What Do You Tell Your Board About Membership?

Membership seems to be low on the list of board-training fundamentals, even though it's a fundamental business model for most associations. Shouldn't boards be well informed about it?

Membership seems to be low on the list of board-training fundamentals, even though it’s a fundamental business model for most associations. Shouldn’t boards be well informed about it?

The beginning of the year is board-orientation season for many associations. This year I’ve noticed that our 2014 Associations Now Volunteer Leadership Issue continues what you might call a peculiar streak, now going on nine years: It has never included an article about membership.

“A Member-Focused Board,” by Karen Conlon, in the Board Primer of the 2011 issue , was about as close as it’s been, but that article was mostly about choosing a governance model that allows the board to focus on member needs.

What’s the one most important message you try to convey to your board about membership?

This streak might not be surprising. The annual theme issue aimed at association boards (and designed to supplement board-orientation materials) is largely focused on governance and the fundamentals of board service. Topics like fiduciary duty, conflict of interest, and strategic leadership take precedence.

I like to think we have a good handle on what association boards need, so if there was a strong demand for membership training for boards, we’d cover it in the Volunteer Leadership Issue. But it’s not there, so either we have a major blind spot, or membership just isn’t on the list of priorities to discuss in board training.

With governance models that separate strategy from execution, maybe it’s true that the board needs little more than a quarterly report on membership numbers, and the staff can say, “Don’t worry, we’ve got it from here.”

Most of us would likely prefer not to have board members “meddling” or “getting lost in the weeds” of membership marketing. Deirdre Reid, CAE, wrote last year about the lessons learned from a failed membership drive that had been driven in part by the board:

Boards and CEOs love seeing membership and revenue grow, so they may push for a membership drive without thinking about the implications. Your job is to make them understand that the drive is only half the project. A year of onboarding and engaging those new members is the other half. Their expectations about the number of new members you can handle must be tempered by reality.

On the other hand, volunteers can be successfully involved in membership recruitment and retention efforts: IEEE—with more than 425,000 members, one of the biggest associations on the planet—puts volunteers to work in a “global membership-development workforce” [login required]:

John Day, IEEE director of member products and programs, credits success to a balance of volunteer commitment and staff developing tools and tactics that empower and enable the volunteers to succeed. “We recognize that they are the boots on the ground. They have the best knowledge of what’s taking place locally,” Day says. “However, they may not have adequate resources as far as promotional capability, and we take it upon ourselves, we the staff here, to supply them with all those resources and educate them on a continuous basis on what’s taking place with membership.”

In any case, membership is undoubtedly an important topic for associations. It is the business model most associations thrive on, after all. Shouldn’t boards be well informed about it?

I’m curious to hear from you. How do you talk about membership with your board of directors? Do you discuss membership during board orientation and training? How much about your membership recruitment, retention, and engagement efforts do you share with the board throughout the year? And, if there’s one most important message you try to convey to your board about membership, what is it? 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

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!