A crisis whiteboard

How can human responses to crisis situations inform effective membership engagement strategies?

Response to crisis membership engagement

The word crisis appears in the title but this is not another article about coronavirus. Although the pandemic is a good case in point, this is about people and how they respond to pressure, and what membership organisations can learn from that.

Research shows us that we display very specific and often instinctive behaviours during times of crisis and extreme pressure. By understanding how people deal with challenges, organisations can provide their members with the right support to navigate an uncertain future.

Strength in Numbers

Humans are inherently social animals, and at a time of crisis, many of us seek comfort in groups. We often feel reassured by shared experience and comforted by the knowledge we are not facing a challenge alone. Communities allow us to pool resources, divide labour, and share information to reduce risk.

These behaviours can even be observed in nature, where herd animals seek advantages from sticking together. Hundreds of eyes and ears together have a much better chance of spotting danger than one pair of each. Known as collective vigilance, this behaviour lowers the chance of becoming prey and allows more time to feed; achieving better outcomes through sharing information and responsibility.

An unusual example perhaps, but in a membership context this means creating an environment where members can exchange ideas and insight on a regular basis. Research has demonstrated that people’s judgment and decision-making skills are impaired in times of pressure and stress, which is the exact moment when we need those abilities the most. Through comparing and sharing ways of dealing with issues and problems, the skills and resilience of the community can be increased. This collectively reduces the scale of external threats. 

Building that environment starts by listening. Creating channels for members to communicate the issues and challenges they are facing allows organisations to focus on what really matters. In novel or rapidly changing situations, it is crucial that these channels are regular and easily accessible.

By focusing on what really matters relevance can be demonstrated, and members and stakeholders alike will understand the value of joining the community and it will grow. It is particularly important to recognise those members that make a positive contribution: gamification and reward strategies can be employed to drive even great participation and engagement.

Digital solutions offer unique opportunities to create new professional communities, or even augment existing ones. New applications specialising in virtual conferencing and events can allow members to not just consume content, but actively participate in it too. The benefits of digital accessibility can drive greater inclusion and diversity as well, with the on-demand and available anywhere nature of virtual forums opening the discussion up to those previously unable to participate.

Understanding and developing a resilient professional community allows members to provide other members with the information they need to make better decisions and secure better outcomes.

Emotional Response

A time of crisis can inspire feelings of helplessness. Particularly when a crisis seems all encompassing or does not appear to have a conclusion, it can be difficult to see how anything we do as individuals can possibly make a difference. Being able to take action can provide people with a feeling of regaining control, and when the action taken has a strategic purpose it can also help to improve the situation in a tangible sense.

This insight can be directly applied to engagement by providing members with practical recommendations. Theory and analysis are important parts of learning, but admiring a problem is not solving it. Good practice guidance should be clear in suggesting what practical action members can take to deal with the issues they are facing right now.

Conversely, a crisis can trigger a positive response in some. People may feel galvanized into action and they may have a strong desire to help others. To harness this response in a positive fashion, it is essential that membership organisations provide opportunities to get involved with support programmes and outreach initiatives. Through doing this they can not only respond to the desire of their members to help, but they also create ways to help those most in need at a time of crisis, whether within their own professional community or in wider society.

This could mean anything from a mentoring programme to a charitable initiative. It could be as large as a fundraising campaign, or as small as encouraging to people to check in with their colleagues and clients. Offering members flexibility on how they can help will drive better engagement, and allow members to deploy their skills and strengths where they are of most value.

By recognising the different emotional responses of people in times of crisis, organisations can understand how those responses drive member behaviours. This knowledge allows the creation of engagement strategies which look after members who are struggling, as well as make the most of those who are inspired to help.


The importance of communication in a crisis is well understood, but ensuring your communications are effective and engaging is a different matter. Unfortunately, many organisations still equate volume with success, believing that the more information is provided, the better the communication.

Human nature tells us this is not the case. During a crisis, our capacity to absorb information is reduced. People under pressure will often limit their consumption to single trusted channels as opposed to the wide spectrum of views and opinions they would usually access. They may also demonstrate confirmation bias, seeking and listening only to information that supports their existing beliefs. This may manifest itself as only listening to positive news as opposed to confronting the reality of a situation. In the worst cases, people may withdraw from engaging altogether if they feel overwhelmed.

These behavioural challenges are accentuated in the context of the Information Age. People have direct access to more sources of information than at any other point in human history. These sources of information can hold enormous commercial potential for advertisers, threatening neutrality and objectivity. For example, social media has democratised the ability to share and consume information, but this can often come at the cost of maintaining accuracy and truth.

Not-for-profit organisations that act in the interests of their profession have an opportunity to reinforce their position as impartial trusted advisors to their members, communicating unbiased and objective information that condenses and reflects a range of views from across the industry they serve.

Presenting a balance of negative and positive views in your communications can reduce the risk of members falling victim to confirmation bias. The ‘challenges and opportunities’ approach to issues is a classic example: be open and honest about difficulties, but provide space for optimism and forward thinking.

Taking a balanced view does not mean that organisations cannot take a single strong position on important issues, and it is essential that the validity of different opinions are evaluated in the context of data and evidence. The old saying is that not all opinions are created equal, and providing inaccurate or poor quality information will quickly erode the trust that has been developed with members.

In a time of crisis, social groups will often elect a single spokesperson. This person will usually be a highly effective communicator with a clarity and purpose, who represents the views of their wider community.

If membership organisations should be trusted advisers, then they should also consider how they can be trusted advocates. Members expect that their views and interests are being effectively communicated to key stakeholders, whether that is governments, regulators, or the public. Dynamic policy and public affairs activity that is aligned to the strategic objectives of the organisation is crucial.

Providing information that is reliable, clear, and frequent is a fundamental building block of what should be an ambition for all membership organisations: authentic leadership.

Resilience is key

The leading professor and economist Paul Romer famously said ‘a crisis is a terrible thing to waste’.
If membership organisations can answer these basic humans needs in a professional context, a crisis can represent a once in a generation opportunity to demonstrate their relevance and purpose to the industries and sectors they serve.

These engagement strategies are not unusual or eccentric. Creating a strong professional community should be a priority for membership organisations at all times. Clear communication and a call to action is essential to meaningful engagement. Regardless of whether there is a crisis or not, adopting these principles can ensure your organisation will operate effectively through good times and bad.

Matthew Hall, February 2021

Matthew is responsible for developing and leading strategic change initiatives focused on transforming the framework in which the Chartered Insurance Institute engages with its members and key stakeholders.

He has oversight for the strategic and operational delivery of the CII’s Societies programme and the CII's National Insurance Network, and also sits on the Society Advisory Boards for the broking, claims, and underwriting sectors.

He has over a decade of experience within professional membership bodies, including previous engagement roles at the Chartered Institute for Securities and Investment and the Chartered Institute for Public Relations.

Matthew is currently pursuing the Global MBA programme from Cass Business School, where he is the recipient of the Public & Third Sector scholarship.