Editors note: The Effects of COVID-19 on Associations is a five-part industry assessment.
For the first 45 days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the leadership team at the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP) halted the majority of the organization’s output as they prioritized evaluation. But that didn’t mean they went completely silent.
During this period, SCUP launched new public Slack channels as a “greater good” set of conversations to help connect the higher education and planning community, as well as a ListServ network for SCUP members to provide a connection point for members to collaborate and co-create solutions.
For years, SCUP has provided laptops and software-based phones to employees, hired out-of-state help and created an environment that accepts and prioritizes the need for flexibility. Because, as SCUP President Mike Moss said, the organization has focused on the value of its culture for years, this association has stayed true to its values with every decision.
“It’s not hollow words, this is our culture,” Moss said as he became emotional describing the familial connections he has with his team, and the passion they have for their industry. “Now I’m super focused on the fact that we exist for the right reason, and it’s being aligned with the industry.”
Because SCUP may have been ahead of the crowd in establishing these values and flexibility, the organization used those first 45 days to support its members. By the middle of May, SCUP had just piloted its first virtual facilitation of an annual two-day, in-person event and decided to transform it into a permanent product instead. The organization also began to roll out 14 COVID-19 specific recordings of voices from the field, which it filmed in the first three weeks of the crisis.
As uncertain as the future has been – and may continue to be – associations like the Society for College and University Planning that have stayed true to their organization’s core purpose have stood strong under pressure. These core foundations were built on value statements and purposes that could serve as a North Star for when the world might seem to crumble around us — which is exactly the sort of challenge the pandemic has created.
“I don’t know if it’s ‘new normal,’ ‘next normal,’ or just ‘next,’” said Moss. “This unfortunate situation has actually brought a lot of clarity to what (the future) will look like. I think the COVID-19 pandemic has allowed this association, and the institutions we serve, to have a much better alignment on a core set of values and how we can serve each other.”
As the CEO of Conscious Capitalism Inc. – an organization that espouses a way of thinking about capitalism and business to better reflect where we are in the human journey, the state of our world today, and the innate potential of business to make a positive impact on the world – Alexander McCobin is no stranger to the importance of an organization’s values.
“There is a whole new economy about to start up when we get back to business, for both for-profits and nonprofits,” said McCobin during a keynote interview for Sidecar’s SURGE Connect virtual conference. “It’s going to be one that emphasizes the human nature of business even more.”
COVID-19 has also allowed for associations’ leadership teams to begin self-auditing to identify where and how they can shift priorities, and money, elsewhere to better fulfill their purposes and serve members more quickly.
“This is also an opportunity to remember why you exist, to cut any fat out that you can that might’ve been there just because it was legacy,” says McCobin. “This is the time for organizations to lean into their purpose, why they exist in the first place, more than ever.”
With a vision of all children having access to the “learning, behavior, and mental health support needed to thrive in school, at home, and throughout life,” it’s no wonder the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) dedicated its efforts to focusing supporting children and not attempting to monetize the pandemic.
NASP Director of Communications Katherine Cowan said anything her organization developed that could directly help school psychologists support their students, families and schools during the COVID-19 pandemic was released to the public for free.
With the loss of its in-person professional development opportunities for members, NASP personnel noticed their online learning center was picking up a lot of the slack. Realizing the immediate need for access to not only the organization’s COVID-19 resources, but also the association’s industry, continued education and professional advancement resources, NASP also began to offer a 50% discount for any material located in its online learning center, no matter the audience’s member status.
“We did that because our first mission is to make sure the kids are okay, that they thrive and that they get what they need,” said Cowan. “We have a public service approach towards crisis response.”
As Cowan explained, the biggest impact of COVID-19 on her organization “has to be recognition of the capacity to do things differently than we thought we needed to do them all the time.”
Even at the American Society for Association Executives (ASAE), as Lauren Precker, Senior Manager of Public Relations and Social Media, explained, the organization provided members and non-members alike with access to free online webinars to address a variety of COVID-19 related issues and they did so because they stand for helping “associations and association professionals transform society through the power of collaboration,” fulfilling their belief that associations have the power to transform society for the better.
“This has been a learning exercise for all departments within the organization,” Precker said. “We are being challenged to be creative in the ways we work, how we assist members, while still providing the programs, products, and services they have come to expect from ASAE with as little interruption as possible.”
As well as making all COVID-19 content easily accessible, ASAE decided to go a step further and extended its membership term for all members by three months at no additional cost.
As an organization whose industry has been hit hard by COVID-19, the Family Travel Association returned to its vision of inspiring and empowering families by producing a series of FTA virtual member events via Facebook Live with a goal of “bringing our community together for networking, information sharing, and mutual support.”
“We provide members with three Cs: a cause that they all believe in and they want to support, which is to get more family traveling and to have them understand all their options and discover what’s possible; a community, as there are definitely those who like to network and associate themselves with people who are like-minded and who have the same beliefs and way of looking at things as others do; then there’s the connections, and that’s perhaps one of the most important, getting connected with other members of the industry,” said Rainer Jenss, President and Founder of FTA.
In a time of uncertainty, every decision can be solved by examining an organization’s values, according to business thought leader John Spence. These values can make the decision to remove a pay wall, for example, or to discount goods and services, a clear one. These are the things that can allow organizations and their members to connect and grow during this pandemic.
“When values are clear, decisions are easy,” Spence explained during an interview for AsssociationSuccess.org’s SURGE Growth in 2019. “When you’ve got strong core values in your association and a clear vision and a painted picture of what you want to create, everybody in your organization knows how to make decisions very quickly that align with that. If you don’t have that, people are just guessing. And rarely does an organization succeed at a high level when everybody’s guessing.”
Because associations are proven industry leaders, taking this time to be hyper-focused on values and giving back has the potential to make change for the better of entire industries.
“It’s brought us all together, in a way,” said Donna Oser, President and CEO of the Michigan Society of Association Executives. “We didn’t care if they’re members or not. We were just like, ‘nope, we’re doing this for the good of the cause.’ The beauty of that is we’ve gotten very clear about who we serve.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has allowed organizations the chance to refocus on and embrace the core purpose of why associations exist, and how they can impact the world. It has shown that returning to those values actually produced positive results such as increased membership, acceleration of future plans and skyrocketing engagement.
“We’ve been able to demonstrate service to our members,” Oser stated. “There’s nothing like being able to be useful to people in a time of great need, right?”