Why Giving Members a Space to Build Community Is Essential

Associations became a lifeline for members when they needed it most. Having a place to build and foster relationships highlighted the necessity of communities. Three association professionals share their stories and lessons learned in crisis—and beyond.

A panel of membership experts recently convened on a webinar, “Re-Booting the Membership Experience,” hosted by the New York Society of Association Executives, to discuss how their organizations reacted after the start of the pandemic to deliver value to their members and—more importantly—what’s still working.

Keep Delight Alive

When its whole sector shut down in March 2020, speed, proximity to its members, and understanding what they were going through was a main priority, said Stephanie McAlaine, executive director at the Wharton Private Equity & Venture Capital Association. Like many associations at the time, Wharton PE/VC had to drive the value of membership and respond quickly to requests from members on how to handle the multiple challenges they faced.

Wharton PE/VC quickly put together a weekly, 12-part series called “What’s Happening Now” to help members navigate what the mergers and acquisitions markets were doing. Members logged in from all over the country, which highlighted the benefits of a virtual environment that kept members connected with each other and the organization at a critical time.

“Relationships matter so much,” McAlaine said. “In our industry, you don’t do a multimillion-dollar deal with someone that you don’t trust, and you don’t know.”

But one webinar series does not solve everything. The reality is, McAlaine’s team had to tweak the model about every two to three months so they could stay current with changes. The market is changing so rapidly and “so is what people expect and demand from you, and what will delight them,” she said. “That amazing series you delivered in March might not be as amazing in June.” So, Wharton PE/VC has continued to evolve, stay close to members, and listen to keep the offerings relevant. “It’s hard and you have to be nimble,” McAlaine said.

Silver Linings Playbook

The Association of National Advertisers also switched on a dime to virtual, including its conferences. ANA will host its signature Masters of Marketing Conference in-person and virtually this year, but last year, it was all virtual. ANA usually gets 3,000 in-person attendees but garnered 6,000 participants last year. “It was incredible, it doubled,” said Pamela Weess, CAE, ANA’s director of membership.

What the group learned—the “silver linings playbook,” as Wees calls it—is that for most of its conferences only a senior person was approved to attend. But in a virtual space, ANA was able to offer a virtual corporate package, which meant many junior and middle-management participants were able to attend who never would have been approved to go before the pandemic.

Now, when everyone is talking about how to recruit and keep good talent, allowing that access for those participants might encourage them to stay in the profession or with a company, Weess said. It lowers financial and logistical barriers and increases access to resources for a broader swath of existing and potential members.

Shelter in the Storm

With many archivists losing their jobs during the pandemic, the Society of American Archivists reached out to its membership to create a fundraising program for members to assist each other, said SAA Executive Director Jacqualine Price Osafo, CAE. The program offered members $1,000, and 185 members accessed the funds.

“The community came together to support the membership,” she said. “We created a platform, a space for them.” The platform allowed members to show up for each other and help them through hard times.

These stories illuminate the “power that our organizations have as a collective community to provide the individual connections and relationships that allow our members to find one another in times of need,” said panelist Lowell Aplebaum, FASAE, CAE, CEO and strategy catalyst at Vista Cova. Those platforms help build relationships that are often deeper and more meaningful than just engaging through programs, products, and services.

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Lisa Boylan

By Lisa Boylan

Lisa Boylan is a senior editor of Associations Now. MORE

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