Resources for Trade Associations in Response to COVID-19

Aidan Augustin
Co-founder & President of Feathr

In February 2020, you had big plans for your trade organization. Your calendar was full of meetings, trade shows, and recruitment events. You thought this would be the year when your trade organization would thrive.

If your plans were dashed with the arrival of COVID-19, you’re not alone. Plenty of trade associations, both large and small, continue to deal with the fallout of a virus that just won’t go away.

But now isn’t the time to either panic or grieve. You can take charge of your trade organization and deliver the value your community expects, pandemic or no pandemic. These resources may help.

Replace the Non-Dues Revenue You Lost

Canceled events, unemployed members (who can’t pay your dues), and higher overhead costs (due to social distancing) pinch your budget. But you can overcome these challenges with a bit of creativity, hard work, and luck.

Write down a list of member benefits, such as:

  • Continuing education courses.
  • Certification opportunities.
  • Annual conferences.
  • Advocacy work.
  • Networking opportunities.

Then, call a few trusted association members and start a conversation. Keep your talk focused, experts recommend. Develop a hypothesis about what your members need right now, and ask them if your theory is on track or off base.

Use that conversation to develop sponsorship opportunities. If your members plan to take more online courses, for example, reach out to top sponsors and tell them that. You could find a big-ticket sponsorship opportunity hiding within your member list.

Lean into tried-and-true sponsorship opportunities too, including:

  • Your website. Sell space on high-profile pages.
  • Your social media channels. Allow sponsored posts, so companies can reach out to your followers directly. Or offer to create posts yourself using video from your members. A quick video testimonial from a member talking to peers could be worth quite a bit to a company in need of promotion.
  • Member directories. Some companies will pay for your member lists. But remember to share only what your community agrees to share.

These techniques leverage the assets you have, and they connect companies with products to people interested in them. But they aren’t your only fundraising opportunities.

The coronavirus has devastated businesses of all sizes, and officials responded by offering loan products. Some, including the Paycheck Protection Program, aren’t available to all associations and nonprofits quite yet. Many other resources are available to help you weather the storm.

The U.S. Small Business Administration administers many loan products. The rules vary from business type to business type, and some rely on a pre-existing relationship with a lender.

Don’t let the rules baffle you. Head to the U.S. Small Business Administration website, and click on the “free business counseling” option. Connect with an expert to discuss the loans that might be right for a trade association in your state.

Prepare for Your Big Comeback

We all want to return to normal as quickly as possible, but the events we loved may be months or even years away.

Social distancing protocols related to COVID-19 are challenging for in-person event planners. Your tradeshow or conference attendees could cluster together:

  • In transit. The shuttles that take your participants to and from the airport can be virus incubators.
  • In the exhibit hall. Amazing demonstrations entice plenty of visitors.
  • In educational sessions. People sitting side by side in rows could quickly pass the virus between them.

Some conference organizers respond to these challenges with innovation. They make booths larger, schedule exhibit hall appointments, and install plastic shields. That may not be feasible for your trade association.

Before you dig into an in-person event plan, reach out to:

  • Suppliers. Can you find catering companies? Groups ready to make shirts and lanyards? Cleanup crews?
  • Sponsors. Are companies willing to send employees to your trade event?
  • Venue managers. Can you find a space large enough to hold your event while maintaining social distancing protocols?
  • Attendees. In March, about 30 percent of people were too afraid to go to a restaurant, much less a conference, due to COVID-19. Before you spend time planning, ensure you have people ready to walk through your door.

If a physical conference makes your community wary, don’t push it. Plenty of companies made the shift to virtual conferences due to the COVID-19 pandemic. You can still share knowledge with your community, and you can still foster connections. You may just need to do the work online for now.

Keep Your Community Calm

It’s hard to be a leader in the best of circumstances. It’s even harder during this trying time, but you can succeed.

To help your community weather the storm:

  • Don’t panic in public. Researchers say our brains are hardwired to respond to fear signals. When we see them in others, we’re tempted to act in kind. You may have worries, fears, and stresses. Feel them, but don’t ask for solace from your community members. Project a sense of calm comfort. Even if you’re faking it, you could help others to lower their stress levels.
  • Find the happy stories. People look for inspiration during trying times. Ask your members to share stories of success. Even 30-second videos of members finding jobs through your connections could lift spirits of people locked down in quarantine. Give your members something happy to focus on in the midst of so much stress.
  • Keep messages short and sweet. When we’re under stress, our brains lose 80 percent of processing power. Now is not the time for long blog posts, complicated research papers, or detailed position papers. Keep your notes short, crisp, and clear. If it’s possible, share your updates with videos. People remember video messages more accurately than their wordy counterparts.
  • Communicate frequently. Stakeholders appreciate clear and transparent messages. Explain what you’re doing to protect your trade association members. Highlight how you keep your staff safe. Illuminate issues that interest your community. Reach out as often as needed to keep everyone informed. If you’ve grown weary of your own voice, tap your trade organization members to help spread the word. User-generated content is often more powerful than official position statements.

About Gather Voices

User-generated content means more during the COVID-19 crisis than it ever has before. And we make collecting that content really easy.

Use Gather Voices to entice members to make short videos with their smartphones. Use our tools to edit, combine, and share those videos wherever you’d like to. With our tools, the work is straightforward and easy. See how it’s done — request a demo using the form below!


Focus on Member Motivations to Drive Revenue During Pandemic. (May 2020). Associations Now.  

Association Revenue Strategy During COVID-19 Pandemic. (March 2020). The YGS Group.

SHRM to Congress: All Nonprofits Need Access to Paycheck Protection Program. (April 2020). SHRM.

Coronavirus Relief Options. U.S. Small Business Administration.

Virus Forces Conference Planners to Go back to Go. (May 2020). The New York Times.

What Will Conferences Look Like Post COVID-19? School of Hospitality Administration, Boston Hospitality Review.

As COVID-19 Forces Conferences Online, Scientists Discover Upsides of Virtual Format. (April 2020). Science.

Nearly 30 Percent of People Are Afraid to Eat Out, Study Says. (March 2020). QSR.

Fear Contagion Research Reveals Why Coronavirus Quickly Spread From Person to Person. (March 2020). PsyPost.

Coronavirus: How to Be the Leader Your People Need Right Now. (March 2020). Bain and Company.

Leadership in an Outbreak. Korn Ferry.

Aidan Augustin
Co-founder & President of Feathr

Aidan Augustin is the co-founder and president of Feathr, an industry-leading software company making digital marketing more accessible to nonprofits and event organizers. Feathr has helped over 800 nonprofits and thousands of events know, grow, and engage their audiences. When he's not steering the ship at Feathr, he's playing strategy games, singing karaoke, or reading books about people who changed the world.

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