The Emerging Impact of COVID-19 on Associations

Alliance LogoFounded and led by  Association Laboratory Inc, the Alliance is a collaboration of nearly 20 state, national, specialty and global societies of association executives partnering to investigate, lead the discussion of and provide insight into the future of the association business model.


In July, I spoke with a group of association executives about the future of the association business model given the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the time, the focus was on the immediate impact. Will we survive? Will our new ideas to adapt work? Will I have a job?

It is critical to begin looking up from our desks and start identifying the changes that will shape the decisions of association leaders for years to come.

In response and in cooperation with the Association Laboratory Research Alliance, Association Laboratory began working on Looking Forward™ 2021, the 10th edition of the company’s globally recognized environmental scan of the association strategy environment.   

In August, Association Laboratory conducted a qualitative investigation involving leaders of state, specialty, and global societies of association executives.

Our goal? To begin identifying how the business environment shaping associations and their members will be different.

The following identifies some of the most critical themes identified in this research. Themes that will be tested in-depth during a comprehensive quantitative survey to be conducted in November/December 2020.

Price/Future Investment Insecurity

The future environment will be characterized by economic disruption and uncertainty. This means we don’t know how much money we need to weather the storm or for how long we’ll need it.

Prior to COVID-19, all of us had business assumptions about our current and future programmatic success and financial performance. We used these assumptions to guide decisions.

Now though, we only have questions.

  • What will be next year’s renewal rate?
  • Will we be able to have, let alone make, the same amount of money for our annual conference next year?
  • Will the new virtual event, if currently free, be sustainable if we start to charge?
  • How can I diversify my revenue sources?

Historical guidance on future program and financial performance is effectively worthless.

Looking forward, association leaders will need to develop more sophisticated assessments of their known and unknown risk, guiding everything from staff and membership models to program development to investment strategy.

The Relationship between People – Space – Time

I often visit The Dock, a beachside restaurant in Chicago.

Due to social distancing regulations, they can allow in about half as many people as their space can accommodate. In an attempt to increase customer turnover, they limit time at the table to 90 minutes. The relationship of people, space and time is fundamental to their most important question. Will we survive?

But it isn’t just restaurants. This relationship is also critical in manufacturing, where machinery may be based on the number of operators on a shop floor producing products at a particular rate. It impacts surgical suites requiring a distinct number of professionals within a defined space to treat a patient. It also impacts how association members connect and network with colleagues, formally or informally.

Looking forward, the more your members’ professional and business assumptions are based on a certain number of people, operating within a finite or fixed physical space and influenced by a defined time period, the more likely they will be impacted by COVID-19.

The impact on associations is more localized opportunities and the infrastructures/technology that supports virtual networking and engagement. In addition, your association will need to continue to be creative as you add in-person events back into the mix, using the knowledge about putting on a virtual meeting to create more hybrid activities.

A New Take on “Centralization”

Hotels rely on you to come to their property. Downtown office buildings rely on suburban commuters traveling to leased, centralized offices. From work, to school to fun and exercise, much of our assumptions revolve around people living, working, or playing in a centralized location.

That centralization has shifted a bit as more individuals work from home or visit fewer places. If I live in a suburb, going “downtown” may be the closest neighborhood to my home instead of an urban “downtown.”

Looking forward, we can anticipate a shift in customer behavior and human congregation resulting in a society that operates in a smaller geographical area with fewer touchpoints. 

The impact on associations might be that you no longer need to invest in office space as your organization has shifted successfully to a remote workspace. You might be holding in-person meetings in smaller, more suburban locations where your members live rather than in the urban cores where they once worked.

Think Local

With centralization in mind, economic disruption also makes travel less likely. When you don’t have money or time, you are less likely to travel.

In addition, though, consider the psychology of travel. Are people comfortable confining themselves to trains or planes? Will your employer risk your infection and resulting lost work time?  Think of potential policy restrictions such as mandatory quarantines upon returning from a particular place. Think of the challenges navigating the new travel rules and the patchwork of different and varying regulations.

