Must Member Dues Always Be Monetary?

A proposed model for the future of membership in public broadcasting raises an intriguing question for associations: Could volunteering be another way to pay membership dues?

Another week, another look outside the association world for perspectives on membership.

After a look at analytics in baseball season-ticket sales last Tuesday, today we turn to public broadcasting and its quest for business-model sustainability. In July, Melody Kramer, a 2015 Knight Visiting Fellow at the Nieman Journalism Lab and a former digital strategist and editor at National Public Radio, published “Putting the Public Into Public Media Membership,” a lengthy look at future funding models for public broadcasting stations in the United States.

At 13,000 words (not counting 65 footnotes), it is a thorough exploration but well worth the time to read, even for association professionals, as it is jam packed with examples and case studies of various new engagement efforts local stations are experimenting with all over the country, as well as some ideas from other industries. Many of them could translate well as member-engagement tactics in associations, ways to get members contributing to the actual work of the organization. (Simple examples: “adding metadata to audio content to allow it to be resurfaced in different ways” or “tagging, transcribing, or translating content.”)

Why not offer a basic level of membership in exchange for a contribution of time, energy, or expertise?

The core finding of Kramer’s research is that the path forward for public media sustainability will move away from a singular focus on the pledge drive and instead lie in “building an infrastructure that allows community members to contribute to their stations in a variety of ways, including nonfinancial means,” she writes. “It takes as its starting point the understanding that building relationships with potential donors leads to their sustained support—in the form of time, money, and advocacy on behalf of the station.”

In other words, listeners and viewers could become members by volunteering rather than donating.

It’s important to note that “member” in public media carries a somewhat different meaning, more akin to “donor” or “supporter,” than it does in associations; the content on the airwaves is free to anyone regardless of their contributions, but those who donate receive nominal benefits ranging from mugs and tote bags to invitations to attend events or live broadcasts in person.

That said, it’s curious that, while Kramer’s proposed model is not a radical idea (see: cooperatives), it is seemingly nonexistent in associations. Of all the potential benefits of volunteering for a trade association or professional society, earning a free membership or even just a discount is rarely an option. To wit: It wasn’t even a choice in the question about motivations to volunteer in ASAE’s 2008 study The Decision to Volunteer.

I found one small example from an association: IEEE’s member-get-a-member campaign offers monetary rewards for recruiting new members, eligible for use toward member dues or association products and services, up to $90 in a year (just shy of half the standard yearly dues for U.S. members). Peggy Hoffman, CAE, president of Mariner Management and Marketing and past chair of the ASAE Executive Management Section Council, says an association chapter her firm manages has waived dues for a couple valuable volunteers in the past. She says this may be a common but case-by-case practice among associations, particularly at the chapter level where volunteer work is so crucial. There is also a small portion of associations that compensate board members, though often only to the extent of covering expenses for travel and time away from work.

But I wonder why this tactic appears to be so seldom used. Could granting membership in exchange for volunteer contributions work at a larger scale in associations?

The potential upsides:

  • More volunteers involved. You might attract more members, too. Better yet, you might draw different kinds of people than you already have on board.
  • More productivity. Tying membership benefits to volunteering could be a strong driver for simply getting more of your association’s work done, especially new projects that might be desirable but just outside your association’s available resources.
  • More ownership. Volunteering time and expertise, even small amounts, toward the mission of an organization builds a sense of engagement, belonging, and ownership among members, which in turn builds loyalty.

Likely concerns:

  • Loafers. Would people volunteer and just do the bare minimum to get the discount and not because they care about the mission of the association?
  • Revenue. Would the association simply be giving away membership to people who would volunteer anyway?
  • Resources. Would managing a broader volunteer machine—and, particularly, verifying that contributions meet requirements to earn membership—only end up requiring more staff administration?

Time will tell if Kramer’s proposed model of volunteering to earn membership will prove the key to sustainability that public media needs, though the many small-scale cases she shares, when taken as a whole, seem promising. In short, the hope is that volunteering and engaging in the work of the public broadcast station will lead these “nonfinancial members” to eventually become financial supporters, or at least ongoing, committed volunteer contributors.

That’s the sense in which I see potential for associations in granting membership for volunteering: getting new people bought in and into the engagement funnel. We’ve seen plenty of examples of associations creating tiered membership options with entry-level member categories at a low fee: $50, pay what you want, or even free. Why not offer that basic level of membership in exchange for a contribution of time, energy, or expertise instead?

Look at it this way: You could spend some money convincing a potential member to give you $50 to join, then spend some more money convincing her to volunteer; or, you could turn membership itself into an incentive to volunteer, skip all of that monetary back-and-forth, and get members engaged, all at the same time. Seems like a reasonable trade-off to me.

So, what am I missing? Why aren’t more associations offering membership in exchange for volunteering (or at least what we’d normally call volunteering)? Does your association offer any kind of discount on membership to those who contribute? Share your thoughts and experience 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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