The American Association for the Advancement of Science has set a lofty goal: 500,000 members. Such radical growth requires full-scale re-envisioning of how the organization conducts its membership operations. Here’s how AAAS plans to get there.
In 2014, the American Association for the Advancement of Science had about 100,000 members. Then it decided to become a membership organization.
For decades, AAAS had been best known for—and primarily driven by—its publications, namely Science and its related journals. But AAAS saw declining promise in a print-centric future.
“We were at a crossroads,” says Beth Bush, chief membership officer. “Are we a publisher or are we a membership organization?”
I feel like I’m starting five different membership organizations at the same time.
Last year AAAS launched a transformation effort to shift its focus from print to multimedia and to provide “a wider array of useful services to members and to the broader society interested in science.” That was the strategic language in the organization’s announcement about the effort, but the membership focus was put in much clearer terms for Bush: Grow AAAS to 500,000 members.
A quintupling of AAAS’s membership would make it one of the largest associations by members in the United States.
For now, let’s set aside the question of whether that kind of growth is reasonable or even plausible and instead focus on how an association would go about pursuing it. And, just as important, how would an association need to remake itself to support “becoming a membership organization”?
The good news, Bush says, is that AAAS is broadly focused, and, under its bylaws, anyone can become a member. But “anyone” is a hard market to define, so Bush, who was AAAS’s first chief membership executive when she was hired in April, began by identifying clear market segments:
- professional scientists and engineers
- early-career scientists and engineers (graduate students through the first five years as a professional)
- students and teachers (kindergarten through college)
- general public
Bush has spent 2015 preparing to build the AAAS membership operation around these five groups. “I feel like I’m starting five different membership organizations at the same time,” she says. Each segment will get its own staff segment director. Eileen Murphy, director of the professional scientist and engineer member segment, was the first to be hired.
“In essence, you can think of each of the segments as their own standalone business plan,” Murphy says. “As the professional scientist and engineer segment director, I am responsible for looking into what are those needs. What are the products, programs, and services that AAAS has that can be packaged appropriately for that audience?”
Bush says Murphy and her fellow directors will own their respective segments and be held accountable for revenue, expenses, and membership targets. But to avoid silos, they’ll also be measured by how well they transition members from one segment to another, particularly along the career path from student to early career to professional.
AAAS will also add a director of member experience and a director of professional and career development, also both new positions. And the marketing department will shift to an agency model, under the supervision of the chief operating officer. “Our current infrastructure was not built for a membership organization. It was built to support a magazine subscription,” Bush says.
While planning and filling out the staff structure to support the new focus on membership, the association has also been gathering market research on the segments and their needs, surveying members on their current impressions of AAAS, and conducting a product audit of what AAAS has to offer. The coming year, however, will put it all to the test. Bush’s membership goal for 2016 is 10 to 11 percent growth.
So, what makes Bush and her AAAS colleagues optimistic they’ll be able to “shift the demand curve upward”? Part of it will be simply treating people as members, rather than subscribers, and focusing on retention, Bush says, but she also cites the organization’s broad mission.
“This is the unique aspect of AAAS. Yes, we’re a membership organization. Yes, we’re focused on a couple professions, science and engineering. However, we’re very mission-driven, and that is to advance science,” Bush says. “We really have an open door here, and it’s worldwide.”
AAAS’s vision provides a nice example of why a balance between being mission-driven and benefits-focused is so critical to an association’s success. When each is strong, it reinforces the other. AAAS knows it’s more than just a magazine, and it aims to prove it by earning its role as a membership organization.
“We have research that does demonstrate in quantitative ways that people resonate with the mission and they want to contribute to that mission,” Bush says. “And so, by bringing on members in multiple disciplines and building up our membership ranks, that is right on the mark for helping our growth and our mission. There are a lot of ways to accomplish or support the advancement of science. This is one key way we can do this.”