Trade unions without a digital footprint are vulnerable

DateAugust 2021

Author: Jeremy Jalie, Business Development Director, Silverbear

When we’re asked to develop membership CRM systems for trade unions (or any of our membership customers, for that matter), the first question we ask is ‘what do you need it to do?’ Invariably, and often very quickly, the answer supplied is ‘increase engagement’.

This is no surprise, of course. After all, an engaged membership is an enthused membership and, therefore, one that will be less inclined to question the value - not to mention cost - of actually being a member.

But what happens when a global event such as a pandemic upends traditional customs and practices? How can organisations continue to deliver member value and effectively engage their audience when traditional communications tools become redundant?

A game of Russian roulette

This is a question Union 21, a forum for trade unions to explore shared challenges by working collaboratively and developing practical projects and ideas to help build trade union leadership of tomorrow, asked in its report entitled Covid-19 and the work of trade unions: new challenges and new responses.

The report, published at the beginning of the year, noted how, ‘with in-person updates in the workplace not possible and printed materials not viable, the pandemic led to nearly all communication between unions and their members to be either digital or via the phone.’ The report also notes that this has placed trade unions’ digital capacity and capability in the spotlight and, in turn, led to a turning point when it comes to trade unions’ resistance to digital infrastructure investment.

As membership database software specialists we believe that any organisation whose lifeblood is its membership, yet does not have sufficient digital capabilities and infrastructure in place is, in effect, playing a game of Russian roulette.

Sometimes it takes a crisis

As the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown once said around the time of the financial crisis of 2008, ‘Sometimes it takes a crisis for people to agree that what is obvious and should have been done years ago can no longer be postponed.’ Of course, it doesn’t always take events as drastic as a global pandemic or a financial crash to make those without a digital rudder feel the pinch.

Take NAHT, for example. Had Silverbear not stepped in to migrate the trade union’s website to DNN a few months ago, it would have been left without a functioning website and prevented its 45,000 members from accessing critical documents that they are not only proactively encouraged to use, but that provide the value they get from being a member in the first place.

Digital infrastructure is priority number one

Regardless of the nature and scale of a crisis, the same sentiment applies: digital membership systems are resilient membership systems. Without resilience, trade unions become vulnerable to events outside of their control – and during unprecedented times for workers and employees, when unions are needed more than ever, this is doubly dangerous.

Union 21’s report is timely and provides insights that should be deemed inspiring and cautionary in equal measure. That is to say, inspiring for those who fully understand the opportunities associated with having (and the risks of not having) a sufficient digital presence, and cautionary for those whose resilience remains in question in the absence of a robust digital footprint.

As we highlighted in a recent trade union membership article, trade union membership is growing at a scale we believe can only be supported with scalable digital systems. With continued trade union member growth on the horizon, combined with the realisation that surprise events have the power to negatively impact an organisation at any given time, 2021 must be the year of trade union digital transformation.

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