First, recognize the situation

Years ago, I took sea kayaking lessons in Howe Sound, near Vancouver, among the rocks and seals, in the cold Pacific.

Among other skills, we were taught how to cope if our kayak flipped. But, disappointingly, not with one of those cool, flip-right-over-and-keep-paddling rolls. It turns out that those are incredibly difficult to execute – and usually, when we flip a kayak on the ocean, it’s because a big wave has taken us by surprise. So when we most need to do a roll, we usually just can’t.

(I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this analogy.)

Take a moment

So imagine you’re in a kayak, you’re snugly attached to the boat – but it’s upside down. Your head pointed towards the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

What do you think they told us to do first, when we were in that situation?

Each of us had to try it out. When it was my turn, I looked down into the dark green-gray water, where seals were swimming below us somewhere. On purpose – which just seemed wrong at the time – I wiggled back and forth violently enough that I flipped myself and my kayak upside down.

And then, before I did anything else – as I’d been instructed – I simply said to myself: “I, Meredith, am underwater.”

And it was key to the whole thing. Just recognizing that this wild idea could be a true statement, but also that it didn’t have to be the end of the world, gave me all the confidence that I needed to do the rest of it. Getting out of, and then back into, a flipped kayak takes a bit of doing, and a lot of splashing. But it would be an impossible undertaking if I were panicking.

Recognizing the situation

Our organizational – and personal – kayaks have been flipped. Not sunk; but flipped. As leaders, what do we need to do first?

First, we recognize what’s true. Can we predict what will be true next week or next month or next year with confidence in the details? Not really. But some things are clear:

  • A historic human tragedy has been unfolding since December or so, and is rolling through more and more countries.  This will have personal and societal impacts which will clearly be huge, no matter which model’s trajectory we turn out to be on. As people who care about people, we are in for a hard time, and it’s naïve (not some limited idea of “professional”) to overlook the human impacts of this historic cataclysm as we think about our work.
  • Our health care system will be strained to its breaking point and possibly beyond – of course including the amazing people who work in it.
  • A recession is coming – how long or deep is yet to be seen, but there’s no avoiding it.
  • The economy is going to be reshaped. Exactly how, and how profoundly, depends on things like how long this shuddering pause is held, and what the governmental response is to support the economy and the population while so many are unable to earn money.
  • There will be social, cultural, and political impacts as well, although these are less easily quantified at this point. Will the transition to virtual events prove to be durable, or will we rush madly back to gatherings? We certainly don’t seem to have learned our lesson about the pitfalls of just-in-time inventory management from 9/11, so I just don’t know. And a lot of these depend on how we all respond; what future we shape. (Which is where you come in, too.)
  • The overall impact also depends on how structures (organizations, companies, services, processes, events, activities, relationships) are sustained or re-envisioned – or shaken or broken – as a result of this upheaval.

Recognizing YOUR situation

Each organization has its own truths. We are all going to have failures of the imagination in terms of how exactly this plays out for us, but we do have methods to think through what we can see from where we are now. This excellent article from Non-Profit Quarterly provides some great steps, with a starting point of financial analysis – and you absolutely do need to think about your business model and revenue streams as they suggest.

What I’d add for membership-based organizations is a stakeholder analysis. For each stakeholder, ask yourself:

  • What is going on for them right now? Aside from their relationship with you, what pressures are they under? What challenges do they face? What has gotten harder for them?
  • How might your relationship with them be affected (including but not limited to financial)?
  • How might you serve them? What could you offer them right now that they would value? (Think needs, not products; be generative in your thinking here.)

And don’t lump stakeholders together here. Maybe most of your members are relatively recession-proof in terms of their job security – except for those who have recently entered the profession. Maybe the smaller companies in your industry are going to be swept away while the larger ones have reserves to weather the situation. Analyze those segments separately.

If you can project your financial situation, and you have a sense of what is going on in your whole ecosystem, you’ll be far better positioned to know how to act. Try to tell yourself a story of how this all fits together. Share this story with others to surface and test assumptions. Broaden your sense of what’s possible, both positively and negatively.

Strategy is still what you’re doing

Strategy of course is all about making choices. And there are tough choices ahead for most of us.

If your mission is your raison d’etre, what choices do you make to fulfill it? That’s still a relevant question for leaders, and it’s still what strategy is all about. Make choices, with a shared rationale and a realistic plan for achievement.

And I think we can also position membership-based associations to demonstrate their value at a time like this.

  • At a time of physical isolation, how can you help members connect?
  • During a time of upheaval, how can you help members as they try to do their jobs effectively under difficult circumstances?
  • In a recession, how can you help members show their value and relevance to those they serve?
  • With a reshaped world, what do your members need to learn, know, understand, discover, tackle?
  • In a damaged economy, who needs your help to create a marketplace?

Think, then act

I’ve used the phrase “there is no map” to describe our current situation. But that doesn’t have to stop you from drawing a map based on what you can see now. Look around, look within, look ahead (insofar as you are able), identify the assumptions you’re working with, take a deep breath, and make some kind of plan. You know you’ll have to adjust it as you go; that’s always been true.

But it’s crucial to recognize first what’s true before you make choices based on hidden or tacit rationales – or, worse, based on panic. Using strategic decision-making to align the truth of the current reality against your aspirations remains the role of your organization’s leadership, even in a time of crisis.

When I was kayaking, I’d have loved to learn how to roll all the way around. It would have been a great trick. But in fact I learned something that I can use under far more circumstances; something that enables me to be far more resilient in my little boat, no matter what waves might swamp me. Take a moment to recognize your new reality, and then act.

If you’d like any support in figuring any of this out, please get in touch. I’m also happy to be a sounding board for association leaders, with no obligation.

Photo by Jong Marshes on Unsplash

Contact us at or call 416-737-3935 to discuss how we might be able to help.


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