Just Say No to More Members

Today's strategies for success require associations to forget what they've always known about membership growth.

With apologies to Harrison Coerver and Mary Byers, CAE, I think I can sum up their new book, Road to Relevance, in three words: “Just say no.”

Their follow-up to 2011’s Race for Relevance is a how-to guide in saying no to a lot of the conventional habits in associations. Consider the five strategies in the new book, with my translations:

  • Build on strength [“say no to doing things you’re only half-good at”]
  • Concentrate resources [“say no to spreading staff, time, and money too thin”]
  • Integrate programs and services [“say no to outliers”]
  • Align people and processes for efficiency [“say no to waste”]
  • Abandon services and activities purposefully [“literally say no to some things so you can say yes to others”]

As association professionals begin to absorb the lessons in Road to Relevance, which made its debut last week at ASAE’s Great Ideas Conference (and which we’ll explore more deeply later this year in the pages of Associations Now), I want to revisit what I consider the most important recommendation from its predecessor: “Rationalize the Member Market.”

In short, Coerver and Byers argued that the days of broad memberships with common needs are over and associations should opt out of trying to be everything to everyone. Instead, they should “focus solely on the needs of a definable segment.” Simply put, success is based not on how many members you serve but on how well you serve them.

Success is based not on how many members you serve but on how well you serve them.

How many is so baked into the association mindset, though, so fundamental to the way associations have always operated, that it’s terribly challenging to resist—the typical response, as Coerver and Byers put it: “It would be un-American to question membership growth.”

But saying no to the constant quest for more is sine qua non to all of these other “say no” strategies. If membership growth is the core metric of success at your association, don’t even bother picking up Road to Relevance, because you’ll never get off the ground with any of the strategies it promotes.

As I mentioned a few weeks ago in “Value Vertigo,” associations say their biggest membership challenge today is trying to meet the disparate needs of a diverse set of members. This is a direct result of the instinct to encompass any and all stakeholders in an industry under the umbrella of membership, rather than focusing on a definable segment. And it gets in the way of pursuing strategies like those in Road to Relevance or like the demand perspective promoted by Andrea Pellegrino and Anna Caraveli.

Getting past the urge to grow the empire and instead adopting a realistic view of the member market—in other words, getting comfortable with maybe having fewer members instead of more—starts at the top of an association and must be ingrained in its culture. Jeff De Cagna, FRSA, FASAE, wrote this month in Associations Now about moving boards away from their old assumptions: “To counteract this mindset, CEOs and other senior executives must help their boards develop a more holistic and honest view of membership’s impact on current and future business models.”

And two weeks ago in this space, Jay Karen, CAE, president and CEO of the Professional Association of Innkeepers International, shared a comment about how PAII is “strengthening the member wall” so it can focus on meeting key needs for its definable segment. His board and staff all understand the strategy. “We have determined that the number of members we have is not as important as the capacity we have to get things done on our strategic plan. In other words, I would rather have 1,000 members at $250 each than 1,500 members paying on average $125 each,” he wrote. “My board knows that the all-important membership count is simply one of many indicators of our health—it’s not the goal.” I encourage you to go back and read the rest of what he had to say.

None of this is to say that more members is always bad. In fact, more members is probably a still good thing most of the time. But it’s important to realize that more members is not always a good thing, and that small but fundamental change in perspective is a necessity for a lot of the new strategies that will pave associations’ road to success.


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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