Membership

When Your Members Want You to Stay Small

By / Oct 4, 2013 (iStock/Thinkstock)

Are associations better served by focusing narrowly on current members’ interests or by working to grow their bases? The Natural Products Association recently faced this question, and those who voted on it chose the former.

Perhaps the growth wasn’t natural enough for its members.

The Natural Products Association recently put revised member requirements up to a vote. Its proposed changes had the potential to allow the organization grow by leaps and bounds, but NPA members rejected the change. What happened?

About the proposal: Large companies (think Whole Foods) and online firms that sell natural products have grown increasingly interested in joining NPA, a group with a near-80-year history and the ear of some influential members of Congress. However, the association’s bylaws require its retail members to own self-contained stores, and 75 percent of the products they sell must be natural. While the group counts national chains such as Vitamin Shoppe and GNC among its members, big-box retailers had been shut out. A mail-in ballot on amendments to NPA’s bylaws went out to members, and a proposal to change those requirements was one of the six listed. Though there were barely enough members who voted to reach a quorum, those who did vote approved the other five amendments but defeated the membership proposal by a tight margin—only 11 votes.

Why it didn’t pass: “It’s been a divisive issue because the smaller independent members value membership for its special quality and its exclusivity,” Gabrielle Alahouzos, NPA’s vice president of member services, told NutraIngredients-USA. She noted that the association’s more traditional members likely saw the large retailers as “lesser-quality members” that would have diluted the member base. Some food-industry pundits, like Food Dive’s Paul Conley, say that the organization may be better served by a narrower focus. “We think the NPA’s decision not to expand membership ensures that the group will not be a major voice in the food industry, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” he said. “The industry needs small, specialized voices too.”

What the benefits could have been: Alahouzos said that what the organization could have lost in purity would have been made up for in increased advocacy clout and financial means. While NPA holds its own on Capitol Hill—earning support from Republicans like Utah’s Sen. Orrin Hatch and Democrats like Colorado’s Rep. Jared Polis— a larger member base could have helped its lobbying efforts. “Obviously that means more members and more power on Capitol Hill and additionally more dollars to enable the association to perform its advocacy function,” Alahouzos said.

There’s a chance that those who opposed the move may find the tables turned if the issue comes up again. One of the bylaw changes that did pass allows electronic voting in the future, which presumably would encourage broader participation and might lead to a different result.

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. More »

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