Retired Members: Tough to Serve, Too Many to Ignore

There aren't a lot of clear best practices in associations for how to craft a successful membership offer for your industry's retirees, but with baby boomers moving past 65, it seems like an opportunity ready for the taking.

There probably isn’t much I can write about the baby boomer generation that would be news to you, so let’s skip all the big numbers. You know what matters: There are a heck of a lot of baby boomers, and more and more of them are entering retirement every day.

(OK, one number: As of December 31, 2014, all baby boomers are 50 and older.)

This is how a lot of articles about attracting young members start, with a reminder about how all of your veteran members are leaving and so you better start filling the other end of the pipeline toot sweet. Not today, though.

Retiring boomers may represent a new opportunity to serve a member segment in a way you haven’t before.

The other side of this transition is what, if any, relationship your association should have with your retiring members. It is a seemingly open question, one discussed often in ASAE’s Collaborate community forum: see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here [ASAE member login required].

Research from ASAE and other industry sources doesn’t say a lot about practices across associations. Even two of ASAE’s popular books on membership don’t say much about the retired-member opportunity, either, other than to convey a general perspective that there is some kind of opportunity there.

Stuart K. Meyer in Chapter 18 of Membership Essentials: Recruitment, Retention, Roles, Responsibilities, and Resources:

“Retired members represent a lifetime of knowledge and a schedule that affords them the opportunity to make a substantive contribution to your organization.”

And Sheri Jacobs, FASAE, CAE, in The Art of Membership: How to Attract, Retain, and Cement Member Loyalty:

“Some members may be ready to move the next phase in their life and consequently may be ready to end the relationship. And that’s okay. But don ‘t leave behind the ones who wish to continue their membership just because their employment status has changed.”

They’re both right. Retired members, especially as their numbers grow in the coming years, shouldn’t be ignored. But serving them comes with at least a few significant challenges: They don’t have employers paying for professional development anymore; there are varying levels of “retirement” (in terms of how much retirees might continue working and how much they want to stay connected); and, simply put, they’re no longer your core audience.

It’s hard to discern any clear best practices for serving retired members, but I sense at least three common themes among the articles and conversations I’ve seen:

Understand the Segment

The first step is likely to get a clear understanding of retirement in the profession your industry serves, because it will look different in every field. Retirees in some professions tend to continue working part time or as consultants, while others leave the workforce completely.

You’ll want to learn what member benefits they are most interested in. For example, do they want publications to stay attuned to how the profession is changing, or do they want to attend events to stay connected to old friends and colleagues? And do they want to actively mentor younger professionals or serve in other volunteer roles?

This is, of course, the same due diligence you’d put forth to serve any particular market segment. What you find out will help you decide both what benefits to offer and what dues rate to charge. Which brings us to:

Do the Math

Just sampling associations among the Collaborate discussions on retired members, I saw dues rates for retired members ranging from zero to 50 percent of the regular member rate. More than I expected were on the very low end, below 10 percent. These were sometimes referred to as “nominal” or “nuisance” fees.

A few membership pros warned that a retired-member category can quickly become a drain on revenue if you’re serving a lot of them, or still serving them close to a full slate of member benefits but at a low dues rate. Some associations even offer a one-time fee for a “life membership,” but, with ever-greater life expectancies, it can be difficult to find a formula that keeps such an offer revenue-positive in the long run. And, if you’re at a trade association that offers company memberships, a retired-member category would in all likelihood be an individual membership option, which would necessitate a whole set of separate billing processes, database configurations, and so on.

In short, you have to find a dues rate that fits in a retired member’s budget but also doesn’t break yours.

Define Eligibility

Most associations with a retired category place a few requirements on members to be eligible, often tied to age, job status, or both. Some, particularly those with a free retired-member offer, frame it as an “honorary” or “emeritus” level, with eligibility tied to time in the profession or time as an active member of the association (e.g., 10, 15, or even 20-plus years).

In any case, eligibility must be clearly defined—possibly with an addition to your association’s bylaws—to avoid still-practicing professionals or those who haven’t “earned” the status from taking advantage of the low rate.

As AARP argues, the baby boomer generation will produce a new kind of retiree, one who is more tech savvy and has money to spend. This may represent a new opportunity for associations to serve a member segment in a way it didn’t before. But it will also mean crafting a new kind of membership offer that is both valuable and sustainable, all the while still focusing on the younger age groups that make up your core membership.

If your association has experience with a retired-member offer, please share in the comments. Is it a popular? How much staff time and resources does it require? And have you seen any changes as your boomer members have started to retire?


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!