What If Membership Was Front-Page News?
Most decisions to join an association don't end up in the newspaper. But one association whose members are public officials must make its case in terms everyone can understand.
“BREAKING: After a week of debate, office manager Matt Borecky has decided to renew his membership in the local chapter of the National Managers’ Society. Sources close to the decision say a key factor was his supervisor’s approval for reimbursing his member dues.”
Sounds like the opening of either a very unlikely news article or a great mock-story in The Onion, right? As important as your members’ decision to join is to you, it’s not exactly headline news. The nuances of your member recruitment and retention efforts are likely to remain best known only to you and your members. But there’s an old adage that says “Don’t do anything you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of the newspaper,” which reminds us to act prudently whether we suspect anyone is watching or not. One association has recently seen this scenario come true.
Over the holidays, the Northern Virginia Daily reported on the decision of two newly elected county supervisors in Shenandoah County, Virginia, to push the county to drop its membership with the Virginia Association of Counties. The officials pointed to an “ongoing study and scrutiny of the budget” in the county; VACo Executive Director Jim Campell is quoted in the article, as well, making the case for the value of VACo’s educational and lobbying efforts to its member counties.
I think he fares well, arguing for both direct and collective benefits of membership. A couple key points from the article:
- “The director pointed out that most supervisors’ candidates run on one or two issues. But the newly elected supervisors take office and find themselves immersed in a ‘full array’ of issues they must address as board members such as zoning, transportation, public safety, and education. The forum tackles these topics.”
- “The association’s active members set the [lobbying] positions, Campbell said. The best way to change those positions is to remain involved in the process, he added.”
VACo had enjoyed 100 percent membership among Virginia’s 95 counties for more than 20 years up until 2012, when Goochland County dropped out. Shenandoah would make the second. I spoke with Campbell Tuesday, and he said “changing philosophies” in some county governments have led VACo to become more responsive to questions of membership benefits and value—and that’s a good thing. “As an association—and I’ve got my staff rallied around this concept here—we need to focus on pointing out what the benefits of our association are,” Campbell says.
Most associations don’t have members like VACo’s—public officials who answer to constituents’ needs—but the requirements for recruiting and retaining members under public scrutiny could be useful in appealing to private members, as well. Whereas public officials must justify the expense for membership dues to their citizens, a member of another association may need to explain the cost of membership to a boss, shareholders, customers, financial advisors, or even a spouse. If you can help a member explain the value of membership to someone else, you’ll have them won twice over.
Here are three lessons from Campbell and VACo’s example:
Public interest demands clarity. Speaking about any topic to a non-specialized audience means speaking in terms they understand and addressing their specific concerns. Campbell says he tries to stress the value of educational opportunities and economic savings for counties when speaking with the media. “Many of our members consider us only a legislative arm, but then when we point out the financial benefits, the economic benefits, the training benefits, and some opportunities to serve their citizens better, it does make sense,” he says.
Membership carries symbolic importance, as well. When membership status is on display, it can become a symbol as much as a hard ROI calculation. Campbell says some county supervisors who win election on a platform of change from the status quo can see dropping membership as an easy example of following through on that promise, and so VACo must also appeal to members in terms of what membership in the association says about the county government.
Direct “behind the scenes” appeals matter just as much. Despite what might play out in the local news, the traditional direct appeal still matters, says Campbell. VACo now prepares a two- to three-page sheet of benefits for each county that illustrates what they’re receiving. Many of the member services and legislative efforts can be translated into dollar values, he says. “We took a more proactive stance on actually preparing this information so we could show folks who were questioning the value of the organization specifically.”
You may never find yourself promoting the value of membership in your association to the news media, but considering how you’d fare if you did could be a revealing exercise. Take a look at your mission statement or member-benefits pamphlets: How would they read in The New York Times? Clear and purposeful, or vague and jargony? Let us know in the comments.