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  • Sue Thorn

COVID-19 and associations

Most people agree that COVID-19 is likely to cause people across the world to re-examine assumptions and behaviours. It’s unlikely that any of us will be the same people afterwards that we were before. We will re-examine our ways of working, our travel behaviour, our patterns of consumption. The current situation poses a range of threats to membership organisations, both immediately and permanently.

In some membership organisations, members may face short- or long-term financial difficulties and may need to rethink their membership subscriptions; they will be unable to attend events in the short-term, may be unwilling to commit to them in the medium-term, and may even change their behaviours permanently. Even in academe, where jobs are mostly not under threat and pay is being protected, there will be pressures and re-evaluations, and people’s behaviours will change for ever. Where there are major changes afoot, such as in journal publishing, it’s conceivable that winds of change will speed up adoption of new models as people embrace a mindset of change.

Of course, threats also open up opportunities and it is the organisations that support their members most actively over the coming months that will be the ones members are likely to support afterwards. Many members will have been extremely busy during the last few weeks, shutting down offices and labs, ensuring infrastructure will support employees working from home and dealing with other immediate issues. However, over the next few weeks, many will have more time to start thinking about how they can continue to work and network productively over the next few months.

I have been working to support several of my clients to navigate this maze. I will look at two aspects to the issue:

1. What immediate problems do members have and what action should an association take over the next few months?

2. What are the longer-term implications for delivery of services?

What immediate problems do members have and what action should an association take?

The boards of associations should be aware of some of the issues their members will face, especially early career members, but why not ask the members themselves? One of my clients has sent a prompt message of support from the President, assuring members that action will be taken to support them, including repurposed and new grants, if required. The message linked to a two-question survey and provided contact details for members who might need to talk to someone. This has already raised their profile as being actively concerned to look after members. Some associations may need to give members a ‘dues holiday’ or provide some usually paid-for service free in the short term at least. This will vary from association to association.

The association mentioned above is a scientific research society, so members’ employment will be mostly protected, but one can still anticipate issues: how can scientists, especially early-career researchers, keep up momentum in their work when they cannot start any new experiments? How can they network so as not to disappear without trace among colleagues? What if they have applied for a new role and cannot travel for interview?

This association, in addition to asking members what they need, is already working with its early career reps to develop a programme of web-based activities over the next six months, to keep members active and engaged. There will also be grants to members who have gaps in employment to enable them to produce content for the association, such as education resources. If required, they will also produce a guide to video interviews and conduct mock interviews. The newsletter will also be increased in frequency and will contain light-hearted material as well as the usual content. All this is a big challenge to a small society, but they are in no doubt that they need to take these actions promptly.

Forthcoming events are another important issue. Although most people hope that they will be allowed to start circulating again by July/August, associations with events in the autumn need to think carefully about the timelines involved. If members need to register, and submit abstracts, several months before, then how likely are they to do so if uncertainty still remains? If the event is postponed, what are the implications for other future events? One of my clients was planning a meeting in late September in association with a European sister organisation. The other society informed them that they were still planning for the meeting to go ahead. However, my client felt they could not encourage their members to register or make travel arrangements several months in advance of that, given that these would not be covered by insurance and could not be repaid by the association if the event had to be cancelled. They decided, regretfully, that they would have to inform the other society that they were withdrawing.

What are the longer-term implications, especially for delivery of services?

As mentioned at the start, behaviours and requirements are likely to change permanently as a result of COVID-19. Associations will need to review their meeting provision, their membership offering and, really, everything about what they do. Immediate decisions are not needed, not desirable, but the programme of special activities over the next few months can be used to gain technological knowhow and to evaluate members’ responses to new kinds of services. So, deciding on the short-term programme with a view to long-term requirements makes really good sense.


A word here about charities. Charitable associations need to be careful to ensure that their actions are delivering public benefit, not private benefit. To take a scientific research charity as an example, grants given to produce content for educational use are fine, as are online educational activities themselves. Help with interview technique also delivers public benefit by ensuring that good scientists are equipped with the skills needed to get good jobs and thus move their subject forward to the greater public benefit. However, assistance that would provide private benefit, such as covering members’ costs already disbursed for cancelled events, giving personal financial assistance, etc, are unlikely to be considered charitable.

It’s also true that a lot of academic associations have substantial reserves and some trustee boards tend to view these as inviolable. But there is absolutely no point in a reserve that can never be used. The point of declaring a required reserve is not to hold funds above that sum, not to avoid ever dipping into it. A time of crisis – if this is a time of crisis for your association or for its members, and that will vary between associations – is exactly the time not to stint on using reserves to support the association’s remit, should this be necessary. Of course, restricted funds still cannot be used outside their remit, but designated funds defined by the trustees can be redefined by them if the constitution allows.

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