OPINION6 September 2021

What is the role of an association?

Covid-19 Opinion UK

The pandemic helped define the true value of an association in today’s world, says Debrah Harding.

interlinked wooden blocks with figures pictured, suggesting a network or community

What is the point of an association in modern society? This is a question that I am sometimes asked, and was a question I reminded myself about at the beginning of the pandemic. The answer – that associations protect, promote and connect their memberships and customers with each other, with business, government and society – has never been more important than over the last year.

When the crisis really began to bite in March 2020 it was an uncertain time. None of us knew what it would mean for us as citizens, for businesses, or for our country. What we did know was that everyone was pulling in their resources, sitting tight and watching and waiting. Which if you are running a business is a very, very scary place to be. Early on, MRS made a very clear decision that whatever happened, it was going to do everything possible to keep the research and insight sector active and flourishing.

We decided to take the financial hit and not access the UK government’s furlough scheme. Instead we retained all our staff and dug in for the long haul. Never was this more true than with the standards and policy team.

Members and company partners were justifiably eager to know and understand what lockdown meant for the sector. In order to make sure that we delivered the best we could for our stakeholders, the standards and policy team focused on two key areas: the practice of research, particularly face-to-face activities; and the research business and how this could benefit from the various government Covid-19 schemes.

For the practice of research it was all about how face-to-face data collection could resume under Covid-19 safe working conditions. Working closely with the government, particularly the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS), MRS was able to shape and draft guidance enabling some face-to-face data collection to resume from May 2020. As a result, since the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis, face-to-face data collection activities were only paused for two months in most of the UK.

While not all activities could resume, such as in-home data collection, the MRS guidance enabled data collection to resume in a modified way on the doorstep, in street, in store, in transit and in venues.

For the research businesses, the standards and policy team focused on the raft of government initiatives and schemes and what these meant for research, and how practitioners and businesses could access and leverage the funding available. We focused on five key areas: the coronavirus job retention scheme (the ‘furlough’ scheme), the self-employment income support (SEISS) scheme, the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme (CBILS), the bounce back scheme and the rates relief available via local authorities. Initially, we focused on interpreting these schemes and providing advice via FAQs.

The next stage was to get the schemes changed to ensure they could apply to as many within the research sector as possible. We were particularly concerned about workers such as recruiters and interviewers, and SME businesses.

The biggest and most significant success was having the furlough scheme extended beyond employees to cover workers, enabling workers such as interviewers to benefit from the scheme.

We had mixed success with the rates relief, convincing some local authorities to give relief while others resolutely would not budge.

To amplify our messaging and activities we harnessed our networks both within the wider marketing and advertising sector, via MRS membership of the Advertising Association, plus our connections with business networks such as the CBI and the Federation of Small Business. We also joined forces to undertake joint representation with other professional associations which had similar challenges to us, for example with the scope of the SEISS scheme.

The important point was that every day we kept pushing our messaging, reminding government about the needs of our sector, the pressures it was facing, and why research was important and could not be ignored.

I am incredibly proud of the standards and policy team’s achievements over the last year. We made a difference – we did our job – we kept the sector protected, promoted and connected. Could we have achieved more? Of course, that is always the case. But, I hope we reinforced the point about why associations exist and why they are important. The team however, could not have done this without incredible support from the staff within MRS, and also from the sector at large.

Time and time again we were asking ‘critical friends’ to review draft guidance, give practical insight, tell us what worked for them and provide market intelligence for policy papers. Without you, we could not have done our job to the same degree. So thank you. The job is not done, Covid-19 still exists, and now we have to get on with the challenges to come.

Debrah Harding is managing director at MRS

This article was first published in the MRS Annual Review 2020-21