How To Keep Your Association Afloat in 2009

By Kerry C. Stackpole, CAE, IOM

rapidsThe economic reality of 2008 was difficult enough, but the uncertainty of 2009 gives even the most optimistic leader among us pause. Normally, with the turn of the New Year just a day or so away, taking stock and setting a course for 2009 would already be overdue.  That said, even with budget and strategy plans in place, today’s economic reality will demand new levels of readiness, resiliency and re-adjustment moving forward. Here’s four things to consider as you navigate the economic rapids:

Think deeply about your members.  What business are they in and what’s happening to their employees, customers and marketplace?   What might happen to them in 2009? What’s going on for your members now and what’s likely to come in 2009?  Think multi-dimensional and look beyond the trends.   Imagine your industry and think about 3-D chess strategies. What can the association do to alleviate the pressures members are feeling?  What are the opportunities arising in this moment and beyond?  Chances are if your members (or their suppliers) are involved in financial services, banking, home mortgages, home building, auto manufacturing and the associated supply pipeline the effects have already been felt.  2009 will be continue to be difficult for them. Does your association have a member assistance plan for a financial crisis in your industry or profession in place?  Find ways to highlight your career center programs by offering free or low cost career counseling and job search.  Resume banks will serve a vital purpose. Even if your membership is company-based reaching out to the various internal departments (HR, supply logistics, finance) with new ideas, available services and programs will be viewed positively by members and will be a plus.

Step up your personal communications.  There’s a story that when US Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson headed up Goldman Sachs he made 50-60 phone calls just after New Year’s Day to simply say hello and share goodwill for the coming year with the firm’s top clients. Association leaders should do the same. While there’s a better than even chance you’ll get an earful about the awful economy and difficult times, there’s an equal chance you’ll strengthen the connection between members and your association.   Important caveat—there’s no need for you to add your voice to the economic woes—the media has that covered.  Stay upbeat, be an active listener and hone in on issues where you can help.  No doubt some of you reading this will say, “but we’ve got 10,000 members, we can’t call them all.” Assign senior staff 25 association members each to call.  Select members randomly from across the country.  Make the calls. Debrief with senior staff weekly. Repeat.  You’ll be surprised at how informative those discussions will be for everyone.

Prudence, pragmatism and frugality rule.  Economic uncertainty provides an ideal opportunity to engage your team in finding ways to keep a lid on expenses or exploring new ways of doing day-to-day things more efficiently. To be clear, few associations can shrink their way to success. As a leader though, you can use the moment to inculcate the notion that saving money, being efficient and considering new means to serve members productively are more than leadership cliches. Strengthen those habits now and your association will reap benefits for years to come. Set a goal to reduce copy and printer paper consumption or express and overnight mail costs. Find clever ways to minimize the backlog of documents, e-mails and electronically stored items.  Remind folks to shut off lights in empty meeting rooms and offices.  Step up your attention to thrift.

Eliminate the marginal.  The time may be right to propose eliminating the marginal programs most every association has—you know the ones—they seem to linger forever without profit or purpose because someone, somewhere is emotionally attached to them. Now is the time to move on. Make the case for eliminating redundant meetings or marginally popular events. Consider changing delivery methods for education seminars and workshops.  Members still need the knowledge and learning opportunities, but not the expense associated with traveling to them.  What can you do to help?  Associations have eliminated in-house print shops and run highly successful book sales replacing them with “just-in-time” electronic PDF or local FedEx Office (formerly FedEx Kinko’s) deliveries. There’s no reason to ship seminar or classroom materials around the country. Cut the price and deplete the inventory of overstock and slow-selling publications. Oh, and be sure to cancel the re-orders. You’d be surprised by the number of times an automated inventory system will order up products you no longer want.

Have some additional ideas you’d like to share? Leave a comment and we’ll blog about your ideas and some others in the future.

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