How to Apply Lessons From the 2008 Recession to Your Association Member Engagement Strategies

Updated: Sep. 22, 2020  |  Categories: Membership, Lack of Resources  

Applying Lessons From the 2008 Recession to Your Association Member Engagement Strategies

COVID-19 is affecting every part of our lives. The uncertainty and unease is being compared to some of what we experienced in the 2008 recession and its aftermath, when millions of Americans felt significant financial strain, losing jobs, money, homes, and retirement savings.

There’s a good chance your association members are going through many of those same struggles. That means added anxiety for your board, as they learn how to bring in revenue and keep members, while operating primarily if not completely virtually. Little, if any, attention is being paid to marketing to bring in new members. Instead, chapters are doing what they can to support existing members professionally and personally.

Just as it was then, it’s critical to support members, to give them opportunities to connect with peers and get the resources they need, so they can provide for themselves, their families, each other, and as a result, the chapter.

What do members really need?

Right now, they really, really need to connect with each other, so they know they’re not going through this alone. You can provide that community, while also delivering the basic things they joined your chapter for: continued education and networking.

It can be easy to provide those things virtually, by taking advantage of what you:

  • Have developed. Repurpose existing content and share it with association members.
  • Ask subject matter experts who are association members to present on topics of interest.
  • Have available. Highlight changes to legislation your association members should be aware of.


These things don’t need to be big, new, official, or over-the-top. Just try something, like adding guest blog posts from sponsors, starting a member speaker series, or decreasing (but not eliminating) the cost of your online events. See how it goes, get feedback, and adjust as necessary.

Insight from the 2008 trenches

For an understanding of how lessons from 2008 can be applied today, we spoke to Celeste Ayers, president of the APICS Gold Rush chapter in Modesto, CA. In 2008, Celeste was a member of the same APICS chapter. We asked her what she remembers about that time and how she’s applying what she learned to current APICS operations.

Modesto, Celeste says, is a COVID-19 “hot spot.”  Many of their members work for agricultural organizations and are considered essential. Instead of furloughs, members are overworked and beginning to burn out.

How did association board members react?

In 2009-2010, the recession in the Central Valley of California still wasn’t in recovery mode, which was concerning for the chapter.  They had been fiscally responsible during the recession so there was still “money in the bank” but they didn’t have any idea how to improve things.  That caused a lot of anxiety for me as a newer member to the board, but at the same time, I was ready to make some changes.

The Board reacted by still offering courses but canceling them when people would not show. A lot of the courses were marketed through current contacts only. There were some businesses that were still interested in training.  Professional development events like dinner meetings and networking were steady in attendance.

In 2009, I started in the Vice President of Education role. Anxiety about growth of the chapter or increasing courses wasn’t really a thing for the incumbent board members.  Status quo was fine for them, but it wasn’t for me.

My role quickly expanded. As I was digging around learning how to update the website, I became the website person too. Then, in working on getting reduced rates for credit card transactions I found that the chapter had never formally incorporated in the State of California nor did it hold a non-profit status.  They were a bit anxious at first by these discoveries, but then again, if I led the effort, they were fine with whatever I was doing.

What are some key takeaways from your 2008 experiences other association boards should be aware of?

The bigger problem [for our members] right now is being overworked instead of being unemployed.  Companies are slower to hire than what is really necessary.  Individuals are having a hard time planning time for training.  Companies are willing to train but they don’t want to put more on their employees who are either trying to balance working from home and life or working from the office in a time of COVID.  We have been successful in holding online courses, but even then, some people have expressed fatigue when it comes to being online so much already. 

Our membership has remained about flat during this time.  Our activities have gone down significantly, but we are still holding classes, just smaller and online. We have anxiety as a board like any other small business right now.  We are financially healthy, but we are worried about losing momentum and having the tough start-up of growth after the pandemic wave ends.

I have resorted to sending personal emails to our small membership base in an effort to encourage them and thank them for keeping our local and global economies moving.

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