UPDATED with some new links and informationalso I’m moderating a CSAE webinar Thursday, March 26, at noon EST, titled WTF?! Where to Focus: Your Business Continuity Planning. Register here.

Coronavirus news is coming quickly right now, and that’s not going to change any time soon. (As I write we are just starting to see community spread in Canada.) But there are not many resources yet on coronavirus for associations.

Maybe you have a major event coming up in the next few days/weeks/months, and you definitely don’t need me to tell you that you have to think about this issue. Maybe you’re already talking this through with your management team daily. Maybe you haven’t really begun to think about this issue at all.

Wherever you are at this point, I thought I would put together a few resources and comments to help association leaders think through what it might mean for you, and for your organization. This is a time of uncertainty and stress for many, and the epidemic is a global tragedy. This is a time when leaders are called upon to be wise, proactive, and far-thinking.

Some initial links:

Contents

  • Business Continuity and Risk Management
  • Events Resources
  • Can You Keep Members Connected?
  • Implications for General Operations
  • Stakeholder Management
  • Role of the Board
  • Take the Long View

Business Continuity and Risk Management

Of course this kind of situation is when business continuity plans and risk management plans prove their worth – they should be pulled out and then thoroughly dusted off. Check through them with the current situation in mind – was there anything you overlooked when you developed the plans? Do they reflect your current operations?

You may note, now that some of the hypotheticals are seeming more real, that there are inconsistencies in those documents, so you will have to exercise judgement to resolve them (one document says X, another says Y). But make a note of where there were issues, so you can improve the documents down the road.

Now, if you have had the best of intentions but you just don’t have these documents in your organization, here are some resources to give you an idea of what they contain. You can review these and cherry-pick for developing an immediate plan – it’s not rocket science, but the resources might be helpful.

Note that Business Continuity Plans are oriented towards keeping things running in the event of some kind of crisis (fire, flood, pandemic, loss or unavailability of key personnel). Risk Management Plans are related, but more comprehensive – they will look more broadly at all the risks. Business Continuity will help you with how to keep the organization’s functions going if your staff gets quarantined and nobody can physically come into the office. Risk Management would help you think through stakeholder relationships should you have to cancel events or move them to virtual (is there financial risk, reputational risk, execution risk, etc.).

Events Resources

In this area, of course you’ll want to look through documents such as hotel/venue contracts and insurance policies and consult with any external experts you use (e.g. event planners).

Thinking you might need to cancel (or postpone) but spinning your wheels? You may need to build a decision tree that outlines how you would make that decision and when. So questions in the tree could include:

  • Is the event more than (say) 2 months away?
    • If yes, move to one side of the tree (where you are thinking about stakeholder relationship management, ongoing marketing, attendee communication, monitoring as you get closer to the date, etc.)
    • If no, move to another side of the tree where the next questions have to do with considerations like commitments such as contracts; registration levels; whether attendees will need to pull out (e.g. if their employers are canceling travel); public health guidance; etc.

Planning to pivot to virtual? People who do virtual events are swamped (one firm’s website has a notice that they’ll do their best to get back to you in 48 hours if you fill in a form). If you want their help – especially if you’re small but potentially even if you’re large – it will help to be/become a well-educated client. And of course if you are doing it in-house you’ll have to know your stuff yourself. If you’re new to virtual events, here are some links to get you started:

No matter what, you should consider the objectives of your event. Why are you holding it? What alternatives do you have to meet your objectives in whole or in part in some other way or ways? (See below re connecting members to each other, for instance.) You may need to take a look at a single event and meet its objectives in various ways, if you do need to cancel. An in-person meeting and a virtual meeting are not interchangeable, but maybe there are other things (e.g. individual phone calls/qualitative interview research, surveys, email discussions, etc.) that can make up the difference.

How can you keep members connected?

