Entering and exiting the pandemic is unfamiliar territory. There was no manual explaining how associations should respond, unless your organization has records dating back to the Spanish flu in 1918.

Many associations have thrived. Why have some prospered while others suffer? The answers include technology, reserves, adaptability, determination, and unicorns.


Three factors characterize thriving associations.


They amassed enough reserves to continue services without laying off staff. Boards sometime question the reason for savings. Associations with an amount equal to at least six months of the annual budget, 50 percent, were prepared for program cancellations and delays.


The American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) suggests organizations allocate about nine percent of their budget for technology investment, training, and applications. Successful associations adapted to remote work, webinars, and on-line governance because they were comfortable using technology.


Successful boards and staff have been agile. They could have frozen in their tracks. For people who saw the “glass as half full,” they found opportunities to make lasting improvements in member service and association operations.

Finding Unicorns

Unicorn employees are staff who possess a broad set of qualities that make them extremely rare and valuable. Like actual unicorns, they're hard to find, but once hired, offer up enormous benefit in the workplace.

Kristine Hillmer, CEO and President at the Wisconsin Restaurant Association described how the pandemic impacted the organization. When the shutdowns occurred, WRA's response was to divert all efforts to help members navigate the confusing and fast-changing environment.

Regardless of job titles, every employee pitched in. "We all answered phones, reached out to members, and remained hyper-focused on communicating current conditions and solutions. It meant dropping everything to serve members."

Hillmer explains, "Now that we’ve had time to reflect on our successes and why they happened, it is clear that it was due to our team and their ability to adapt and pick up pieces regardless of where they were in the organizational structure. We removed silos, focused on members, and pivoted to an all-hands-on-deck attitude."

WRA says it is the staff’s flexibility has been key to success and viability. The team's willingness to embrace change will continue to be a critical attribute.

Hillmer describes her staff as "unicorns," persons willing and able to adapt to the situation, no matter how demanding and regardless of their position or title.


Let's hope recovery is around the corner. Build upon the lessons learned with a new emphasis on communicating value, strategy, and the leadership team.


Communicate value. Members wonder, "What do I get for my dues?" Find ways to raise awareness of programs. Develop a menu of services and their value. Create an on-line value calculator.


Let the strategic plan tell a story for members. Whether they stayed engaged during the pandemic or were too busy for the association, they will want to know the leadership has a plan in place. The plan instills confidence.

Victory Tour

Reach out to members to determine their needs and to explain how the association adapted to be essential. Increase touch points and plan a "victory tour" led by board members to check-in with members. Arm them with a script, strategic plan, and an infographic about what the association has achieved on their behalf.

Most boards and staff have worked overtime to serve members' needs. Learn from the pandemic experiences, transitioning to a recovery phase.