Secret or Not, Membership Groups Face Common Problems

The story of a secret society's quest for growth is a fascinating tale that illustrates the fundamental challenges facing any membership group—young or old, private or open.

What is the opposite of brand awareness? One answer, perhaps, could be “absolute discretion.”

That’s the motto of a (formerly) secret society based in San Francisco called the Latitude Society, as explained in a detailed profile by journalist Rick Paulas on Longreads in September. My colleague Morgan Little shared the article, titled “‘We Value Experience’: Can a Secret Society Become a Business?,” in a Buzz post here at Associations Now three weeks ago, noting the report’s exploration of “the society’s struggles with change, membership, monetization, and many other issues familiar to association pros.”

The article is indeed a long read, but the quick version is that the Latitude Society is an invite-only group for the creative set in the Bay Area, geared toward interactive, experiential art. Becoming a member involves opening a door with a special access key, entering a dark room, and proceeding down a hole into “Book One.” (Really.) And it’s led by a founder with a history of “murky artistic projects” who was led to create the Society through a dream.

The drive for growth at the Latitude Society puts the tension between exclusivity and openness in high contrast.

If all of that sounds a bit strange, you can read the full article to get a (somewhat) clearer picture, but for our purposes it’s fair to say the Latitude Society is not a typical membership organization and certainly not a professional society or trade association. But, despite the obvious differences, it’s remarkable just how familiar the story of the Latitude Society’s growth and progression is to those of us in associations. (Morgan was right.) In fact, that’s one of the central themes to Paulas’ story: how a free-form, startup membership group manages the necessary evils of becoming a sustainable organization.

Membership Growing Pains

Member dues. Exhibit A is the group’s recent establishment of a $360 annual membership fee. Membership had previously been free, “sponsored by an endowment bestowed by an honored member,” the group’s founder. As the group has grown larger and its ambitions larger still, one man’s benevolence was no longer sustainable. This is how many startup groups work at first, on the energy and resources (financial or otherwise) of a core group of people, or even a single founder, but the transition toward more structure is inevitable. See this “Nonprofit Organizational Life Cycle” table [PDF] for one of just several example outlines of the typical growth pattern.

Big or niche? Many associations try to cultivate a feeling of exclusivity or a special sense of belonging to a group of successful peers, but that can often be a challenge when members may number in the thousands and anyone in the profession or industry can join if they can afford the dues. The drive for growth at the Latitude Society, though, puts this tension between exclusivity and openness in high contrast. As Paulas writes:

There is expansion planned, with the opening up of other chapters in other cities and countries, but only once the San Francisco House becomes self-sustainable. “We got a big old plan,” says [Society founder Jeff] Hull. “The direction we want to go in is to have a distributed model. To create a platform that other people in other areas can interact with the Latitude Society. But we actually have to show up in those locations to get it started.” However, most compeers [members] I spoke with felt something may be lost with expansion. “The openness actually makes me less prone to invite folks,” wrote one compeer who wished to stay anonymous. “Most of what makes the Latitude attractive rests upon most of the population not knowing about it.”

Scalability. Such expansion—to a “distributed model,” as Hull calls it—is where a singular vision or mission for an organization can begin to fray. As any association chapter relations pro can tell you, trying to keep all your ground-level outposts completely aligned and consistent both with each other and with the parent organization’s vision can be difficult, if not impossible. And the Latitude Society’s founder clearly has grand ambitions.

“He believes this thing has a chance to tweak our culture,” Paulas writes. “‘One thing I believe in my heart is that this work will be referenced for a long time to come,” said [professional facilitator and Society co-designer Geordie] Aitken. ‘It’s ahead of its time. Something important’s going on with all this.’ … ‘I mean, if we succeed,’ says Hull, ‘it’s going to last forever.'”

The simple fact, though, is that more people involved in execution also means more interpretation, and it presses an important question: Who owns the vision and mission for a membership group—the leader or the members?

What are benefits worth? Another persistent challenge that dogs associations is that not all benefits are tangible and easy to put a price tag on, and many require members to put in more than just money. Career advancement, for instance, is a real potential benefit for a member of a professional association, but it doesn’t happen immediately after joining, and it accrues most often to the members who engage with their peers to gain knowledge and build their networks. It’s difficult to assign value to that. The Latitude Society aims for equally lofty goals for its members.

“‘The proposition that Jeff and I originally started exploring is whether an elaborately curated experience with game-like elements, secret society elements, narrative elements, whether that Venn diagram could create a vehicle for personal growth,’ said Aitken. ‘That’s a long-winded way of saying this was us asking, can a game help people in their real lives?'”

For long-established membership groups like trade associations and professional societies, your problems and pain points may look different from those the Latitude Society faces, but many of them may be the same fundamental challenges merely covered in multiple layers of institutional structure and history. Examining them as they appear in a different, more nascent context reveals that perhaps our organizations’ membership troubles are not as complex as they seem.

One Other Takeaway

If you take nothing else from these parallels, or if you aren’t interested in reading the full story about the Latitude Society, at least take a cue from the group’s new-member invitation process (about one-third of the way into Paulas’ article):

One day, someone you trust will invite you someplace. Maybe for a drink at a local dive, maybe a stroll through a park, maybe a picnic in the cemetery. There, they’ll explain they belong to this club, or secret society, or maybe they’ll describe it as a cult, but say it with a faint glimmer of mockery in their eyes. … They’ll reach into their pocket, remove the invitation, and extend it. It will be a white plastic card with a magnetic strip, a code, and a website. It will be in a black paper sleeve, a gold-emblazoned maze-like symbol on front and a statement including the words “absolute discretion” on back. These words will stick with you.

Your association may not be a secret society, but there’s no reason it can’t create a similar sense of intrigue about what membership might offer in its member-referral efforts.

Where does your association fall on the typical organizational-growth cycle? How do your challenges now compare to the ones it faced when it was younger, or to those illustrated in the story of the Latitude Society? Share your thoughts and reactions 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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