If you follow the association management community discussions, you will come across conversations about how associations should consider doing away with the traditional membership models and volunteer committee structures. Further, discussions about reducing the sizes of Boards, using search firms to vet and select Board members and transitioning into a more corporate-style of business, where associations have customers, not members, are prevalent in many conversations, books, articles and social media outlets. But lost in the conversations are the core of why we exist as associations — the members.
Perhaps I am an association purist, but I still believe that members are the reason associations exist. Whether you are a professional association representing a profession, or a trade association representing an industry, your core purpose should involve delivering value to members.
I am open to new ways of thinking about membership. I think that associations have to look at new and innovative ways to attract and retain members, as well as serve non-members in their profession or industry, and turning them into members may not always be the end goal. What I am resistant to is moving away from the idea of associations representing the power of the collective, a common purpose and keeping members and members’ needs at the forefront of their purpose.
I think several things drive association executives to extreme thinking. First, membership recruitment and retention take work. Some associations lack the basics in their processes and misdiagnose the core problems. Second, a new book, article, white paper or other medium comes out offering a whole new philosophy, and association executives look at it as a fix to their ailments and drink the proverbial Kool-Aid. Hey, as one consultant posted, someone needs to be first, right? Finally, associations are too stuck in past models and do what we call insanity — the definition being, doing the same thing over and over again and expect different results.
I think some of us need to go back to the basics and remember, members matter.
One of my favorite quotes is by Jim Dalton, CAE, “Members don’t pay for the association to solve its problems, but pay dues for the association to solve their problems.” Dalton’s words get to the very heart of what associations must remember about members — if the association is working on the issues that are and will impact their profession and business, then they will find value. If they find value, they will stay in the association, possibly get engaged and even step into leadership. It is our job as association executives to continue to seek what our members need and build and drive value.
What members do notice is when the association is more focused on attracting new members more than they are retaining the ones they have. They know when the association starts viewing them as a transaction versus a long-term relationship. They know when they matter and when they are turned simply to a means to an end.
So if your culture has shifted to where members feel like they no longer matter, they will leave.
Stay tuned for part two: driving membership value, engagement and retention.