What to Do When Disaster Strikes Your Members

After nearly three weeks of natural disasters, many associations are responding by offering support and resources to members in some of the hardest-hit storm zones—prioritizing what and how they communicate to keep the focus on recovery.

Almost three weeks ago, Elizabeth George, director of membership, development, and engagement for the Shop! Association, was busy reaching out to members affected by Hurricane Harvey.

The trade association, which represents more than 2,000 retailers, identified six members in Houston, and a key lifeline for these members, George says, was the Shop! online member community.

“That’s the nice thing about a collaborative platform like this,” she says. “We created an open post and said, we’re thinking of you, please keep us up to date, and let us know how you’re doing.”

That post took off as a way for members to ask for and lend a hand, offering rapid-response assistance. This week, George finds herself on the receiving end of well wishes and member messages.

Her organization, based in Hollywood, Florida, weathered the effects of Hurricane Irma last weekend. The office is still closed and without power, but George says she’s feeling grateful that her lights (as of Tuesday) are back on at home. She’s already back to work remotely, checking emails and the online community, learning how her 27 Florida members weathered the storm.

When disaster hits, it’s no surprise that associations are at the forefront of relief efforts. Whether it’s helping to restore power after Irma, installing air filters in schools smothered by smoke from western wildfires, or  raising funds for flood victims in Texas, many associations see crisis response as consistent with their mission.

That’s especially true, of course, when you have members in a disaster zone. Aside from concerns about their safety and the condition of their homes or businesses, you may also be thinking through whether you should temporarily modify your routine interactions with them. It might not be the best time, after all, to send a dues notice.

Last week in Collaborate [ASAE member login required], two posts detailed examples of how associations are responding to members’ needs. Here’s a quick recap of some tips about vital member communications, support, and services that association professionals have shared in the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma:

Adjust your outreach efforts. Start by adjusting or suppressing your messages to affected members, says Elizabeth Engel, CAE, CEO and chief strategist at Spark Consulting, LLC. In a blog post last week, she recommended that associations consider suspending certain email communications, especially for campaign or automated messages about membership renewal, conference registration, new publications, and upcoming professional development opportunities. The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development reported that it has temporarily paused mailings to members in some of the hardest-hit regions. Given the extent of the damage, it might take days for normal mail delivery to resume in certain ZIP codes. The U.S. Postal Service has posted information about which ZIP codes have been affected.

Reach out to your members. Many associations are simply asking: Are you OK? The American Association for Justice set up an online form after Hurricane Harvey, asking members in southeast Texas whether they needed assistance with office space or housing. In other instances, associations are posting messages in their online communities or sending direct emails to members. Often these come addressed from the CEO, expressing concern and outlining an action plan for those affected by extreme weather.

Extend or cover dues renewal. It can take months to rebuild after a natural disaster, and your hardest-hit members probably aren’t thinking about membership renewal. Many associations, including the Association of Rehabilitation Nurses, are extending renewals, based on members’ location. That might mean offering a few extra months to renew or waiving dues for members requesting financial support.

Resurface toolkits, tip sheets, and resources. In many cases, your association may be able to help members and support disaster response efforts by resurfacing existing content online. The National Association of School Psychologists maintains a collection of digital resources to help teachers and parents with children who have experienced trauma from a natural disaster. And the American Lung Association maintains a web page that provides practical tips for avoiding smoke inhalation once a wildfire has spread. Many of these resources can be made especially visible when shared on social media platforms.

Establish a vetted way to help members financially. Some members recovering after a disaster may experience financial hardship. After Hurricane Harvey hit, the American Academy of Dermatology set up a specialized loan program for members, setting aside $300,000 for those in Texas faced with financial losses not covered by insurance. The Harvey loan assistance program offers $25,000 for members and $5,000 for graduate members who demonstrate a need for financial help.

How are you getting involved to help your members recover from Harvey and Irma, or how have you responded in past disasters? What are some other needs to keep in mind? Please post your comments in the thread below.

(bauhaus1000/Getty Images Plus)

Tim Ebner

By Tim Ebner

Tim Ebner is a senior editor for Associations Now. He covers membership, leadership, and governance issues. Email him with story ideas or news tips. MORE

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