“Well, what if there is no tomorrow? There wasn’t one today,” Phil Connors in the 1993 film Groundhog Day. 

Some days, I wake up and it feels like I’m living through the movie Groundhog Day. My days can feel like a repetitive combo of working from home, ordering groceries online, watching movies and looking forward to the days when the pandemic is over. But with the news of Pfizer’s success with its Coronavirus vaccine trials, perhaps there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. 

Over the past eight months, association professionals have had experiences that are like mine. They have worked to support their members with digital programming and content, transitioned to virtual events, educated members and non-members about pandemic-related shifts in their industries and are now looking towards 2021 without fully knowing when a vaccine will be ready and in-person activities can resume. While it’s been a tough year, there have been many associations that adapted and made organizational resilience a priority.  

What is organizational resilience? 

When the pandemic forced the closure of businesses and schools in March, organizations had to act quickly to transition to a remote workforce, decide where to focus their efforts to support members and their industry and institute new programming or policies for their constituents. The associations that were able to absorb and adapt to the challenges of COVID-19 are, by definition, resilient. And speed plays an important role here. Many of the members served by these organizations are essential workers and individuals on the front lines of the pandemic, and leaders had to make decisions at a speed that would have been unimaginable in a pre-COVID climate. 

Organizational resilience means that you have taken the time to think through business continuity and crisis plans, and likely have run through several what-if scenarios to identify weaknesses and challenges if an actual crisis occurred. Many of us may not have had a global pandemic in our crisis communications playbook, but organizations that had planned for a host of potential scenarios were able to pull out tactics and plans from incidents that are similar in nature. 

What are common characteristics of resilient organizations? 

1. Unite around a common purpose

While your association has a stated mission, vision and values, new needs may have arisen as a result of the pandemic that required shifts in programmingstaffing and overall strategy. Resilient organizations often articulate a common purpose or a “North Star” that helps people feel connected to the mission and invested in your recovery initiatives. Your common purpose should align with your mission, vision and values but it can be helpful to identify specific goals as part of your resiliency plan or crisis communication plans.  

Since the timeline for returning to in-person activities is still unknown, break your goals out into short-, mid- and long-term initiatives with flexibility built in for longer term tactics. For example, if your annual conference is more than six months away, you likely want to build in a hybrid event component that allows you the flexibility of hosting both virtual and in-person experiences if that is feasible by the time your event takes place.   

What we have seen from associations that have prioritized organizational resilience is an alignment across the leadership team of how they can best focus their limited time and resources to support member needs during this time. For example, as part of their resiliency plan, the American Optometric Association prioritized education as a short-term need and spun up instructional webinars for both members and non-members on things like how to get set up for telemedicine visitsapply for Paycheck Protection Program Loans and more. 

2. Structure your organization to allow for quick decision making 

If living through a global pandemic taught me anything, it’s that I shouldn’t get too invested in my long-term plans. Many of us have had to cancel vacations, postpone weddings and make changes to plans in a condensed time frame. It’s the same for associations and nonprofits that took their annual conference virtual, waived or postponed membership dues and developed digital programming in a matter of weeks or months. 

Find ways to remove the red tape from your decision-making processes so that you can react quickly and efficiently and make the most of opportunities that arise for your organization. In fact, I would suggest that we all carry some of the rapid decision-making skills into a post-COVID world where we can react to members’ needs more quickly, articulate these requests to the board in real time, and translate these into programs and services that deliver real value to your constituents.  

3. Develop a people-first culture where people are empowered 

During the past several months, we’ve all had to reevaluate our organizational culture and think carefully about how we can make it a priority when we are physically separated or working from home officesWhile many people feel isolated and anxious due to the pandemic and everything that comes with it, it’s crucial to ensure that staff feels empowered and able to enact change within your association.  

Invest in a leadership strategy that empowers your staff and provides them with continuous education and development opportunities. Encourage your leadership team to position themselves not as managers or approvers but as visionaries, architects and coaches. We need strong leadership to get us through these incredibly challenging times and leaders who enable and inspire will help retain and grow employees during and after the pandemic. 

4. Celebrate wins and share best practices 

It’s been a tough year for so many of us, both personally and professionally. Take time to celebrate wins in your organization, whether they’re big or small. Find opportunities to share best practices and what’s working across your departments. As so many of us have transitioned to engaging and connecting remotely, there are tactics that will resonate across the teams and departments in your organization. 

You can recognize staff for their contributions in team meetings and send a token of appreciation to their home offices to thank them for their support. While we’re all experiencing some Zoom fatigue, virtual happy hours, trivia and scavenger hunts can help strengthen connections with remote colleagues in a time when many are feeling isolated. Consider hosting no-meeting days to thank staff for their hard work and provide a break from video calls. 

5. Leverage technology to support a remote team 

Just like many people have purchased devices, furniture and decor to spruce up their home office, consider the technology that your team needs to enable remote work and collaboration, and to better serve your members. As you work towards organizational resilience, think about how you can integrate your technology tools and data into every aspect of your organization. While budgets are tight during the pandemic, resist the urge to hold onto outdated technology that doesn’t serve your current needs and does not allow you to be agile and efficient. 

The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) supports more than 100,000 superintendents, principals, teachers and advocates across the globe.  The organization has worked hard over the past few months to arm members who are transitioning to remote and hybrid learning environments with education and resources. ASCD staff have leveraged their technology stack to track member interests during COVID and identify trends in order to create opportunities for growth and development in their members’ career plans.  

Want to learn more about organizational resilience? 

Associations and nonprofits that embrace a culture of organizational resilience will not only better weather the effects of the pandemic over the next few months but will also emerge from it with more efficient processes and a clarity of purpose that allows them to take their organizations to new heights in a post-COVID world. And, when the next crisis hits—because at some point, there will be another one—the organization will be able to react and adapt more quickly because they have built a strong foundation and resiliency approach. 

Watch a panel discussion that I hosted with three association professionals who reflect on the past few months and share their lessons learned and achievements from the process of adapting and evolving their organization to respond to COVID-19. Our panelists include: 

  • Angel Baltimore, VP of Digital Strategy and Ecommerce at the American Pharmacists Association 
  • Jerome Bruce, Director of Meetings and Exhibits at the Association of Government Accountants 
  • Molly Hamill, Manager of Exhibit Sales at the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions  

During the webinar, we review trends and insights on how associations have adjusted their plans this year, and the panel of experts share how they have adapted, what they would do differently and their plans for the coming year. 

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