Looking forward, there are going to be disincentives to travel that will add up to more localized opportunities for education, professional development, and networking. This may mean working more effectively with national, state, and local entities (think educational institutions) or more directly with employers. 

From Cells to Centralized

For some, a normal day used to look like this.

We woke up and traveled to the office. We left the office to walk (or drive) to a restaurant for lunch. After work, a few hours at the health club helped us burn off some stress. Later, after a quick drink at the bar, we went home.

For our kids, substitute school for office, after school sports for the health club. Not sure if your kids drink at bars yet.

Our day’s activity revolved around a collection of cells that separated work, entertainment, kids’ school pick up/drop off, health, etc. Each cell had a purpose. Travel between the cells was a big part of our day to decompress and re-energize.

Looking forward, we can anticipate an increased focus on opportunities for wellness, necessary for those remote workers–where the home becomes the center of work, school, recreation, exercise, and education–as well as those industries and professions where employees are grappling with income/job loss or working overtime.

Automation Incentives

One of many new phrases we now use frequently is “contactless.” You see it at restaurants or shops that promote contactless delivery. The service offering is being designed to minimize or eliminate human interaction.

For example, at a coffee shop near my house, you can only order online via an app. Your delivery is brought to a counter and left for pick up. No money exchanges hands. No person interacts with you.

On our previously mentioned shop floor, we’re reminded that just because you can’t have enough people in the room doesn’t mean you get to stop producing a product. The manufacturer needs to figure out how to maintain production with fewer people in the space.

Looking forward, we can anticipate businesses exploring the use of automation to cut costs, reduce human interaction and maintain production within a defined space impacted by social distancing or related requirements.

Accelerating Innovation

By now, everyone has modified an in-person event, made their office virtual or updated their Bylaws to allow for electronic voting. They’ve taken on things that would have been unthinkable in the past without 12 committees, a survey and two Board meetings.

The point? Regardless of circumstances, associations need to continually innovate to remain relevant.

Looking forward, associations will have to be more  focused on understanding their audiences and in delivering relevant value.

How long will this all last?

Early in the pandemic we often used the phrase, “when this is all over” to discuss what we’d do. Where we’d travel. Who we’d see on our first trip.

We now know the pandemic doesn’t come with an on/off switch. There is no fourth quarter to get through. We’ve now witnessed first-hand how businesses from our local restaurant to hospitals and schools have adjusted.

The big question isn’t how long the pandemic will last but how much of these changes are permanent?

Looking forward, the more money a business has spent on adapting to the pandemic, the more likely the change is to be permanent.

You don’t spend millions of dollars putting up Plexiglas shields throughout your branches, factories, or restaurants, just to take them down. You don’t re-engineer the manufacturing space, just to put it all back the way it was.

Today, the leaders of the Association Laboratory Research Alliance are looking up from their desks. They are starting to see the results of their actions. They are witnessing just a taste of the success they’ll enjoy as they roll out lessons learned across their organization.

During the last few months, I’ve witnessed no end to the adaptability and creativity of the association sector and the companies that serve them.

While the pandemic has tested us, it has not bested us.

I’m excited to see how much better the people and organizations committed to Mission-based success become as they continue to adapt the association business model to take the future environment into account.

I’m looking forward to sharing the results of Looking Forward 2021 in January.

Save the Date – January 21, 2021

On January 21, 2021 from 11 am – 2 pm CST, Association Laboratory will release the results of Looking Forward 2021 at a complimentary hybrid event at the OLC Center in Rosemont, IL. This unique event coupled with a nation-wide broadcast will provide different interpretations of the data from trade, professional and other perspectives. Participants will learn what factors impact members, the implications on association strategy and what associations are doing to be successful.

Ask your state, specialty, or other society of association executives about their plans for a satellite event. More details to be posted on Nov. 9, 2020, at

In the meantime, follow Dr. Dean’s prescription. Sit down, have a drink and remember that this too shall pass. Just some thoughts from my seat at the (home) bar.