You Have Thousands of New Members? Please, Tell Me More

No, really, please tell me more than just a number. What does it mean to have 10,000 or 100,000 members? How does that number mean progress toward your association's mission?

As an association membership professional, you deal in a lot of numbers. Membership total is king, followed by all the different ways you can slice and dice it. It’s your job to keep those numbers growing, or looking good, so it’s understandable if that’s where your focus lies.

But, every so often, it’s important to remember why those numbers are meaningful.

Last week, David Patt, CAE, president of Association Executive Management, wrote on his blog that nonprofit organizations often focus too much on dollars in touting their fundraising success:

When your organization raises more money than was anticipated don’t brag about that to your audiences. … Not-for-profit organizations exist to deliver more and better services, not to make money. They have to make money to deliver those services, but their success is measured by the services, not by the money. So, tell everybody about the services, not about the money.

Patt’s message singles out fundraising windfalls, but it could equally apply to membership growth. Whether a dollar amount or a membership count, that number likely means a lot more to you than to anyone else.

As we’ve discussed on this blog before, your association has a mission it was and is built to pursue, and membership is simply a means to that end. As Mark Golden, FASAE, CAE, executive director of the National Society of Professional Engineers, has put it, membership is “a feature of our volunteer-based ecosystem, not an actual benefit … a way to marshal the economic and intellectual capital necessary to achieve the mission.”

Not-for-profit organizations exist to deliver more and better services, not to make money.

Moreover, should the definition of membership in your association evolve—whether via changes to eligibility, dues, benefits options, or any other vital aspect of your member structure—the number of members you have could swing wildly, lessening its value as a barometer of progress.

And, for that matter, a rising member number may not always be desirable (really).

For these reasons, Patt’s message reminds us that a membership number often isn’t the best way to measure and trumpet success. Instead, it’s important to show how your association is growing its influence, improving its benefits, or advancing the standard of its industry’s work for the wider world.

But, perhaps, maybe, possibly, certain cases warrant a nice big number. If so, when?

When that number carries an important weight for the audience, such as letting current and prospective members know about the health and breadth of the community they are (or could be) a part of.

Or to “tout your clout” to legislators and other powers that be, to show them the power and range of the people you represent.

And, similarly, to grab some headlines. Numbers make for good talking points.

That said, bear in mind Dunbar’s number and our general lack of cognitive ability to parse large numbers. If you’re going to cite a big member number, it’s still crucial to put it in context. What does it mean to your members, lawmakers, or the press that you have 5,000 members, or 15,000, or 150,000?

In the fundraising context, the ALS Association perhaps offers a good model to follow. While it did tout the dollar amount from last year’s massive Ice Bucket Challenge, it also carefully detailed how that money would be used toward serving ALS patients and finding a cure.

To the association pro watching those membership numbers every day, it starts with you. Whenever your association hits a new membership high, remember to think beyond its impact on your next performance review.

How does your association report membership growth, and how do you relate it to progress toward your mission? What other scenarios call for reporting big membership numbers? Share your thoughts and ideas in the comments.

(Paramount Pictures)

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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