Who’s Paying Your Dues?

Joining is an easy decision when your company pays for it, but a rise in nontraditional careers might mean more professionals making membership decisions with their own money in mind.

When your members send you their dues payments, do you know whose pockets they’re reaching into? Their own, or their employers’? The answer may shed some light on how solid your membership foundation is.

Why? Imagine for a moment that, for all of your members whose dues are employer-paid, their professional-development budgets dried up and they had to open their own checkbooks at renewal time. Just how loyal would those members be? (For trade associations with organizational memberships, the question is still relevant if you apply it to the decision to attend conferences and events—which of course applies at individual membership organizations, too, for that matter.)

ASAE asked a broad sampling of association members (i.e. ASAE’s members’ members) about who pays for dues in its series of Economic Impact studies between 2009 and 2012. In those surveys, between 16 and 23 percent of respondents said they would drop their association memberships if their employers stopped paying:


Source: Associations in an Uncertain Economy: Attitudes and Behaviors Among CEOs and Members, ASAE, 2012; Click for larger

What happens if more of your members become self-employed and must pay for their own professional development?

I see these numbers as conservative. Consider the people who said they would self-pay if their employers stopped paying: Would they really? It’s an easy answer to give on a survey, but checking a box is different from writing a check. I wonder how many of them would have second thoughts if that hypothetical scenario came true.

Between 2009 and 2012, this question was on associations’ minds (and in ASAE’s survey) because the recession led to fears that companies would cut professional development budgets to save money (if they did, those budgets now appear to be recovering). Last week, though, Steve Drake of SCD Group raised this question in a much broader, more long-term context in his blog post “Is Your Association Adjusting for Increased Freelancers & Self-Employed?

He shared his experience in weighing professional-development decisions as a self-employed consultant:

I belong to a local professional society that charges $195 for membership plus $34 for each luncheon meeting. If I attend 10 of those monthly meetings, I’m paying $340. It also costs me about $3,750 in “time opportunity cost.” So, the real cost of participating in this local organization amounts to about $4,285!

As Drake points out, more and more American workers are making these decisions about spending their own money on professional development. Government Accountability Office numbers [PDF] say about 42 million people (or one of every three American workers) are “contingent workers” (i.e., self-employed, independent contractors, temporary workers, or part-time). That number is from 2005, and more recent estimates show it to be growing.

So, as we gradually emerge from the recession, rather than “What happens if our members’ employers cut their professional-development budgets?” the question becomes “What happens if more of our members become self-employed and must pay for their own professional development?” This rise in nontraditional careers may emerge as a new normal for a wide swath of the post-recession workforce. It’s not a trend that will turn your association upside down overnight, but it’s one to examine for the long term, particularly as it applies within your association’s industry.

If you’re looking for a new question to add to your member surveys in 2013, “Does your employer pay for your membership?” could be a good one.


Joe Rominiecki

By Joe Rominiecki

Joe Rominiecki, manager of communications at the Entomological Society of America, is a former senior editor at Associations Now. MORE

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