Membership

When a Member Group Wants More Attention

By / Dec 11, 2013 (iStock/Thinkstock)

If a niche within your membership feels underserved, you can either adapt to meet its needs or let it go elsewhere. How do you decide?

For all the new technology that helps us self-organize and gather groups of common interest, sometimes we are reminded that building a sustainable association still takes resources like time, money, and people. (People willing to commit their time and money, to be specific.) Launching a new association with staying power is no small task, especially if it’s in the shadow of a related association that already exists.

Two weeks ago, Ernie Smith shared the story of the National Exchange Traded Funds Association, which launched two years ago but currently is “shelved” due to a lack of demand. In short, NETFA was created by a group of members of the Investment Company Institute who felt they needed an association of their own to serve their specific niche. For various reasons, though, they weren’t able to build a sustainable organization.

The underlying question for any association with a group that wants more attention boils down to one of breadth versus depth.

I reached out to ICI to get its perspective but didn’t receive a response, so we don’t know the details of what NETFA’s founders thought they needed but weren’t getting within in ICI or what consideration ICI gave to either trying to serve these members or letting them go on their way. But the very basic dynamics of this situation are likely familiar to many associations, and navigating them can be tricky.

So, let’s say your association has a small but active subgroup that, to put it simply, wants more attention. How do you handle it? I see three fundamental options:

Expand to give the niche more attention. It’s a niche group now, but maybe you see a growth opportunity because it’s focused on an emerging segment of your industry. Tailoring some benefits or creating new ones for the group could attract more members or drive increased revenue, which can cover the additional resources needed to serve it.

Cut elsewhere to give the niche more attention. If no clear growth opportunity exists but you don’t want to lose the members in the subgroup, you face the decision of how to reallocate resources toward the group. Do you make a clear decision about cutting programs or services for other groups? Or do you just pile the work for this new group onto your staff and let them decide what they don’t have time to do anymore? (I don’t recommend the latter, but I have a feeling some associations do it anyway.)

Maintain the status quo. If there’s no growth opportunity and you don’t like the prospect of cutting elsewhere, then you have to ask the subgroup to live with what you currently have to offer and hope they’ll be satisfied. If the group has hinted at splintering off on its own, you can either call its bluff or wish it well as it heads out on its own.

Each of these options carries some risk, and in a real-world situation they’ll hinge on a variety of nuances particular to your industry and the people involved. There will certainly be good intentions claimed on both sides, but there will be plenty of politics and egos to contend with, as well.

Yet despite those particulars, the underlying question for any association with a group that wants more attention boils down to one of breadth versus depth. Does your association want to expand its umbrella to cover as many related people and interests as possible? Or does it want to focus on a core group? The right answer might vary from one association to another, but knowing the answer to that question and setting a clear direction will certainly help in handling a restless niche.

One final suggestion, regardless of which option—expand, cut, or maintain—you would pursue: Get the group to be a part of the solution. If it wants greater representation and more tailored benefits, then ask those vocal members to participate in designing and creating them. Associations are about collaboration, so don’t let them just take without giving. (I call this either the Little Red Hen approach or the Jerry Maguire approach.)

I want to hear about your experience, though. How have you handled groups within your membership that feel underserved? Where is the tipping point between trying to do more for a group and just saying no? Are there other options beyond what I’ve suggested above? Let us know in the comments.

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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