Membership in a Covid-19 world

Schools, bars and restaurants closed, mass home working, flights grounded, supermarket shelves stripped bare and global markets in turmoil. Just a few weeks ago, no one could have predicted the profound impact that Coronavirus (Covid-19) would have on our daily lives.

The world that we know has been upended. As people across the UK battle to keep their jobs, ensure food is on the table, and try to get their heads around the seismic shift that is going on, membership organisations are doing all that they can to engage, inform and support members—and the wider public. And as we “socially distance” ourselves from one another to help “flatten the curve” of infection—terms that are now part of our daily lexicon—they’re finding new ways to help us pull together.

In these times of uncertainty, membership bodies are a crucial lifeline of support for their members. By building communities of like-minded people they can help individuals unite around a common cause, allow people to experience an authentic connection through a shared interest, convey vital information to protect people as they go about their daily jobs, offer CPD material to help others move their career forward, or simply a moment of light relief from the troubled world that surrounds them.

Similarly, members are the bedrock on which these organisations stand. As income streams from visitors, events, conferences and training may have temporarily dried up, members have now become the primary source of income. Offering value to them through useful content and uniting individuals around common goals has never been more important.

Pivoting activities

In the last week alone, we have seen how membership organisations can support, educate, entertain and provide guidance in testing times.

National Trust for Scotland closed all of its properties across the country from 23 March in an effort to protect the wellbeing of visitors, volunteers and staff from the spread of Covid-19.

Membership is a core part of the organisation’s income stream, but with paid visitation and secondary spend from catering and retailing firmly off the agenda, it is pivoting activities to help support communities in need and safeguard the future of its properties.

Culzean Castle

Culzean Castle (image ©Shutterstock)

With schools out and parents cooped up with their children over the coming weeks and months, National Trust for Scotland is raiding its archive for resources that can be shared online, connected to heritage, nature and history to inspire and entertain them. “We have lots of brilliant content to remind people of the places they love and to give them an escape from the bleak news that surrounds us all at the moment, says Laura Cheyne, its Head of Marketing.

The charity also hopes to reiterate its true value to members at this time—particularly families, one of its largest membership groups. “Membership has always been seen as a very transactional piece,” explains Cheyne. “We’ve been on a brand trajectory to change that and this gives us the opportunity to make people understand that membership is a donation to the National Trust for Scotland. Yes, it gives you access to all of these places, but it also helps us to make sure they’re here for you to enjoy and to do the conservation work required to protect them.

“Our model within the Trust is visitors, members and donors—and it’s showing us as a business that membership is really important.”

The charity is carefully reviewing how it supports members via e-communication throughout the crisis and is also looking at going back to basics with direct mail letters. However, it’s keen not to overload members at a time when they’re already inundated with news alerts and updates about the pandemic at every turn.

For Cheyne, that means providing content that is “a reassuring force” at a time when it feels like the rug has been pulled out from underneath our feet.

“In times of stress and uncertainty, people want to hang onto things that feel constant in their lives,” she says. “We’ve been here for nearly 100 years and people feel that we’re a safe pair of hands. When they see castles that have been there for hundreds of years and familiar landscapes, it makes them feel like the world hasn’t completely changed.”

Trusted sources

The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) is another membership organisation rethinking the fundamental mechanisms it uses to engage and support its members at an accelerated pace.

“Some of our members are going to be busier than ever and will need short digests to read on the hop and authoritative signposting from us. Some of them, perhaps in the private sector, may not be as busy,” says Jon Buttolph, Associate Director of Membership and Professional Development at CIEH. “They may be confined to quarters if they’ve had symptoms, and in that case, they might need some online CPD to break the tedium and keep their brains ticking over.”

The Chartered Management Institute (CMI) is also working hard to make its insights available to business leaders across the board. “In these very difficult circumstances I feel it’s particularly important for professional bodies to make their insights and information open not just to members but to the wider world who are looking for reassurance,” says membership director Matt Roberts. “That’s what we’re doing at CMI.”

He says its newsletter open rates are already up significantly as more members turn to “traditional, trusted sources for their information” during the crisis. “This past week, for instance, we’ve seen unprecedented open rates for our CMI Better Managers newsletters, across all types of members and learners,” he says.

Digital strategy

In the absence of face-to-face events, member networking is quickly shifting to virtual platforms. For CIEH, that means Zoom meetings and webinars. “We’ll maintain a regional network but will have opportunities for people to talk to each other through these platforms,” says Buttolph. “It’s been one of my frustrations that, largely, the profession has not been very digital and this is forcing them into that space. It changes everything; my suspicion is that in the future, we’ll end up with a blend of solutions.

“In the long term, this is going to change how people work, how professional bodies operate and the work that our members do. Nothing will ever be the same again—some of that will be good and some won’t.”

A potential positive for environmental health—often seen as a “Cinderella service”—is that the profession becomes a lot more visible. “Health and safety, food safety, infection control, public health—they’re now at the top of everybody’s agenda,” says Buttolph. “We are of use to communities and the nation, so our ability to explain what our members do, and our relationship with business and government is now more important than it’s ever been.”

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