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For centuries, associations have created a sense of community among their members and the industry or profession the organization served. In a post-pandemic world, the association’s role as a community-builder will be more important than ever.

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated trends that were already happening. In many companies and industries, working from home finally went from “one day” to “today.” America was already showing an increasing preference for staying at home, rather than heading out to the movie theater. While many urban centers continued to grow and thrive, those who could work remotely were already considering moving to more affordable smaller cities and communities to enjoy a different pace of life.

Another already occurring shift accelerated by the pandemic is the polarized nature of modern society. Many communities are more divided than ever, leading to a breakdown of shared values and respect for one another.

Clearly, our society is working its way through important issues, many of which were magnified by the inequities that only worsened during the pandemic—but the fracturing of communities in the wake of those debates isn’t just a symptom of a broader illness.

Losing community is an illness itself.

Loneliness and a lack of community is an epidemic that has been raging for decades, and technology and polarization often make that epidemic worse.

Associations and professional societies serve as one of the last vestiges of true community.

Membership organizations are laser-focused on the needs of specific professions and industries. While their activities can intersect with politics, they are not typically forums for most of the issues polarizing our society.

(There is one exception: Every association needs to be engaged in a genuine effort to increase inclusion and equity among its members and within its leadership ranks—and truthfully, nothing about that should be polarizing.)

So how can your association create a strong sense of community that members so desperately need? Associations can provide something increasingly hard to find almost anywhere else: a place where members belong.

A place where they are accepted and welcome.

A place where they can meet colleagues who become lifelong friends and sources of support, and have a hand in shaping the future of their profession.

Here are a few essential steps to creating a sense of belonging:

  1. Be clear about your association’s values, mission, and vision.

Bring them to life through investing energy and resources in programs and initiatives that move the organization forward and provide value to members through ongoing opportunities to connect.

  1. Design programs around the lifecycle of a member.

How do you engage prospective members and welcome them into your associations? Once they join, how are you going to convince them that their membership is essential? How are you supporting members in becoming leaders? Do you have ongoing programming for mid-career professionals? Are there ample opportunities for more seasoned members to find membership rewarding and share their experiences with emerging members?

  1. Embrace online community and collaboration tools.

For the past two decades, some association experts have argued that the value proposition offered by membership organizations was going to be eroded by social media, or perhaps disappear altogether. LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter were supposed to replace committees, task forces, and annual conferences. Rather than fellow association members, “friends” and “followers” were supposed to become your new community. But these platforms weren’t built for building connections among association members, and can’t replace the connections made through association programs, events, and member-only online communities.

An association’s value proposition will not be defined by specific programs, events, or member benefits. Specific offerings can (and should) change over time. If that sort of change isn’t occurring, then your association has become stagnant.

But the desire for community is timeless.

In the future, associations will deliver value by providing something every one of us is looking for:

A place where we belong.

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