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After coronavirus: a new dawn for international associations?

The upheaval caused by COVID-19 presents international associations with a golden opportunity to influence policy and help shape a better future – but will they grasp it? By James Lancaster…

In many ways, associations are perfectly placed to help reshape the world as it emerges from lockdown. They are repositories of expertise and best practice. They are trusted curators of information. They connect people from all over the world. And they provide lifelong learning after university. But, while many associations are adept at influencing policy – were, in fact, set up for that very purpose – others, it seems, are hamstrung by old-fashioned governance structures and a myopic view of why they exist in the first place.

Nikki Walker, VP Global Associations Management, MCI Group, says it is imperative that these associations recognise the current crisis as an opportunity to reinvent themselves.

“Associations have influenced and continue to influence policy, but COVID-19 is forcing associations to think differently. It’s a moment where they have to speed up and become more digitally savvy, more connected online, more engaging, and more willing to let members decide how they want to engage with them. Through absolute necessity it is a time when associations must rethink, transform and, basically, become more modern.”

She says there are positive signs associations are now ‘thinking outside the box’, in terms of cross-sector or cross-specialty collaboration, and this bodes well for the future.

“If you take the healthcare associations, they have grown up around the specialty of every single organ inside the body, but our body is one mass of connected tissues. So they get deeper and deeper into their specialty and then they realise that of course, their organ affects another organ, that affects another organ, and so a lot of the healthcare associations do now come together for very specialist discussions around the effect of, say, kidney failure on diabetes, for example. And there is no difference with the trade associations. Associations are realising that collaborations are really important in terms of influencing the external market and adding value to their members and stakeholders.”

Jane Cunningham, Director Community Engagement BestCities Global Alliance, agrees that associations need to form partnerships, including with cities and convention bureaux, to better communicate the positive impact their work has on society, and the suspension of normal activity resulting from the coronavirus pandemic is a perfect time to make changes.

“Associations are experimenting,” she says. “For example, they are seeing that, by doing some activities online, they are, in some cases, attracting a much, much wider audience. Similarly, it’s a time for associations to start thinking about how they can leverage partnerships in a different way, maybe partnerships with media, that are also interested in the greater, more purposeful impact of what they do, or maybe with corporations, whether it be in tech, or healthcare, or whatever, and really take the lead in these engagements.”

Martin Sirk, international adviser at the Global Associations Hubs Partnership, says the unresolved nature of the world after COVID-19 could be fertile ground for associations.

“There is going to be a huge focus, all away across the world, on solving societal problems, and those can be healthcare related, scientific, or environmental. So many more people are now aware of the critical nature of the major issues that face us and associations have this opportunity, because of the way they connect people around the world, and how they connect different disciplines, to become the solution engines to solve these problems.”

He adds: “These are not things that individual national governments are going to be solving alone, or individual companies are going to be solving, so the nature of associations is going to be a huge advantage for them – if they can grasp hold of it. There also going to be greater demand for continued lifelong learning. That’s not going to change. People want to make sense of the world and associations can step into that gap in a way that universities can’t.”

So, what could prevent associations ‘grasping’ this opportunity, as Sirk puts it?

Frédéric Soudain, managing director of Brussels-based public affairs consultancy Logos-PA, says the structure of associations often impedes their ability to influence the world around them.

“There are certain associations that are less and less fit for the way the world is evolving, the speed of policy-making. Historically the trade associations at EU level were created by putting together the national industry associations that were representing the sector at national level, but this type of association (federation) is not always very quick or agile in influencing what’s going on.”

Walker agrees: “Federations that have governance changing every two or three years are not effective. How can you make decisions that need to be made daily, weekly, monthly, if you’re governance structure only allows you to make serious decisions once a year or every two years?”

If some trade associations are hampered by their unwieldy structures, they are, at least, set up to influence policymakers and tend to have experienced business people sitting on the board.

“Medical or individual professional member associations tend to be much slower to react to events,” says Walker, “and the governance doesn’t necessarily have the skill-set to be managing large, complex organisations – they are there because they are a good engineer or a good doctor.”

Soudain says he has seen various trends, which suggests the old structures are being supplanted.

“When the corporate world wants to go fast it may decide to create its own vehicles to influence policy by setting up its own trade associations at European level without involving the national associations, and we can see this with the creation of the 5GAA – the 5G Automotive Association, which was set up to bring together car makers and telecoms companies to make travel safer. There’s another trend when existing associations want to go fast in influencing a certain area of policy they form for agile campaign, in order to push the EU to act.  But another trend we are seeing when it comes to new sectors or sectors that the EU deems to be strategically important, is that it is the EU itself, the commissioners, who are often behind creating the sector association.”

Cunningham says associations need to be thinking about how they can engage their members in a way that affects change.

“It would be good to see more movement in associations, in terms of giving younger members, but not just younger members, a real voice. Setting up task forces, for example, where people can affect change, so it’s not about the old power set-up with the volunteer board but giving everyone throughout the association community the opportunity to have a say, so they feel more empowered. People want to work in an environment where they feel they are making difference.”

Besides structural reform, there is consensus that associations need to become ‘better communicators’ or more ‘media savvy’ if they are to fulfill their potential as policy-shapers.

Says Walker: “Associations don’t use the media as much as they should. They are not using their communications or public relations departments, if they have them, to full effect. It’s one thing to have your own advocacy and lobbying efforts but the reality is, without that pressure, that so often comes from the media and public awareness about issues, you might not get very far.”

This depends on the association having a cause the public is sympathetic towards, of course.

“Too much visible lobbying can be seen as not very positive,” cautions Soudain. “So that’s why a lot of associations tend to do their advocacy programme, but without using the media too much.”

Meetings are still the main vehicle for most associations to engage with their members and raise awareness of their goals and objectives, but here, too, there is work to be done.

Says Cunningham: “Meetings will need to be more compelling. There needs to be ‘the reason why I need to be there’. Who am I going to meet and what is the intended outcome of my attending? The formats of meetings will change. Not so many ‘talk from the front’ style sessions, but more facilitated engagement to ensure that people are getting what they need.”

Sirk concludes: “I have one hope for the future and that’s that we become much better at measuring and communicating the impact of our events, finding metrics that are able to look at ‘problems solved’, ‘healthcare solutions found, lives saved. It’s very tricky, but before COVID-19 hit there were a lot of initiatives moving in this direction. And as we rebuild if we don’t focus on the impacts then we won’t get the support that’s necessary. I’m optimistic that the smart associations are going to embrace this whole area. They will realise that if their meetings aren’t solving problems then there is no reason for that meeting to exist.”