What’s the future for membership organisations?

The advent of COVID-19 pandemic has been a complete game changer for membership organisations.

Usually vulnerable to economic headwinds, sitting in the “subscriptions” section of the company accounts is never a great place to be. It’s often seen as a quick win in the cost cutting battle and the business case for membership can sometimes be seen as somewhat ethereal.

Having been involved in many membership organisations as an executive, Chair, Non Executive Director, advisor,  active member and more distant member it has been interesting to observe how different organisations have adapted.

One thing that  is clear, it is  that those who have reacted under the presumption that COVID is a blip and things will return to the status quo of the previous decades, are mistaken.

The pandemic has got to the very core of the way we do business and the way we behave. The influence will be here for some time to come.

If there are continuing resurgences of different strains of the virus, these influences will be more obvious but I think certain ways that we are currently doing things will remain the same. We will be masked up, continually cleaning our hands and practicing social distancing for sometime, even when the adult population has had some form of vaccination. We will also be working and meeting people remotely through Zoom and suchlike.

This then percolates into our consciousness and feeling of comfort in certain situations. Taking public transport, cramming into a bus or tube, sitting cheek by jowl in a packed venue, queuing for buffets or eating food from the same plate as it is offered around drinking sauvignon blanc, although the staple of any business/networking event, are not situations that many will feel comfortable with. The big awards dinner will also struggle to get willing participants for a while.

This type of event for some organisations is their core offering and the rug has been pulled from beneath it. If the offer of access to premises, particularly in London, is a core offering too then the pressure is on to produce something of equal perceived value.

Some have risen to the task magnificently and adapted to the “Zoom” world. Some with a policy focus, such as Make UK,  have taken massively important issues such as continuing operations despite the virus, delivering updates and information on the ever changing Brexit landscape and helping business with the challenges of net-zero and turned it into a real reason for being an active member.

Of course the downside of this for the membership organisation is that everyone benefits from the results of policy work and lobbying, not just the members but the opportunity to be on the “inside track” and to have individual concerns addressed is a valuable one.

Others have provided well thought out opportunities for members to access Continual Professional Development. I know that my CPD scores have gone through the roof in the past year!

They have also managed to get a mix of high value work content and combined it with a more casual offering “after hours”. The Royal Aeronautical Society has moved their evening branch lectures online to great effect and also probably widened the reach to parts of the membership that haven’t attended before. This factor of greater access and reach through digital delivery has dealt with the conundrum which often hampers conventional events, namely time of day and venue. This is so often subject to travel and traffic problems and the constraints and variability of the working day.

Online provision also has the added advantage that many who cannot make time for the event in their diary can attend on “catch up” and access the event at a time that works for them – and fast forward through the bits that they don’t want to see!

These activities have also been more accessible for those that don’t make a habit of attending events due a variety of issues, such as childcare or just a reluctance to attend “networking” events with lots of unfamiliar people in the room.

So it’s clear that the provision of information, CPD and events of a different kind have been delivered by many membership organisations to a varying quality and extent.

However this space has never been purely the domain of these organisations. The private sector has truly stepped up to the mark during the pandemic. Either providing insight and information on topical issues across the business spectrum or diving deep into specific niche activities.

Within my network organisations such as Deloitte, KMPG and EY have provided valuable and regular insights alongside other service organisations such as Eversheds Sutherlands. All of the events are free of charge, well organised  and have had top quality speakers.

This sort of activity has always been there but with digital delivery it’s easier to access and open to all.

The challenge moving forward for any membership organisation is to recognise that things have changed and no matter what happens, that some of this change will stick.

Some members will be unhappy to pay subscriptions that funded a more face-to-face offering and actually some will like the flexibility of engagement that a more digital offering give them. Also, revenue raising events and sponsorship monies, at least for the short term will not be available along with income derived from venues. This for some organisations will smash their business models to pieces.

We will have to see some realignment of activities and for some, some hastily convened marriages  and mergers to continue their operations. Across the spectrum of membership organisations there are a multitude of complexities. Business v personal memberships, general v niche, asset rich v asset poor and those that are well governed and led and those that are not. Cash will not be freely around to prop up these operations and the era of benevolent members was on the wane several years ago.

The challenge has to be to provide relevant , topical information, services and activities that suit a more digitally savvy consumer and when we eventually return to some sort of normality it will be interesting to see those that are still around.



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