One of the impacts of this pandemic is likely to be isolation. We are already seeing opportunities for connection (meetings, conferences, etc.) cancelled, and we will see more. Social distancing measures (cancelling schools and other large gathering points, or even enforcing quarantines) that have been ordered in harder-hit regions (China, South Korea, Italy) will possibly happen in more places. That means more of us will be at risk just of being lonesome. We seek connection. We want to breathe the same air as other people, but this won’t be part of our daily lives in the same way for a while.

And of course your members may want to talk about how the coronavirus situation affects them and their work, too.

So are there ways you can help members connect to others more? Are there chances to have member video hangouts, to set up not-so-formal webinars that encourage members to ask questions, to ramp up listservs, to gin up engagement with your online community?

You’ll have to calibrate your activities based on how your members actually respond, but some associations may miss opportunities to be there for your members if you just assume they won’t have time for you right now.

Implications for general operations

First, of course you should be checking sources that may determine or constrain your options:

  • Your existing employment, travel, or other policies
  • Public health guidance in your area
  • Relevant employment law (call your lawyer if unclear; I’m hearing a lot of lawyers are sending out email updates on this topic as well)
  • Your business continuity plans (if you have them or even if you have very recently developed them)

These will need ongoing assessment to determine whether they are coherent – is public health requiring something that goes against your policies? Boards may need to weigh in on some issues to provide guidance.

It seems there are several elements to figuring out operations:

What if people are ill and unable to work at all?

  • This could include lots of people at once and key personnel (those who do tasks nobody else does or knows how to do – or even that they are needed)
  • Remember – you should also look at volunteers in key roles
  • What steps do you need to take to ensure that tasks could be passed from person to person as required?
    • Could you do this if the person passing it on were not available to brief their successor?
  • Do you need any policies or guidance from your Board to empower more flexibility under these circumstances (e.g. extending pay beyond usual sick leave policies)? If so, be clear on how long or under what conditions these would apply and what it would take to lift the special conditions.

What if people are quarantined and unable to work at the office?

  • (Section updated with new links and insights from Jen Purrenhage)
  • Remote work considerations:
    • Type of work:
      • Can all tasks be done remotely?
      • What is the checklist to determine this?
      • How will you handle physical items (cheques, mail, mailouts, etc.)?
    • IT systems in place (VPN and or secure web access to systems, web/SaaS systems, cloud document storage, IM, video conferencing, web conferencing)
      • Capacity: are your IT systems (e.g. VPN) set up to handle everyone working from home, or are they scaled to a few at a time? Do you have enough seats in your software licenses for the accessibility that you’ll need?
    • Information security (i.e., client/member/employee data, privacy, backup system availability)
    • Home and mobile access:
      • Do people have laptops to work at home? 
      • Do laptops go home every day? Should they?
      • If not laptops, which systems are secure and available from staff phones or home computers?
      • Are mobile systems secure and available? 
    • Staff skills – Does everyone know how to do things like:
      • Host a web meeting
      • Use video
      • Access cloud storage
    • What kind of management practices will support people during this time? How will you keep everyone connected, aligned, motivated? How can you reinforce trust?
  • A useful link How to Help Individual & Company Members Adapt to Remote Work – focused on longer-term shifts but great checklists
  • This link (Forbes) identifies many challenges, and may seem negative, but it gives some troubleshooting lists.
  • These two links are more for permanent virtual office moves but again, will help to identify your needs on a temporary basis.
  • I Polled 2 Million People About Remote Working: Here Are Their Best Hacks – I can validate a lot of these as someone who
  • Remember that it may not be your call as to whether to shut down an office; it could be based on your building, or public transportation systems, or other considerations.
    • It could also come suddenly and unexpectedly (writing this on the day Italy has enforced a full countrywide lockdown).

Marathon, not sprint

All of these assessments should consider scenarios where the situation is in place for several weeks, and affecting various people in the organization at different – or the same – times.

Remember that staff (and that includes the top leadership and volunteers) may be dealing with time-consuming and possibly worrisome situations in their personal lives. Building some (or a lot of) slack into deadlines and support into conversations will be wise. Even if the situation is not so serious where you are, your staff, volunteers, and members have global connections. If you don’t currently know someone quarantined personally, someone you know already does, and those connections will get closer as this goes on.

