Proactive Steps to Build a Culture That Values Membership

The author of a chapter in the new edition of Membership Essentials shares advice on getting colleagues in other departments invested in the value of membership.

Last fall, I began working remotely, a few hundred miles from most of the people I work with. Modern technology has made telecommuting a mostly positive experience, but the feeling of isolation arises from time to time.

In that way, I can sympathize with some association membership professionals, the ones who might be running a small department, or even a department of one, amid a full association staff with varying programs and priorities. More than one commenter on last week’s post about why membership pros are a “rare breed” shared their frustrations around trying to engage colleagues in valuing members and the membership experience.

It’s not the first time I’ve heard that lament, and it always strikes me as strange (or sad, perhaps) that some associations don’t have a strong, organization-wide understanding of the value of the very business model that sets them apart from their competition. But, if that’s the situation, then what to do?

If you’re going to grow membership, you’re going to do that with the help and the support and the camaraderie of the people you work with.

For the membership pro, it starts with you. You could take advice from several past ASAE articles on building a member-centric culture and host membership brown-bag lunches for fellow staff, share the names of new members with staff every day, or even enshrine membership in your association’s internally stated core values [login required]. The bottom line, though, is understanding that, while you might be the person assigned responsibility for it, membership is a team sport.

“Membership is this interesting product that’s really the combination of stuff that’s happening around the organization,” says Sara Miller, MBA, PMP, CAE, director of membership at the Association of periOperative Registered Nurses (AORN). “So, if you’re going to grow membership, you’re going to do that with the help and the support and the camaraderie of the people you work with.”

“Membership Is a Team Sport” is actually the title of the chapter Miller wrote in the forthcoming Membership Essentials: Recruitment, Retention, Roles, Responsibilities, and Resources, 2nd Edition, edited by Sheri Jacobs, FASAE, CAE, published by ASAE Management Press and John Wiley & Sons.

The chapter guides the membership professional on how to work with other departments in an association and offers a series of practical tips and work habits to develop that will facilitate greater collaboration between membership staff and colleagues and engender their investment in enhancing the membership experience.

The main idea is to be proactive and first seek to understand the competing priorities of your colleagues. “Understanding their priorities and their goals helps you in the long run but also helps them see that you value their unique contributions not only to the organization but to the overall membership experience,” Miller says.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Miller positions the section of her chapter about how the membership department can help other departments reach their goals before the section about how others can help membership. (Call it the “help me help you” strategy.) One example: Time a recruitment campaign with the registration cycle for the association’s annual meeting, for a combined focus on “all that the association has to offer year-round that culminates in the annual meeting,” she writes.

Looking inward is also critical to collaboration. Miller recommends an inventory exercise to detail every process the membership department (whether that’s several people or just you) does, from recruitment to customer service to dues accounting. Knowing how the proverbial sausage gets made helps you see where your work intersects or overlaps with other departments. “It’s hard for you to get others involved or ask other people for help with what you’re doing if you don’t even know what you’re doing,” Miller says.

As we’ve discussed here before often, the membership job requires ever-increasing fluency in data, and Miller says that skill must extend beyond simply slicing and dicing numbers. Regular reporting of membership numbers to the rest of the association staff is step one, but “a dashboard on its own is not going to break down silos,” she says. Colleagues need guidance on how those numbers affect their work, and vice versa. Miller maintains several versions of AORN membership dashboards, each for different stakeholders within the organization. “You have to be able to translate the numbers on the dashboard to the subject areas your colleagues are focused on,” she says.

Maybe the simplest tactic Miller recommends is meeting regularly, face-to-face, with staff from the rest of the association and asking for their thoughts about what your members want or don’t want or, for example, what they like or don’t like about a recent recruitment campaign. Most important in these interactions is to listen closely for what your colleagues’ perspectives reveal about their place in the association.

“At a really high level, it’s important to hear how your executives or how other department heads describe membership and the value of your members,” Miller says.

The unique position of staff responsible for membership operations is that they can most clearly see the association through the eyes of the member, yet their success largely depends on the success of programs, products, and services managed by others. That can be a difficult spot, perhaps leaving the membership professional feeling stranded alone on an island. It’s important to recognize, though, that that might be perfectly normal.

“I think people across an organization can feel like they’re the only ones doing that task and nobody understands what it’s like,” Miller says. In other words, every department plays its own part in advancing the association, and all contribute to grow membership. “Title aside, if you look at defining membership and the role of your organization in slightly different ways, you’ll find that there are actually a number of people on that island with you.”

How do you get your colleagues engaged in membership at your association? What have you been your most successful collaborations with other departments? Share your stories and tips 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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