Why Mission Comes Before Membership

One association executive implores associations to restore volunteerism and mission as their primary pursuits and to remember that membership is merely a means to an end.

After more than a year of writing weekly blog posts on association membership, what I find most intriguing is how often and how easily seemingly simple questions about membership methods become existential debates about the nature of associations.

For example, in response to this post about whether to provide a product free or as a members-only benefit, commenters discussed whether associations were losing their focus on mission and serving members. I was a little surprised by that, but maybe I shouldn’t have been. One person who I think wouldn’t find it surprising at all, however, is Mark Golden, FASAE, CAE, executive director of the National Society of Professional Engineers.

In short, Golden says, mission comes first, and whether you even have members comes a distant second.

Last month, in a presentation at the Association Chief Executives (ACE) Symposium, Golden delivered a rousing case [PDF] for returning to our roots as voluntary associations and demoting membership in our collective consciousness back to where it belongs, as merely a practice whose use or form is subservient to an association’s mission. In short, Golden says, mission comes first, and whether you even have members comes a distant second.

(At this point I have to plead sheer ignorance for missing both the ACE Symposium in advance and the transcript of Golden’s presentation for nearly a month after he posted it online. I regret missing it until now, but I don’t mind reaching this far back to highlight it because, well, it’s just that good.)

You should go read all of Golden’s message now. It will be worth your five minutes. But here are a few of the many highlights:

Volunteerism, not membership, is what makes us unique. I think we have forgotten that fact and taken a lot of wrong turns because we made membership central to the discussion, as if membership was the distinctively defining feature of our organizations. … Membership is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. It is a feature of our volunteer-based ecosystem, not an actual benefit. We have membership because it is a way to marshal the economic and intellectual capital necessary to achieve the mission.

Any mission-driven organization that focuses on the business of membership as if that were its mission gets sick.

None of our organization founders ever got together in a room and said: “What we need to do is collect a bunch of money so we can hire a staff to sell us stuff.” What is needed is to get our heads out of membership models and back into a focus on mission first: What (specifically) does our organization exist to accomplish? Then, and only then, ask: What role (if any) could membership play in achieving the mission?

This is not the first time Golden has argued for designing membership for the good of the cause, not as a product to be sold. Nor is he the only one to do so. But this time, in tracing the evolution of the American model of associating from Tocqueville to Web 2.0, he makes the most clear-headed and convincing argument for mission-focused membership that I’ve seen yet.

We should all take heed, because we all have a touch of member mania. (“Guess what? I got a fever, and the only prescription is more members!”) Perhaps this very blog perpetuates it. It’s smart to learn about the details of dues cycles and engagement programs and membership marketing to make your membership model run smoothly, but it’s easy to get lost in the details and mistake strong tactics for sound strategy.

And Golden says associations have swung too far in that direction, focusing on maximizing transactional value rather than realizing collective goals. In an era of daunting competition from membership-savvy for-profit organizations and tech-savvy grassroots collaborators, it makes sense that associations have strived to improve efficiency and management of the business of membership, but trying to compete on price or product quality makes an association just another retailer in a crowded field.

Instead, he argues, the future of associations rests exactly where it began, with the one quality that makes associations different from any other type of business: their nature as voluntary organizations, formed by and for people with common interests and shared goals. And if those shared interests and goals are no longer enough to drive your people toward collective action, then that’s a question of your mission, not your membership model.

If you can’t tell by now, Golden’s case has me convinced. It’s got me thinking a bit differently about association membership now. But the struggle we all face is translating ideals into substance. I’m curious how many associations have the will and the passion to question their founding principles and long-time modes of operation. It takes committed volunteers who aren’t afraid to take risks in the leadership role entrusted to them and staff who won’t bend to the urges of self-preservation.

So, when was the last time your association asked itself whether it actually needed members? Have you been able to put mission above membership, or is that easier said than done? And if you’re at an association with a weak mission—if you’re willing to admit it—how has that affected your ability to drive membership? Please share your thoughts in the comments.


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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