When Free Membership Fits Your Mission

A trade association eliminates dues for its smallest companies, an inclusive effort to boost innovation and safety more broadly across its industry.

Six years later, Chris Anderson’s message about “free” seems prophetic. We are awash in businesses that offer free access or membership today. And yet, we’re all well aware that there’s really no such thing as a free lunch, that there’s always a catch. We come to expect advertisements, limited trials, paid add-ons, or that our data is being sold. Free is just another business model.

But in associations, free is not so frequent, particularly in membership. When associations try free, it’s not just another business model. The math has to work, of course; revenue has to come from somewhere. But associations have missions to pursue, and free membership doesn’t work if it doesn’t fit into that bigger picture.

NWFPA Cuts Out Dues for Associate Members

The Northwest Food Processors Association had this in mind when it eliminated dues for its associate member category in 2013. The smallest members of NWFPA’s market, “micro food processors” with less than $1 million in sales, had always been tough to reach, with tight budgets and not much time for engagement outside of their businesses. Charging $495 previously, NWFPA had all of three associate members, and it wasn’t even breaking even on them anyway. “It just costs too much to make those sales calls and to bring them into membership,” says Dave Zepponi, NWFPA president. “Four ninety-five doesn’t get us very far.”

Associations have missions to pursue, and free membership doesn’t work if it doesn’t fit into that bigger picture.

But NWFPA knew it wanted these micro food processors on board, and not just so it had more companies to sell to. Zepponi and the association’s board saw opportunity in two mission-critical areas of operation: innovation and industry safety.

“That was one of our key components for growth and for the industry in the Northwest, to invest in innovation, to get ideas and production processes quickly into the marketplace,” Zepponi says. Small food processors, often startups, are at the forefront, experimenting with new methods and foods that larger companies haven’t tried yet, but NWFPA wasn’t seeing that because it wasn’t getting those companies engaged. Now, Zepponi says, “We can start looking for trends earlier, so that we can start following those and see what’s going on in the food industry.”

Getting safety training and resources into the hands of more micro food processors—one year in, NWFPA now has 82 associate members—makes for a better industry and association, as well. Even a small food recall triggered by a small company can have ripple effects for an entire region’s food processors, so broader adoption of safety protocols is a positive for everyone, consumers included. “The public is going to have safer, better-run companies because of this,” Zepponi says.

Inclusivity is Goal NO. 1

These goals follow a similar strategic theme we’ve seen in other associations that have offered free membership: the notion that inclusivity trumps dues dollars in the pursuit of an association’s mission.

I noted this in 2011 when the American Dental Education Association and the Alliance for Women in Media both adopted “freemium” membership models and they both emphasized “openness” as a key goal:

“In each case, an increase in perspectives, ideas, and knowledge sharing was a major goal the association sought to achieve by lowering the barrier to access to its community. By becoming more open, they’ve aimed to become more inclusive.”

Same in 2012, when AIGA (once the American Institute of Graphic Arts) and the American Alliance of Museums each adopted a tiered membership structure with a “pay what you can” level at the bottom:

“Both organizations cite the need to cast a wider net in diversifying industries, to expand beyond the traditional professionals to allow engagement among a wider variety of interested stakeholders.”

We’ve also seen similar stated goals for free membership at the Parenteral Drug Association, the Citizen Science Association, and the Hedge Fund Association.

And now, again, we have NWFPA citing the benefits of inclusiveness under its free model. “It makes us a better association because we understand the food industry better, not just one size sector,” Zepponi says. Also this: “There’s a bigger, higher purpose for them, and that is to make sure that the small companies have access to high-quality professional information on how to make a safe product.”

Of course, NWFPA sells other products and services and hosts meetings that drive nondues revenue. It saw increased attendance at a small-business day at its tradeshow in January, for instance, which meant better business for the exhibitors who paid to be there. NWFPA is making the math work. But it’s only doing so because free membership for small companies made sense for so many other reasons.

In fact, when I first learned about NWFPA’s associate member model, Zepponi sent me a list of 10 reasons. Others included better market intelligence, better legislative advocacy clout, more “warm leads” as the small companies grow to mid-size companies, and better dialogue around “socially challenging food ideas,” such as gluten-free, non-genetically modified, and so on.

Whenever an association tries it, free membership gets a lot of attention—that’s part of why it works—and drives plenty of debate. Associations vary so much that free will likely only work for a select few. But for any that do consider it, NWFPA and others who put “free” to work in the context of their missions set a good example to follow.

Does your association offer free membership to any portion of its market, or have you considered it? What were the key benefits and concerns about trying 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!