Why the Membership Professional Is a Rare Breed

Even though membership is their core business model, not as many associations have membership staff as you might expect. Here's a look at some of the varying ways associations do, or don't, build membership into their staff structures.

It’s time for another edition of “Possibly Surprising Information About Staffing Practices at Membership Organizations” here at Associations Now.

In our previous installment, we pondered why most executives at membership organizations, it appears, don’t have previous work experience in a membership role. Today, we find out that perhaps that’s because not as many associations as you’d think even have membership departments.

Let’s begin with some data from ASAE benchmarking and compensation research conducted in the past few years (thanks to my ASAE colleague Terri Ashton, manager, research and intelligence, for help in gathering this):

  • 43 percent of associations report at least one staff member devoted to member recruitment and retention (28 percent among associations with 1-10 staff; 67 percent among those with 11 or more staff).
  • Between 30 percent and 47 percent of associations with 11 or more staff report having a membership chief or director position in their staff structure (varying in that range with staff size), while just 11 percent in associations with 10 or fewer staff have such a position.

For as long as I’ve been observing associations (going on nine years now with ASAE), I hadn’t thought much about this, mainly because I simply assumed that associations, as diehard membership organizations, had membership staff. That, evidently, was a bad assumption.

There’s a noteworthy follow-up data point from the benchmarking research:

  • 5 percent of associations report outsourcing member renewals. No other membership function was reported as outsourced by more than 3 percent of associations.

One view is that membership needs a champion on staff. The other is that membership is everyone’s job.

Do the math: If 43 percent of associations have membership staff and 5 percent (at most) outsource membership work, that leaves more than half (52 percent) where membership functions such as recruitment, retention, engagement, and customer service are distributed among other staff.

Clearly two general philosophies exist, more evenly matched than I would have guessed, about operating a membership association: One view is that membership needs a champion on staff, someone specifically assigned as caretaker of the business model. The other view is that membership is a part of everyone’s job.

Each of these approaches comes with ups and downs, and they are not mutually exclusive. The nature of any particular association likely dictates some of the decision.

A small-staff association, for instance, probably can’t dedicate a full staffer to any one single function, let alone membership. In a pair of discussions in ASAE’s Collaborate forum [member login required], one association said it was considering either significantly rescoping or simply not refilling a vacant membership director position because it enjoyed a high market penetration and high retention within its niche industry. A commenter in the discussion suggested this may be common in trade associations, where member relations can be taken on by the CEO, dues processing is handled by the finance department, and recruitment and retention are handled by marketing staff.

The “champion” model, on the other hand, fends off the problem of responsibility. As the saying goes, “If it’s everyone’s job, it’s no one’s job.” Dan Ratner, former director of membership development and industry outreach at theĀ American National Standards Institute (who has since moved on to the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges), embodies the champion role well. In 2014, he characterized his role at ANSI as such: “I am the guy staff members don’t want to make eye contact with in the hallway. I’m constantly pestering staff about what they are doing for members.”

The Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology has adopted the distributed model, having decided not to refill its membership director position after it became vacant in 2014. Joanne Olson, deputy executive director, says ARVO opted instead to elevate its customer service role to the senior-manager level, and it created its first marketing manager position, as well, which soon became assistant director of marketing. The customer service manager handles much of the transactional functions of membership as well as database management and member service, while the marketing staffer manages recruitment and retention efforts. Olson herself oversees both positions and sets membership strategy. While membership is clearly stated in their job descriptions, no one at ARVO has a job title with “membership” in it.

Olson says the new structure came at a time when ARVO was re-evaluating its broader strategies for membership after the federal budget sequester significantly affected its members’ funding. Redistributing the membership functions went hand in hand with a more “proactive” approach to recruitment, retention, and engagement.

“So far we’ve never looked back,” she says. “We haven’t felt a lack because we were very careful to redistribute the processes. The job was all process. It was all transactional. There was very little strategy involved. So it was almost easy to farm out the transactions but also up the game in terms of strategy.”

The transition was not without hiccups, though, as Olson recalls an instance when a change to the renewal-notice schedule affected the organization’s overall cash flow, but so far membership numbers are steady. And, while there is no membership staff by title, Olson says the membership torch has not been dropped. “I have a great champion with our senior manager for customer service. We’ve actually made sure she’s at the table a lot more,” Olson says. As the person most closely interacting with members on a daily basis, the customer service manager’s presence maintains a clear connection between ARVO’s various programs and the membership experience. “There’s almost no example where we don’t want her at the table,” says Olson.

In one of the Collaborate discussions about the membership director position, another commenter suggested keeping the position but focusing it on enhancing the member experience, getting members engaged in the association’s “purpose and programs” so retention remains high.

All of these approaches show a varying range of possibilities for staffing the membership operation at an association. The question of dedicating staff to “membership” by job title may be a matter of semantics, or symbolism, or perhaps something more, but it shines a light on the sometimes peculiar nature of associations, in which the core business model, membership, is a unique combination of several professional disciplines.

How does your association staff its membership functions? Do you have membership job titles? Or do all staff have membership responsibilities? How might that change in the future? 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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