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October 26, 2020

Four Ways Associations Have Adapted During COVID-19

How does your association look different today – from strategy to operations to the member experience – than it did seven months ago?

From June 10 to August 5, McKinley monitored changes within the association sector with a bi-weekly survey to association leaders. By repeating a series of questions on topics ranging from staff operations to membership retention we were able to keep a pulse on how priorities and operations in associations across different industries changed. Additionally, we asked about key focus areas in more detail with each survey to learn more about specific areas such as membership, office operations and financials. Results reveal that associations responded to this year’s events in four fundamental ways.

Re-prioritizing and shifting strategies:

As the impacts of COVID-19 progressed throughout the spring and summer and the nation reckoned with systemic racial injustice, a growing number of associations revisited their strategic plans. Associations identified enhancing DE&I efforts and membership retention as their top two priorities for the coming year. Not surprisingly, these were followed closely by virtual meetings and identifying new sources of revenue. We anticipate that associations will continue to revisit and adapt their priorities as they grapple with significant economic, political and societal challenges.

Four circles with text showing association priorities in 2021. Diversity equity and inclusion, membership retention, virtual meetings, and identifying new sources of revenue.

Financial health:

While COVID-19 has impacted industries and sectors differently, the economic downturn has made it clear that associations must again adapt to preserve existing participation and revenue levels. During the early days of the pandemic, many associations refined their pricing strategies to offer discounted or complimentary resources. This change in pricing, as well as rapid declines in existing revenue sources, forced many associations to tap their reserve funds. In response, many associations employed financial analysis and scenario planning to ensure long-term sustainability. Associations also tapped into the CARES Act, the March 2020 economic stimulus package, with most associations surveyed applying for relief in April. The majority of CARES Act applicants surveyed also applied for the Paycheck Protection Program.


COVID-19 forced associations to innovate, an area where respondents indicated their association had been lacking in the past due to organizational culture and change-averse leadership. Associations noted that their leadership is now meeting more frequently and is more proactively implementing changes. They are also focused on exploring new product offerings to diversify revenue streams.

Retention rates:

We touched on this trend briefly in our last edition of Association Viewpoint, but the past suggests that associations will continue to double-down on member retention efforts and look for new ways to entice prospective members to join, such as with virtual content subscriptions.

Graph showing retention rate over the past 12 months has decreased.




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