Membership Mode: A Crash Course for Volunteer Leaders

If you’re going to lead an association, it would be a good idea to understand its foundational business model, right? Here’s a crash course for volunteer leaders on how membership works and what your role is in shaping and promoting it at your association.

Traditionally, membership packages have been one-size-fits-all, but that model is showing its age.

If you’re going to lead an association, it would be a good idea to understand its foundational business model, right? Here’s a crash course for volunteer leaders on how membership works and what your role is in shaping and promoting it at your association.

Chances are, membership isn’t your day job. Maybe you’re a nurse, or a builder, or an artist. Even if you’re a business executive, the membership model is probably a little foreign to you.

But here you are, at the helm of an association, charged with working on behalf of a group of people with common goals and needs. Membership is the basis of this business, so it will require some new thinking.

First off, it’s not Costco. Membership, association style, is more than just a discount package or a subscription. It’s about belonging. Every member benefits for being part of the group, and the group benefits with every new member. It’s about collective action and achieving what individual members can’t accomplish on their own.

Understanding that membership experience will make you a better board member. You’ll get smarter about setting strategy and defining your association’s value proposition. And that will make recruiting members and engaging them in your mission easier for everyone. Here’s what you need to know.

A Model Made for Associations

Membership comes in a lot of shapes and sizes. As a loose rule, trade associations have company members and professional societies have individual members, but a hybrid approach is common. Traditionally, membership packages have been one-size-fits-all, but that model is showing its age. More and more, associations offer members greater choice, with multiple tiers of benefits and dues rates to choose from, because different members join an association for different reasons.

Like all business, association membership has felt the pressures of modern trends. Social media lets people connect for free. As baby boomers retire, there are fewer gen-Xers to fill the vacuum, and millennials, while numerous, have yet to join in droves. And web and mobile technology are changing members’ buying and consumption habits.

Whatever challenges your association might be facing, remember that you’re not alone. No two associations are the same, but many are tackling the same problems you are. Just ask your chief executive.

Jay Karen, CAE, CEO at Select Registry, an association of inns, bed and breakfasts, and boutique hotels, says he often shares resources from the association management profession with his board of directors. “I brought them into my world,” he says. “When I was ready to make my proposal to the board about some major changes, we’d already been having some really interesting, high-level dialogue around membership models prior to that. It opened up their minds.”

Karen, though, is quick to remind his board that the membership business model is merely a means to an end. He asks, “Are we accomplishing what we want to accomplish as an organization, no matter if we have 2,000 members or 2,500 members?”

Inside Your Association

At a bare minimum, the board’s role in the membership operation at your association is spelled out in its bylaws. Board approval might be required for dues increases, for example, or for changing membership-eligibility requirements.

Beyond that, governing membership is similar to governing any other aspect of the association: strategic first and tactical second (if at all). And you can’t be strategic if you don’t have a clear understanding of how your association’s membership works.

Kay Fitzpatrick, CAE, co-owner of association management company Virtual AMC and content leader for ASAE University’s online Principles of Membership course, starts board orientations by giving directors a tour of the member experience. “I suggest actually going through the website, because a board member often thinks that they already know all the stuff that’s there,” she says.

At the International Association of Diecutting and Diemaking, the board of directors gets a full dashboard of membership performance metrics at every meeting and monthly via email in between. With a few charts, board members see data such as member totals, new members, retention rates, and geographic distribution.

Jenny Holliday, membership and desktop publishing assistant at IADD, says she also provides a memo that highlights a few data points and summarizes trends. “What the board used to see was just a plain, not very visual descriptor of the numbers,” she says. “It was difficult to compare month to month or year to year. This gives you something that’s much more visual, and you can see across time how things have gone.”

Other key membership data you might look for include lapsed members, first-year retention rate (typically lower than overall retention), and engagement. And it’s important to understand the specific fundamentals of membership in your association: Who can join? How much are dues? Is membership anniversary-based (join anytime, renew a year later) or calendar-based (everyone renews at the same time)? What portion of revenue comes from dues? Do most members pay out of their own pocket or on their employer’s dime?

Generally, an association board of directors is intended to represent the will of the organization’s members. That sounds good in theory, but ASAE research shows it is often not the natural dynamic in practice. Most board members are so engaged with their associations, and have been for so long, that their perceptions and values are far different from the rank and file. Board members “make a lousy focus group,” says Mark Golden, FASAE, CAE, executive director of the National Society of Professional Engineers. He and NSPE staff are tasked with getting the board in the mindset of the typical member.

“It’s data, data, data,” he says. Having solid research on member needs and behavior helps the board make informed decisions. “If you don’t, it’s just everybody expressing their opinion, and it’s very hard to move things forward.”

There’s no substitute for somebody speaking from the industry perspective.

Your Role: Membership Influencer

Board members can play a key role in membership recruitment and engagement by virtue of their position and influence. “I think of board members as people that other members often aspire to be,” Fitzpatrick says.

That’s a role that staff can’t match, says Golden. The board “has a degree of credibility and direct touch, and a lot of times it can say things far more convincingly than this anonymous staffer back at association headquarters can,” he says. “Any one of my directors sees more members face to face in their area than I or the rest of the staff could ever reach.”

At the San Antonio Chapter of ­Associated General Contractors of America, “recruit at least one new member” is included among the board’s “top 10” roles and responsibilities. Not every board member can meet the request, says Doug McMurry, executive vice president, but it keeps membership front of mind for the board year-round. That helps them to be ready for recruiting trips, where the combo of a board member and McMurry making the membership pitch “works about 85 percent of the time,” he says.

“There’s no substitute for somebody speaking from the industry perspective: ‘As a general contractor talking to you, another general contractor, this is the value to me.’ That is a much more powerful and persuasive argument than me as a staff member just saying, ‘These are the things I can do for you,’ ” McMurry says. “The combination of the two together, however, is especially potent.”

At the New Jersey Society of Certified Public Accountants, board members get business cards printed with the mission of the association that they can hand out to prospective members they meet. They’ve also completed worksheets during board meetings to identify how the association has benefited them, so they can talk firsthand about the value of membership. Carolyn Hook, director of membership and operations, says her role is simply to make sure the board is ready. “It’s not their responsibility to go out and recruit members; we just want them to be prepared to be able to do it,” she says.

Fostering the growth of your association can be a rewarding experience. But, if you find yourself contemplating the relative merits of an email campaign versus a direct-mail campaign, you’ve probably wandered a little too far afield. Marketing is wasted without a membership that offers a clear reason to belong. The board’s job is to make sure that foundation for member value is in place.

“What I really need the board to do is to exercise the discipline to bring focus, so we’re doing the right thing, which then makes it easier for us,” says Golden. “Whether it’s the staff marketing efforts or the national marketing effort or local marketing efforts, everybody understands what the game is. And that keeps us in the game.”


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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