Do Members Join for Your Mission?

The success of mission-driven companies like Chipotle show how associations can transform their missions from mere marketing slogans into membership drivers.

Let’s just answer that question in the headline right away: No, your members (at least the vast majority of them) don’t join to support your association’s mission.

But, if you’re doing it right, they might join because of your mission.

Here’s why that’s more than just semantics.

The November 2014 issue of Fast Company features a new batch of business leaders in what it calls “Generation Flux.” As editor and managing director Robert Safian writes, “Fluxers are defined not by their chronological age but by their willingness and ability to adapt. These are the people who are defining where business and culture are moving. And purpose is at the heart of their actions.”

Mission is exactly what makes Chipotle so much more than just the taste of its barbacoa.

On the Demand Perspective blog last week, Anna Caraveli focused on that final point about purpose and how associations can learn, in particular, from Chipotle CEO Steve Ells. On the company’s “Food With Integrity” mission, Ells tells Fast Company, “Is that ever going to be the reason people come into the store? ‘Oh, I want to eat food with integrity right now!’ I don’t think so.” But, as Safian writes, “Mission is exactly what makes Chipotle so much more than just the taste of its barbacoa. ‘Food With Integrity’ animates every decision the company makes, from the slaughterhouse to the food line at your local outlet to the strategic planning at the Denver headquarters.”

In short, you can’t eat a mission statement. But everything Chipotle cooks tastes better because of its mission. This is the lesson for associations, Caraveli says. Mission and profit need not be at odds.

“All nonprofits I worked or consulted with had great difficulty in integrating their mission with the need to generate revenue,” she writes. “As a result, a fundamental dishonesty and tension characterizes their culture in which organizations are consumed with generating revenue (sales, members, registrations, donations, sponsorships, etc.) while at the same time publicly disparaging business goals and pretending that their only motivation is the public good.”

How should this dynamic work in associations? I can write from experience as a member of the Online News Association. I’ve shared here before that I find ONA’s membership attractive because its programming and initiatives are clearly designed with a higher purpose in mind. It doesn’t just try to help journalists do their jobs better. Rather, it aims to keep journalism as an institution vital and thriving by helping journalists adapt in a rapidly changing world. The programming is great precisely because it’s in service of that mission.

And that leads me to the money quote from the Fast Company feature: “In a world that is evolving faster than ever, companies such as Apple and Chipotle—and Google and PepsiCo, and even fashion brands like Eileen Fisher—rely on mission to unlock product differentiation, talent acquisition and retention, and even investor loyalty. The more they focus on something beyond money, the more money they make.”

I’d like to association-ify that final quote: “The more associations focus on something beyond membership, the more members they recruit.”

Does that version work? Can the success of these “Generation Flux” companies apply the same way in the association context? I certainly think so, but it has to be clear that you can’t rely on mission alone to draw people in. As Caraveli says, too often associations “use their mission passively—as marketing slogans, pat statements of value.” Instead, your mission has to be ingrained in everything you do, throughout the organization.

For Chipotle, that means customers can taste the company’s mission in its food, and they keep coming back. For your association, if your mission permeates the member experience and how you design benefits, you’ll keep them joining and renewing, too.

How does your association live its mission? Does a strong mission focus lead to better membership performance? Let us know what you think in the comments.

(iStock Editorial/Thinkstock)

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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