A More Scientific Approach to Association Membership

One association executive's method for operational planning offers an example of how membership objectives can be tested, measured, adjusted, and repeated. Could a little discipline in experimentation drive success in your membership program?

Since late April, National Fluid Power Association CEO Eric Lanke, CAE, has been periodically blogging about his organization’s approach to strategy and execution, detailing the structural elements of the NFPA board’s strategy agenda and the staff’s operational plan. If you haven’t been following along, you should.

Normally I wouldn’t point out resources on association-wide strategy and execution here on the Associations Now Membership blog, but in Lanke’s latest post in the series, “Program Objectives Define What Staff Will Actually Do,” he uses a membership-inspired example to make his point:

Goals, by our definition of them, are by default stretch goals. If achieved, they will move the needle, advancing one or more of the metrics that we have identified as something that will move us closer to our future vision. There’s no guarantee we will achieve them. But Program Objectives are entirely in our control. They are the things we will do in our attempt to accomplish the Goals. If the Goal is to increase our member retention rate then the Program Objective is to visit more at-risk members this year.

He goes on to explain, again using the example of visiting more at-risk members, that staff is held accountable for meeting the program objective but not the goal.

[S]ometimes we will accomplish our Program Objectives without accomplishing our Goals. And when that happens, a rare and wonderful thing occurs. An opportunity to learn. Did we increase our member retention rate? I might ask. No? Well, did we visit more at-risk members this year? We did? Then what went wrong?

I once posed a question on this blog asking whether an association membership professional’s job is more art or science. I think it’s an equal amount of both, but Lanke’s example here offers a clean, easy-to-understand approach for the scientifically minded. It’s essentially the scientific method in management form: observe, hypothesize, test, adjust, repeat.

‘Did we increase our member retention rate?’ I might ask. ‘No? Well, did we visit more at-risk members this year? We did? Then what went wrong?’

A crucial underlying factor, which Lanke explains in earlier posts in the series, is that the association’s board of directors “owns” the strategy agenda while the executive and staff own the operational plan. Thus, success indicators are identified by the board, but specific goals and tactics are set by the staff. “In my experience, it is the rare board that understands the on-the-ground environment enough to set realistic goals,” Lanke writes.

This is just as critical in membership as anywhere else, particularly because it’s so easy to focus on growth, growth, growth and declare a nice, big number as a membership “strategy.” Sometimes that works, but often it doesn’t. An informed, realistic goal will typically work better. And leaving the specifics to the staff means the board can focus on larger membership questions, like how and whether more members would further the association’s pursuit of its mission or whether better engagement or improved renewal, for example, would be more likely to drive big-picture progress.

If the board does decide it wants to see an increase in membership, for instance, then staff can decide how much is realistic (goals) and the methods that they believe will achieve it (program objectives). As Lanke notes, separating goals and methods enables a scientific review of performance. “Did we meet our goal?” and “Did we execute our plan?” are two different questions, and the combination of yes-or-no answers to each of them offers an opportunity for more nuanced analysis of operations.

In membership at any given association, a few hypothetical goals could be to increase overall membership by 3 percent, or to increase engagement by 5 percent, or to increase renewal rates by 5 percentage points. Program objectives, then—the actual “what we will do to try to meet those goals”—could be to identify a certain number of new prospects to add to the database, to create new set of benefits packages, to revamp the member onboarding process, to begin sending renewal invoices earlier, and so on and so on. Goals can have multiple program objectives tied to them in Lanke’s model, and you could surely brainstorm a dozen more possibilities for your association’s membership program following the same process.

Perhaps this all seems obvious, even if Lanke’s model is more carefully spelled out than most, but not all associations take great care to measure their membership tactics. In Marketing General Incorporated’s 2015 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report, 28 percent of associations said they don’t do any type of measurement of the effectiveness of their membership marketing campaigns. In 2012, when that number was 40 percent, MGI Vice President Erik D. Schonher wrote, “Simply put, you can’t improve what you don’t track.”

How does your association identify its goals for membership and the methods it will use to pursue them? Who sets those goals? Would Lanke’s method of setting program objectives work in your membership operation? Share your thoughts 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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