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Membership fees when no events are being held?

Many associations are still not sure how seriously the coronavirus crisis is impacting them financially. They are losing an important source of income because they are not holding events. Members may now question whether they need to pay their annual membership fee. How should associations respond to this situation?

22 May 2020, text: Felix Mätzler, photo: Deposit

A football on an empty field.

The Zug Aquarium Association, the Wynental Historical Association and the Friends of Rwanda in Zurich: These are three of the more than 100,000 associations in Switzerland. And all three associations share one thing in common: Their membership fees are low because, as is the case at many associations, they are viewed as a 'solidarity contribution' or are used to cover administrative and infrastructure costs.

Solidarity contribution or service fee?

The situation is different for associations where the contribution is paid in exchange for a service, for example, at FC Frauenfeld, where members pay an annual membership fee of as much as CHF 500, which allows them to train and play football. There has been no training for two months and members haven’t been able to play for even longer than that – due to the coronavirus. And yet: «Not one member has contacted me to ask for his or her money back», says association president Markus Frei. This is probably because the annual membership fees were paid last August. Markus Frei is now anxiously wondering whether members will demand a reduction in the annual fee this August.

«You won’t be making any friends»

It makes complete sense to look for a practical solution to the issue of membership fees and to offer a discount if benefits have been reduced, says attorney Walter Wagner of St. Gallen. Even if – from a purely legal perspective – the fees are due. However, Wagner, a specialist in association law, would forgo enforcement proceedings if someone chooses not to pay because doing so would be too complicated: «You certainly won’t be making any friends that way.»

Support for sport and culture

Many associations will also lose money this year because they are unable to hold events or because their club restaurant remains closed – important contributors to the annual budget for many associations. «Three of our events had to be cancelled because of the coronavirus», says Frauenfeld president Markus Frei. He estimates that this has meant a loss of CHF 20 000 to CHF 30 000. And yet as he notes: «We’ll be able to balance this out because our minimum income is about the same as our minimum expenses.» Other sport associations are less sanguine about the future. The Federal Council has recognised this situation as well, approving CHF 50 million for sport clubs that are volunteer-based and mainly dedicated to sport back in March. It added another CHF 150 million in May. However, these funds are only available to associations that are close to bankruptcy. The federal government has also approved money for amateur cultural associations, offering a total of CHF 10 million if associations have to cancel events as a result of the coronavirus.

Around 460 associations supported

Helvetia completed the support campaign for associations at the end of August. Since the campaign was launched at the end of April, around 460 associations have received support. Sport clubs make up about two thirds of all applications, with a quarter coming from the cultural sector. Others are active in the social sphere, the arts and business.

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