Why Context Matters in Understanding Member Behavior

A comparison of engagement behavior in associations shows that members' motivations vary across different industries.

One great thing about following the association industry is learning something new just about every day, because every association has its own story to tell. You get to learn about the unique strengths, challenges, and idiosyncrasies of a lot of individual industries and professions.

That dynamic itself, though, can be its own challenge at times, and a new article that looks at engagement patterns in associations from two different industries reminds us why.

Different work fields have different histories, environments, and makeup of members, leading to differences in how associations operate and what members expect from those associations.

In “Engagement Motivations in Professional Associations” [paywalled] in the October 2013 edition of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, Mark Hager of Arizona State University digs into the data from ASAE’s 2010 study The Decision to Give (DTG) to explore the relative importance of public incentives (such as lobbying) and private incentives (such as networking) in influencing engagement in terms of donations, volunteering, and overall commitment to an association. The most striking finding, however, was the differences Hager saw between the different types of associations in the study.

Three of the associations that participated in DTG were in the engineering field, while the other two were in healthcare. Hager’s analysis “revealed substantial difference in the degree of motivations and their influence on engagement outcomes and commitment” between the two types. For example:

  • In the engineering associations, members with higher levels of education were more likely to be volunteers, but in the healthcare associations, volunteering was associated not with education but rather with longer tenure in the association and greater household income.
  • In the engineering associations, members who place a high value on career information were less likely to be volunteers; in the healthcare associations, members who place a high value on access to current industry info were less likely to be volunteers.
  • In the engineering associations, members who place a high value on current industry info were more likely to show a high level of “commitment” to the association (measured by how likely they said they were to recommend the association to a friend or colleague), but in the healthcare associations, a high value placed on leadership-development opportunities correlated most strongly with a high commitment.
  • The only similarity: Members with a high value on gaining leadership experience were more likely to give money to their associations, in both fields.

So, did you get all that? If not, don’t worry. I’d suggest not getting too bogged down in these specifics (they might not apply to your association’s industry, anyway), because the larger theme here is just that there were a lot of differences. The motivating factors that drive a member’s likelihood to be engaged with an association, at least in the DTG study, weren’t universal across these two industry types.

“Different work fields have different histories, environments, and makeup of members, leading to differences in how associations operate and what members expect from those associations,” Hager writes. “Engineering associations are not healthcare associations, and the findings from each of those cannot likely be generalized to other types of associations, or professional associations writ large.”

So while it’s good to know about broad-based trends and analysis, it’s important to check those findings against your association’s own set of circumstances. We all operate in such a wide variety of industries that everyone’s mileage may vary.

ASAE’s 2008 study, The Decision to Volunteer (DTV), a predecessor to Decision to Give, devoted a full chapter to this point. That study (which, to be clear, was similar in nature but did involve a different survey and set of participating organizations) saw important differences in rates of volunteering across different types of employers. Those in academia were the most likely to be active volunteers for their professional associations, more so than those in private industry, nonprofits, or government or the self-employed/solo practitioners. DTV did not, however, dig into specific industries or professions.

One other interesting note in Hager’s article: In the pool of DTV study participants, about one-quarter of them (26.9 percent) were “highly committed” to their associations (again, measured by likelihood to recommend the association to others) but had not volunteered or donated. That suggests a significant pool of people who are prime candidates to turn their affinity for an association into more tangible contributions.

When your association turns to data and research, how do you compare macro-trends with the conditions and behaviors specific to your membership? And how much weight do you put on either type of info?


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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