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How Associations Turned the Lemon of a Pandemic into  Lemonade

How Associations Turned the Lemon of a Pandemic into Lemonade

By Katherine Wayne

Since March of 2020, association board leaders have been confronted with leadership challenges that few could have anticipated when elected to serve in volunteer positions. From conference cancellations, member distress, and financial uncertainty, to virtual meetings, burnout, and even grief, association boards and staff have to lead differently.

But with challenge comes opportunity. And while the pandemic has created countless roadblocks for associations, there have been some unanticipated and notable successes too.

This summer, ֱ invited board leaders from the associations we manage to take part in a session on Leading and Languishing Through a Pandemic: This Is Not the Presidency I Expected.

Panelists Nicole Testa Boston, CAE, board chair of the Jorge Di Paola, MD, President of the ; and Debbie Summers, MSN RN CNNS-BS, Immediate Past President of the ; and moderator Steve Smith, MS CAE, CEO of ֱ, shared their insights and wisdom on how they successfully guided their organizations through the challenges of 2020–2021. 

While the panelists and attendees all represented different fields and industries, the session brought to light many shared experiences and similar lessons learned, along with an opportunity for leaders to reflect on a year or so of board service that wasn’t quite what they had expected or hoped for.

As the saying goes, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” And as it turns out, association boards can make some pretty great lemonade. Read on for highlights of the positive outcomes ֱ association board leaders shared during the session.

Operating at a Higher Strategic Level
In the before times (i.e., before the pandemic), it wasn’t uncommon for boards to get involved in the  operational side of an organization and mired in its everyday details. But when COVID-19 hit, boards—like many other groups—found that they had to be nimble and adapt to a rapidly changing landscape. With no playbook to follow or previous board’s experience to refer to, their focus had to shift away from operations to strategy so decisions could be made quickly. As a result, boards were able to operate at a higher strategic level than before the crisis began.

Initiating New Partnerships
No matter the industry served by their organizations—healthcare, science, or engineering—the board leaders quickly realized that COVID-19 was causing more pain points for their members than their organizations could address on their own. They needed to diversify. So, they initiated partnerships with other organizations to meet the evolving needs of their members and expand their reach to nonmembers and prospects. Keeping partnerships going in the future is something that many plan to carry over into their post-pandemic plans.

Tapping into New Revenue Streams
Few fields and industries escaped the economic impact of COVID-19, and association were no different. With revenue lost from canceled conferences and courses, associations had to look outside their typical revenue streams. They responded to this challenge by finding new ways to monetize webinars and reach audiences they haven’t reached before through virtual events and online educational offerings.  

Creating Deeper Connections
Though many board leaders missed the opportunity to connect via in-person board meetings, events, and conferences, pandemic-era travel bans and shelter in place orders didn’t lead them to feeling isolated or disengaged. Instead, social distancing had a positive (and surprising) benefit of actually bringing boards closer together (virtually, of course).

Without the structure of a physical meeting, boards and staff discovered they had to be more mindful of and deliberate about creating frequent opportunities to check in and connect with each other. Conversations shifted from focusing solely on board matters to also checking in on how others were dealing with COVID-19 challenges within their institutions, healthcare facilities, offices, and homes.

Seeing People as People
Pivot may have been the buzz word of 2020, but empathy, resilience, and self-care were key themes for the boards as they navigated one of the most challenging periods in recent times. Granting others (and themselves) grace, accommodating individual needs, and seeing people as people instead of titles or positions broke down walls. Board leaders said that throughout the first 15 months of the pandemic, they focused on how to care for their staff, teams, colleagues, and selves more than they ever had before.

There may still be a few lemons lurking as associations continue to navigate the effects of COVID-19 on their organizations and industries. But as we discovered during our Leading Through a Pandemic session, associations can persevere and even thrive during times of challenge, making lemonade out of those pesky lemons. And should something else be thrown their way besides lemons, they’ll find a way to transform that obstacle too. It’s the very nature of what leaders do.

Thank you to panelists Nicole Testa Boston, Jorge Di Paola, Debbie Summers; moderator Steve Smith;  and all of the board leader attendees and ֱ staff who participated in the session and whose open and thoughtful discussion contributed to this blog post.

Katherine Wayne is senior manager of corporate communications at ֱ.

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