Where Membership and Culture Meet

Changing organizational culture is a difficult job, but associations are in a special position to influence culture—the 2014 Merriam-Webster Word of the Year—among both staff and members.

Last month, before we all checked out for the holidays, dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster announced its 2014 Word of the Year: culture.

That might strike you as a particularly ho-hum word. (It did for me, at least.) Here in our line of work, association management, we talk about culture a whole heck of a lot. Just two years of search results on this site show at least a few hundred uses of culture, and over on the ASAE website (, organizational culture is in fact a term in ASAE’s topic classification system that you can filter content by.

But, as Merriam-Webster explains, culture saw the biggest increase in lookups on in 2014 among frequently looked-up words, driven primarily by its use in the media, becoming “a term frequently used in discussions of social phenomena.” (How’s that for meta? Our culture is to talk about ourselves so much that culture spikes in usage.)

Associations provide the mechanism for industry leaders to reflect upon their culture as a group and decide how to change for the better.

Peter Sokolowski, M-W editor at large, calls culture an “efficient” word; its M-W entry covers six separate definitions. In the organizational context, I like consultant Jamie Notter’s definition: “the collection of words, actions, thoughts, and ‘stuff’ that clarifies and reinforces what a company truly values.”

Associations have a unique relationship with organizational culture, as the organization is at once a collection of employees and a collection of members. Though they overlap, that’s two very different scopes, internal and external, in which a culture exists and, importantly, in which it can be influenced. For-profit organizations, on the other hand, likely don’t worry much about changing their customers’ culture (as long as it involves buying).

We talk about internal organizational culture a lot, probably because that’s what we feel we have some capacity to influence. For instance, you could, as many associations do, strive to build a staff culture that highly values members and membership. You might focus first on hiring people who show a member-centric mindset. Or, among existing staff, you might send monthly membership updates, speak about membership in all-staff meetings, and generally “pester” colleagues about focusing on members. You could prepare staff with membership FAQs in advance of annual renewal season [ASAE login required]. Or you might even send staff out to work in members’ businesses for a few days. Those are all actions that can clarify and reinforce how your association values members.

But there’s also external culture, the culture that exists among your members or out in the industry. It might be collaborative or it might be competitive. It might value academic accomplishment or it might value real-world experience. It might embrace diversity or it might fear it. Whatever your members’ culture might be, it’s there.

Changing the culture among your members or in your industry is daunting to just think about. It’s a tall task, but here at Associations Now we’ve highlighted some examples of associations trying to do it: the New England Venture Capital Association trying to improve the gender balance in the startup community, the Brewers Association urging greater attention to quality controls, gaming industry associations fighting against harassment from the Gamergate crowd, Tau Kappa Epsilon teaming with the White House on an initiative to address sexual assault on college campuses, and the American Trucking Association encouraging truckers to adopt more healthy lifestyles.

If any player has the position and influence to change the culture in an entire industry, it’s an association, because that’s exactly the sort of change an association is designed to do. It provides the mechanism for industry leaders to examine and reflect upon their culture as a group and decide how to change themselves for the better. And so, you, the association membership professional, are in a position not so much to change the culture of your members but to facilitate the process for members to change their culture themselves.

How does your association work to affect its culture, both internally among staff and externally among members? Have you had particular success in either effort? And how do you measure the effectiveness of a culture-change initiative? Let us know 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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