How “Unmembership” Gets Back to the Roots of Associating

A look at one small association that tossed its membership model 12 years ago and has been thriving as an informal community ever since.

In 2012, Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic coined the term “dark social” for link sharing on the web that isn’t done through easily trackable mechanisms. When a reader clicks a Facebook “Share” button on an article, that’s easy to track, but when a reader copies and pastes a URL into an email and sends it to a friend, that’s dark social. There isn’t much of a way to track it, but this type of sharing is still the biggest way content gets passed around on the web.

Dark social came to mind as I read Adrian Segar’s blog post last month, “Is Unmembership the Future of Associations?” Segar is author of Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love and got his start with conference design as a volunteer with a small association called edACCESS, a community for IT administration professionals at small schools. There was a time when edACCESS had a membership structure, but today it doesn’t. About 12 years ago, its board decided that it just “wasn’t worth the trouble.” It doesn’t have a paid staff, either. EdACCESS is primarily an informal community that hosts a tradeshow once a year, and members of the community participate in a listserver and occasional ad hoc special events. It’s entirely volunteer-run, save for Segar’s work planning the conference.

Every association started the same way. If there was some new field or new interest or new topic, a group of people said we want to get together and talk about this.

This type of organization is hyper-niche and doesn’t make big waves, which makes it easy to overlook. But in an age when gathering a community for knowledge sharing is easier than ever, we could call this form of organization “dark associating,” and it likely occurs every day in countless places all around the globe. If we could track it all, I bet it would dwarf the number of “visible” associations that we’re much more familiar with.

This is important to keep in mind as we consider how membership models at associations should (or shouldn’t) evolve in the future. For many small niche groups, their size and breadth of mission may simply not reach the scale at which a membership model is optimal. “Around the time we incorporated in 2002, we said let’s just get rid of the membership and unbundle the fees, and if we do something and people want to be a part of it, they can pay for that,” Segar says. “In general, it’s very much an association whose direction and energy and focus is determined by the community.”

Segar likened this model to Kickstarter, where ideas are proposed and greenlit only if enough people pledge their support. “It’s basically saying, OK, this is how we’re going to work with new ideas: We’ll look and see what kind of support there is for them, and, instead of doing it through your member dues where you’re paying $800 a year and getting this fixed package of things that you may or may not agree with, you’ll need to do some more work, but you’ll be able to say, ‘Yes I really want this to happen and I’m prepared to put in 75 bucks together with 300 other people,'” Segar says. “Maybe I’m just a dreamer here, but I don’t see why that model can’t work with larger associations.”

One major difference between larger associations and ones like edACCESS is their variety of endeavors. EdACCESS does no advocacy work, no certification, no standards-setting, and no publications. It’s just a community for knowledge sharing, and its members more or less like it that way. Segar says he hasn’t really considered how edACCESS’s model would change if it suddenly found itself with 10,000 community members rather than its current 1,000 or 2,000, because it probably wouldn’t let that scenario come to pass. It’s a niche community by design and would prefer to spin off other groups rather than grow in scope. Importantly, that’s easier to do now than it used to be. “A thing like edACCESS that was somewhat hard to organize 20 years ago is now pretty straightforward to organize,” Segar says.

To that point, Segar says he thinks more focused, niche groups will be the wave of the future for associations, and “unmembership” may follow with it. If self-organized groups are content with modest size and scope, then they may likely see no need for a structured membership model. For larger associations already in operation or those whose industries foster adequate growth, I think membership will survive. It’s the gray area in between where there’s room for debate about which approach is best.

We should all remember, though, that most of our associations, large or small, got their start the same way edACCESS did. “Every association started the same way,” Segar says. “If there was some new field that came out or new interest or new topic, a group of people said we want to get together and talk about this. At that point they weren’t thinking about membership, and they weren’t thinking about lecturers. They were thinking about how can we get together, create a community, and work together in some way. And so in some ways I think unmembership and unconferences are the true heart of associations.”

Could your association survive or thrive with an “unmembership” model? Whether this is an actionable question for you or mostly just a thought exercise, envisioning the scenario might inform how you shape your current membership model. 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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