Everyone in the organization will need regular reassurance (some great tips here). It will be time for compassion.

And of course, waste no time to ramp up hygiene practices – no handshakes, ubiquitous availability of hand sanitizer and soap in washrooms (which can be an issue surprisingly often and should be addressed promptly and indignantly at the best of times), songs for handwashing (the chorus of this one is the right length of time for washing your hands), etc. Again, follow your local public health guidelines.

Stakeholder management

In the thick of things, don’t forget to reach out to your stakeholders wherever relevant:

  • Sponsors, exhibitors, and advertisers will want to know your current thinking – even if you think your event is far enough out that it wouldn’t be affected, or if you believe the publication they advertise in will go out on time. And if you are thinking of making events virtual, you’ll want event sponsors in on the conversation as soon as possible.
  • Partners/collaborators may need to be part of your business continuity planning, or your respective plans may need to be coordinated, especially with respect to covering for key personnel. Be alert for differing priorities or capabilities among different partners.
  • Others you deal with regularly? Funders, government, regulators, other associations, etc.

Role of the Board

Throughout, the Board should be updated. Some things the Board will need to know from management:

  • How you are monitoring the situation
  • What impacts you are expecting to see
  • What mitigations you are planning, to deal with the impacts
  • Timeframes and hurdles/criteria for significant decisions that may be required, e.g. cancellation of events (see decision tree outlined above)
  • What else you need from the Board, such as new policies, guidance on actions to take or avoid, etc.
  • What inputs or feedback you want from the Board and when/how
    • You may have fewer opportunities to get feedback from members if you are cancelling events; Board members can be proxies although remember they are a subpar member focus group and calibrate accordingly
  • What will not be happening or not progressing while you are dealing with the situation (and these decisions should be based on the intersection of the strategic plan, the business continuity plan, and the situation on the ground)

The Board members are the stewards of the organization. It’s their job to let the staff and committees (where relevant) deal with operations, but they need to be involved with risk management, overall financials, and the general direction of the organization. If this epidemic causes significant issues or involves major risks (financial, reputational) for you, the Board will need to be more involved.

Take the long view

These are challenging times. For your organization to be resilient, you will have to both deal with the issues in front of you and keep the longer-term in mind. You won’t want to have responded to this event in ways that make it harder for you to be successful afterwards.

So how do you do that?

  • Make choices consistent with your strategy and your values. They are not simply jettisoned in a crisis. I always talk about a strategic plan as being responsive to situations as they evolve, and long-term leadership requires a focus on the larger goals to be maintained as you make the myriad judgement calls that this fluid, serious, and difficult situation requires.
  • Keep doing the regular things as much as possible. Not everyone is overwhelmed with this situation, and not everyone will be deeply affected, especially if the public health measures manage to slow the epidemic and blunt its impact at least somewhat. (Note: this is an optimistic potential outcome given the early-March forecasts, but we can hope.) Keep your foot on the gas where it makes sense, and make sure your messaging isn’t insensitive to the broader context.
  • Take care of yourself. Pace yourself, try not to worry overmuch, try to keep doing all the things that give you joy as much as possible. We’ll get through this.
  • If you’re facing this without some of the resources I’ve mentioned (plans, etc.), don’t beat yourself up about it. You’ll figure it out.
  • Start making lists of “after this is over, we will…” to start to identify learnings and make plans – and keep reminding yourself that there will be an after.

Just as crises such as epidemics show us the fault lines and strengths of the society as a whole, we see the same with organizations. May you find more strengths than fault lines, and may this all seem like an overreaction someday. Good luck.

If there are resources I should add to this, please let me know, or leave a comment below.

And if you turn out to need some leadership coaching or support through this whole situation, that’s a service I offer – please get in touch.

Photo by Matthew Tkocz on Unsplash