewal fees for the time being, to ensure their members (first-line healthcare providers) would continue to have access to members-only clinical and practice-related content and discussions while treating COVID-19 patients.

In addition to membership renewal dates, there may be other deadlines you have control over—exam dates, nomination deadlines, etc. Give extensions. And set expectations about when to expect an update on any rescheduled dates and deadlines. Which brings me to the matter of conferences. Having nervously awaited updates on conferences I was planning to attend and present at, I urge you to . . .

Make event decisions as early as possible. Whatever you decide to do about your in-person events—cancel, postpone, or convert to online formats—do it early and be clear about refunds and other logistics. This will ease the minds of attendees, speakers, and sponsors or exhibitors, not to mention staff.

If you do convert your event to online, think about what mix of online tools would create the right experience. You could have presentations and smaller breakout meetings (as are available in Zoom), virtual posters, collaborative exercises (using a tool such as You could repurpose your conference app for announcements, attendee networking, and making presentation materials available. Be creative—we’re all having to improvise now.

Ask members what they need. This should be part of your usual practice, but if it’s not, adopt a member- and user-centered approach now. Use informal and formal means of gauging your members’ needs and mindset. What are their primary concerns? What are their most pressing needs? Ask your customer service and membership staff what members and customers are calling and emailing about. Look at search analytics to see what they are searching for that brings them to your site and what they search for once they get there. Look at your web analytics for usage trends. See what people are discussing in your online community and other online forums for your profession. Ask your committees what they are seeing in the field. Distribute a short survey (just a few questions) on your website and as an add-on to essential communications, and say it’s your way of asking what members need right now so you can best help them.

There are other remote research techniques that can be employed, as well, such as interviews, focus groups, card sorts, and navigation tests. I use these routinely as part of website assessments and redesign projects. The point is to choose methods that are respectful of people’s time, so you can find out what your constituents need and meet them where they are.

Stay in touch & embrace improvisation. We may be keeping a safe physical distance (please!), but we need each other, perhaps more than ever. Membership organizations have a special role to play in helping make sure their members and customers have the support, resources, and advocacy that will help them weather these trying times. Actively listening, anticipating the needs of members and customers, and being flexible are key. Look, none of us have done this before. We’re bringing our whole selves to work as never before—our worries and fears, but also our ideas, strengths, creativity, compassion, and oh, yeah—our kids and pets! Improvisation can feel weird, but remember it’s how we get jazz. When we improvise together, beautiful things can happen.

Do your best to show your members, customers, and colleagues that we’re in this together. Ask what they need, and do your best to meet those needs in the near term so that with them on board, you can continue to fulfill your mission in the longer term.


Photo credit: Frederik Trovatten on Unsplash