Leading During a Pandemic: A New Landscape for Global Partnerships

COVID-19 has provided a common cause for associations looking to strengthen global connections. But some old rules still apply.

The disruptions created by the COVID-19 era present plenty of challenges, of course. But a few experts agree that there are also opportunities in the new moment for associations to better connect internationally, gaining new audiences for their offerings and bolstering their positions as thought leaders.

Last week, ASAE’s International Associations Advisory Council convened a webinar, “Global Partnerships in the COVID-19 Era,” in which participants discussed this new landscape. As ever, no one global strategy will fit all associations—going global remains a function of understanding your potential members and customers and where workers in your association’s industry can use your support. But a handful of common themes emerged from the conversation.

We saw with COVID-19 how some countries and cultures that value differences in hierarchy reacted versus more egalitarian or equal-opportunity cultures.

Look for where you need help with short-term problems. Magdalena Mook, CEO of the International Coach Federation, noted that one of the most pronounced pain points for members at the immediate moment is handling finances. So in addition to its core mission of providing training for coaches, it looked for ways to help members—who are often small-business owners—navigate options for financial relief. ICF has partnered with an association of financial advisors to provide discounted training.

“Not everybody is very skilled in the financial side of their businesses—different governments, including the U.S. government, created packages to help, but we found out very quickly that our members do not necessarily know how to take advantage of them,” Mook said. “That’s not the partnership we’d normally have, but we’ll continue it because financial aid is something our members can capitalize on not only in times of crisis but also in times of prosperity.”

Use partnerships to broadcast your authority. Joanne Joham, regional director North America for the International Congress and Convention Association, noted that partnerships with other global associations on best practices can broaden your reach in meaningful ways. For instance, last week ICCA released a white paper on reopening business events that it coproduced with two other international convention associations, AIPC and UFI. The shared project at once introduces all three associations to new audiences and establishes them as knowledge leaders on a critical subject.

A country’s COVID-19 response can be revealing. Countries have different ideas about what common association terms like “volunteering” and “membership” mean, which is why U.S. associations are cautioned to do their homework about a country’s culture before exploring partnerships. Şirin Köprücü, principal at the association consultancy StrategicStraits, suggested taking a look at a country’s approach to COVID-19 as a window to how leaders there might think about partnering.

“We saw with COVID-19 how some countries and cultures that value differences in hierarchy reacted versus more egalitarian or equal-opportunity cultures,” she said. “One has set rules, the other one encourages volunteerism. It’s very important [for potential partners] to see associations’ role as empathetic leaders… , that there’s a true curiosity about the needs of the markets and the cultures of the markets.”

Some of the old rules about partnership-building still apply. In a country like China, a local presence still matters, said Steven Basart, vice president, Asia, at the association management company Kellen. And your association’s newfound enthusiasm for Zoom won’t matter much in a country where WeChat is dominant. “In the case of China, I think it’s even more essential to ensure your activities are endorsed by a Chinese partner or a local government to ensure legitimacy or acceptance,” he said. “The activities, the drivers, the business objectives that are motivating their strategies are very different, even though they may be your primary, local counterparts.”

So though virtual conferences and webinars can help bridge global gaps, making headway globally may still require a CEO to step on a plane. “I think it’s very important for senior leadership to meet with the senior leadership of your partners and have delegation visits,” Basart said. “And when your leadership is not in-country, to be under speed-dial for your partner and have that local relationship.”

Have you been able to cultivate global partnerships during the pandemic? Share your experiences in the comments.

(123dartist/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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