Membership

New Frontiers: Why Associations Expand Their Horizons

By / Apr 1, 2017 (DigitalVision/Thinkstock)

As industries change, associations have been challenged to reassess who qualifies as a member. Many have found strength and greater engagement in expansion.

For the past few years, Mark Salkeld, president and CEO of the Petroleum Services Association of Canada, has been seeing a drop-off in its member rolls. PSAC is a trade group that represents the country’s oil and gas industry, and its membership was made up exclusively of companies in that space. But the drop in oil prices and downturn in drilling had changed the landscape, as one look at a busy highway would show.

“A trucking company that used to be moving drilling rigs, well, they weren’t moving drilling rigs the past two and a half years,” he says. “They were moving wind towers.”

Until recently, a company in the wind energy sector would not have been eligible for PSAC membership. But last fall its members voted in a bylaws change to accommodate service companies in wind, solar, and other alternative-energy businesses. For Salkeld, the move made sense on multiple levels: It expands the membership, thus increasing the association’s lobbying power, and it acknowledges that the definition of “member” shouldn’t always be static.

But as numerous associations have learned, expanding to include new member categories also demands foresight, communication, and preparation to serve a new class of members that the association may not be used to. A new member group can improve metrics, but it also presents challenges to an association’s resources and identity.

Industry (and Personality) Shifts

Since 1912, the Authors Guild has been a leading association for published writers, providing its members with the usual networking and educational opportunities along with legal review of their contracts. But with publishing’s economic model exploding in the past decade—fewer paying opportunities, along with more self-publishing avenues—the association began to rethink its membership structure.

“Several board members remarked—separately, without talking to each other—that they would have had a hard time launching the career they have today if they started today,” says Authors Guild Executive Director Mary Rasenberger. To that end, last fall it launched an Emerging Writer membership category, open to writers who haven’t yet published. They receive largely the same benefits as full members, though they do not have voting status or access to contract reviews.

Adding a new member class has made new content demands on the Authors Guild, says Rasenberger. The association has been working with contractors to produce more fact sheets, webinars, and handbooks on self-publishing. And it’s had to strategize about how to get the word out. Where once the association could advertise itself through the network of agents and publishers, to announce the Emerging Member category it partnered with Electric Literature, an online literary site with a core audience of MFA students and graduates—the ambitious and talented but relatively inexperienced group the category is designed to appeal to.

“They learned the craft of writing in school, but they do not learn about the business of writing there,” Rasenberger says. “They get out of these programs, and now what?”

The Association for Legal Administrators has been facing a similar predicament in recent years, according to Teena Austin, senior manager, member services. ALA serves nonattorney staffers at law firms, but as those firms began using more consultants for those functions, the association began losing members—and wanted to draw more on consultants’ contributions. “What really jumped out at me was the number of times I had tell someone, ‘No, we now consider you a consultant,’” she says. “‘Your role in the industry has changed, you’re not employed by a law firm anymore. You’re self-employed, or you have another employer.’ It was just a shame.”

To address the issue, ALA established a Membership Strategy Task Force, which proposed a new membership structure for consultants. Doing so would require a bylaws change. Although ALA chapters voted for the change in April 2015, the process raised some questions: What was the distinction between a consultant and a business partner? Does the new category erode the association’s integrity? “Frankly, when it was voted on, it was a fairly close vote,” Austin says. “I can’t say that we’re done with the education process.”

Since it was adopted, the new category has attracted 50 members, a small percentage of ALA’s 8,600 total members. But Austin sees value in the added brain power. The task force is now a standing membership development committee and includes a pair of consultants. “Their perspective as people who are engaged at the top level in strategic thinking around the management of business of law, it’s a perspective our other members don’t often have access to,” she says.

In 1958, the National Retired Teachers Association expanded membership to all Americans age 50 and older, becoming what’s now AARP.

Right Reasons to Expand

Market expansion strategies are nothing new: In 1958, the National Retired Teachers Association expanded membership to all Americans age 50 and older, becoming what’s now AARP. While adding new categories has a history and some obvious appeal for increasing members rolls, Tony Rossell, senior vice president at Marketing General Inc., advises caution to any organization considering it.

“It can be a very viable strategy, but the deeper you go into ancillary markets, you are going have lower response rates, you’re going to have lower renewal rates, and it’s going to be more costly to service those members, because it’s a different segment,” he says. “It’s not the first thing I recommend to people, but if an organization has a logical group to go after, they can do it.”

In that regard, Salkeld says PSAC did plenty of due diligence on what opening the doors to the alternative-energy community would mean for the character of the organization. Though skeptics expressed some “letting the enemy into the camp” rhetoric, he says, the move passed unanimously last November because the community recognized how much the industry was becoming hybridized.

“Our members are changing with the times with respect to their deliverables, and so too must their association in order to support the members the best ways possible,” Salkeld says. Even so, PSAC’s leaders took its lobbying savvy directly to membership: In advance of the vote, PSAC’s board made individual calls to member leaders to emphasize the value of the change.

Sometimes the shift doesn’t require a bylaws change—just a newfound appreciation of a neglected member category.

Since its bylaws dictate that the American Nurses Association cannot have student members, for years it has only had a “student subscriber” nonvoting category at a dirt-cheap $10 rate. However, the category was only promoted through nursing-school faculty, and ANA wanted to appeal more directly to new registered nurses who were in the early years of their career.

“There appeared to be a market that we were not capitalizing on,” says Carol Cohen, ANA’s director of membership development.

There was. In 2014, ANA launched a “Welcome to the Profession Toolkit,” which included online support tools and discussion groups that appealed directly to those communities. As a result, student subscriber numbers increased sixfold, and new-graduate members increased tenfold. That’s good for numbers, but just as important, Cohen says, it’s good for meeting ANA’s mission.

“Of all our online communities, the new-grad one is very active,” she says. “That’s an indication that we’re meeting some needs.”

Lesson From a Snub

Sometimes associations can discover new needs when faced with a challenging situation. That was the case two years ago for Rachel D. Tristano, CAE, when she had a fire to put out.

The organization she leads, the Plymouth and South Shore Association of Realtors, hosts a regular members-only mixer for area agents. The winner of one mixer’s prize giveaway was an office administrator—technically, somebody who shouldn’t have been there.

Informed of this, the administrator—along with the 60-odd employees at the three offices she helped manage—took offense and threatened to revoke their memberships. Tristano met with the person to smooth things over, and then asked herself: Why not open membership to those administrators?

Tristano heard a lot of reasons why not, but mainly of the “we’ve never done that” variety. “[Members] all have that administrator who’s, for many of them, kind of the informal caretaker of their Realtor agents,” she says. “She or he generally has built great relationships with all the agents. Getting admins involved and letting them know what we’re here for and what we do is the one piece that’s kind of missing from their knowledge.”

The new category was approved by the board and membership last October, letting admins into the fold at a lower dues rate. The association has only just begun promoting the new category of membership to the community, but Tristano sees plenty of potential for engaging upwards of 700 new members. And even if the association doesn’t hit that number, it’s keeping the community happy without needless tensions.

“It’s easier to feel like a family when everyone’s included,” Tristano says.

Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. More »

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