Even in the Recession, Member Dues Increases Still Common

The recession might have led some associations to put off dues increases, but not as many as you'd think.

It’s been five and a half years since the Great Recession began. If your association followed the historical patterns of a majority of associations, it should be coming up on at least its second dues increase in that span. Does that sound crazy to you, or perfectly reasonable?

I had assumed that dues increases were off the table for many associations during the recession. Apparently not.

In every benchmarking study that ASAE has conducted since 1974, it has asked associations about dues increases, with a question about timing in the form of “Have you had a dues increase in the past three years?” (In the last two editions, the survey asked for the specific year of the last dues increase, which I’ve converted for comparision.) The response has always fallen within a fairly close range:


Source: ASAE

Consistently, a little over half to two-thirds of associations have raised their dues at least once in the three-year period preceding any of ASAE’s past benchmarking studies. As we come up on six years since the beginning of the recession (circa August 2007), it would stand to reason that many, if not most, associations are coming up on a second dues increase.

At this point, I have to admit that I was surprised by this. Amid association CEOs’ concerns about declining membership revenue during the recession and stories of associations making extra efforts to take care of their members who had fallen on hard times, I had assumed that dues increases were off the table for many associations. Apparently not.

Within these numbers are associations that raise dues every year, tied to inflation or consumer price indexes, perhaps. Some other associations have free membership or only nominal dues charges; if your business model has no dues to raise or does not rely heavily on dues revenue, there’s no reason to change it. In between are the associations that raise dues on a variable frequency. Marketing General Inc. surveyed associations about dues increases in 2008 and found that about two-thirds (66 percent) of associations raise dues on an “as-needed” basis.

For these associations, I suspect that the decision to increase has been tricky in recent years. Keeping dues flat makes for a goodwill gesture to members who are tight on money. But the problem with not increasing dues is that, if expenses still rise, every year of static dues digs the association deeper into a hole to be climbed out of later, either through cutting costs, attracting a lot of new members, or raising dues. If and when you do get around to raising dues, the greater the increase needed to “catch up” means the greater the risk of losing some members due to sticker shock.

The data from 2011 is the lowest number from all of the past benchmarking studies, though not markedly so. It suggests to me that a some associations did indeed postpone dues increases, at least a little longer than usual, during the recession. Frustratingly, the economy is still taking the scenic route to recovery, so the dues-increase decision is likely still a tough one. Our data ends in 2011. If your association raised dues in 2012 after a long wait, how did it go for you? Or, if you’re thinking 2013 is the year to do it, what factors are weighing on your decision?

(Ryan McVay/Digital Vision/Thinkstock)

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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