Leading During a Pandemic: A New Normal for Partnerships

An association at the heart of the coronavirus crisis has been building meaningful partnerships, if faster than it would like.

We can’t get through this alone.

There’s something paradoxical in saying that, at a time when many of us are living under statewide stay-at-home orders and working remotely. But the coronavirus pandemic has a revived conversation that many of you likely recall from the Great Recession—how can we work with other organizations to get through this?

Back then, partnership conversations tended to circle around agreements to join forces for conferences and events, if not proposals to outright merge associations. We may yet come to that point. For the moment, though, the partnership conversation may need to be more broad and urgent, focused on what particular needs members are facing right now.

Where we feel that we can be the lead in this, we’re going to lead.

As the CEO of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, Chris Busky, CAE, is leading an association in the heart of the crisis. “We’re getting hit from every possible direction from a vast array of members seeking clinical guidance,” he told me late last month. To that end, the typical staff playbook has needed rapid revision. “We’ve had daily management team meetings to talk about how we can take staff from areas that are not quite as busy, or programs that we’ve deferred or canceled this year, and reallocate some of those staff resources.”

Some of those adjustments are focused on communication with members—IDSA has launched a podcast focused on COVID-19, for instance. But building bridges with other groups is just as urgent. IDSA has been working with the CDC, NIH, and FDA to provide clinical guidance on the pandemic, and it’s also developed partnerships with related medical associations to advocate collectively on behalf of their members. In late March, for example, IDSA partnered with four other infectious-disease groups to press the White House to use the Defense Production Act and facilitate the production of essential medical equipment. (Last Thursday, the White House issued an order under the act to facilitate the manufacture of masks and respirators.)

Since then, IDSA has partnered with the HIV Medicine Association to speak out on social distancing guidelines and encourage data-driven policymaking around the pandemic. These partnerships are more hasty and ad hoc than usual, but Busky says the times demand collective action if it can be done efficiently and meaningfully.

“We need to move quickly, and where we feel that we can be the lead in this, we’re going to lead,” he says. “We will ask people to partner with us, but we don’t have time to wait for folks. Typically, we would all agree on what [a partnership] looks like and move forward, but those days, at least for the next couple months, are gone. We need to figure out what we need to do now for members and lead. If it’s not something that’s going to provide significant ROI for our members in the short term, we just don’t have the bandwidth to do it. So it’s a little bit different than how we would approach collaborations and partnerships in the past.”

Partnerships around advocacy are nothing new in the association world. But at a time when a lot of noise surrounds the conversation about the pandemic response, that kind of show of collective force may be more essential. Busky, for his part, says he’ll pursue those partnerships to better support the concerns facing his association’s members.

“There’s simply not enough infectious disease positions in the marketplace to treat patients, and there’s no stronger evidence than a pandemic to put an exclamation point on that,” he says.

(Ivan Bajic/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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