A Lesson From Museums on Mission and Membership

For visitor-serving organizations like museums and zoos, evidence shows a strong reputation for mission pursuit boosts financial performance. Can we make the same observation about associations?

Working in associations, we are often inclined to make comparisons between our member-serving organizations and philanthropic nonprofits. Charities are a major portion of the nonprofit sector, so there is much to compare to. Less often, however, do we discuss trends among “visitor-serving organizations,” such as museums, zoos, and aquariums, and how they relate to associations. Some recent data about that sector, though, is worth exploring.

Two weeks ago, Colleen Dilenschneider, chief market engagement officer at research and analytics firm IMPACTS, shared data about museums, zoos, and aquariums showing that their reputations for pursuing their missions is correlated to their financial performance. In other words, “organizations perceived as ‘best-in-class’ in terms of mission delivery reliably outperform organizations that rely more on their reputations as ‘attractions’ when it comes to their financial bottom lines,” she wrote.

The challenge associations constantly face is bringing their missions to life for their members to see.

The finding was based on “attitudinal and awareness data” that IMPACTS collects for more than 200 visitor-serving organizations in the United States. She continued:

[D]ata support efforts to underscore your social mission and demonstrate topic expertise alongside location-based content to help drive visitation and provide insight into the entertaining and inspiring experiences that you provide. Simply put, people want to visit organizations that are more than just attractions.

A lot of museums, zoos, and aquariums are nonprofit, mission-based organizations, just like associations, so this data could be useful in the association profession. But the obvious differences between visitor-serving organizations and associations requires some consideration to how closely we can align this data in one nonprofit sector to another. I’ll argue that, despite those differences, associations can take this research to heart.

What might be identified as an “advantage” for visitor-serving organizations over associations is the tangible, real-life impressions they can make on their supporters. A beautiful sculpture or a dinosaur skeleton or a panda cam can put these organizations’ missions literally on display and exhibit the value of their pursuit. Done well, as Dilenschneider suggests, mission and attraction can be intertwined in such a way as to reinforce each other.

In the association context, I see this relationship working the same way between mission and membership and, more specificly, between personal and good-of-the-order benefits. Findings from ASAE’s The Decision to Join supported this and summed it up like so:

The bottom line … is the straightforward fact that all of the personal benefits described received an overall 3.4 importance rating and benefits to the field received a loftier and statistically significant 3.6. That means that the benefits for the good of the order are more important than personal benefits, though both hang closely together, as a good balancing act should. … Based on these data, the claim is made that the unity of personal benefits and benefits to the field are the Yin and the Yang of association management. They are the complementary opposites on a spectrum of value.

Good of the order is harder to sell, though, than personal benefits, and that simple reason may be why it’s so easy to skew in the other direction, crafting membership packages as mostly a suite of products and services. The challenge associations constantly face is making those good-of-the-order benefits tangible and bringing their missions to life for their members to see.

I shared one example of an association doing this well, at least to my eyes, in the comments of my “Why Mission Comes Before Membership” post back in December. At the Online News Association conference I attended in October, I came away with both a slew of ideas for making my own work better and a healthy optimism for the future of journalism, and this was no accident. The overall tone of the conference was one of collective action, that journalists helping each other learn to navigate a rapidly evolving profession will make all of us (and, by extension, our audiences) better off. More directly, some of ONA’s key mission-based endeavors were on display at the conference, as well: A new investment in its Challenge Fund for Innovation in Journalism Education was announced, students from its AP-Google scholarship program presented their projects, and a large portion of its exhibit hall was demonstration space where journalists could try out and learn new tech tools in person. At both the conference and throughout my interactions with ONA, it’s been apparent that the benefits are designed to serve members, but the more members who use them means the further ONA moves toward its mission of improving journalism.

When mission and membership reinforce each other, that’s the sort of harmony that the association model is made for. And that’s why I think the evidence of a similar balance in the sector of visitor-serving organizations that Dilenschneider identified has relevance for associations.

I’m curious about your experience with the relationship between mission and membership. How does your association try to bring its mission to life for members, and do you see a positive impact on membership levels when you’re able to make a compelling case for your mission? Please share 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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