Member, Meet Sponsor: A Model for Reaching Under-Served Segments

Can't get certain audiences to pay to join your association? Why not get someone else to pay for them? The sponsored-membership model is alive in many forms. Here's how associations are using it.

If anyone at the Society of Plastics Engineers believes in the power of psychic readings, they might gaze into a crystal ball and hope to see the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE).

As shared here in January, SPE began to offer free student memberships in 2014, via a partnership with Society of the Plastics Industry, which acts as a sponsor to subsidize the student memberships. It hopes its early results, an increase from 1,100 to 2,800 student members in 15 months, will continue. AIChE offers a possible glimpse into the future.

In 2007, AIChE launched a similar program for student members, offering free memberships sponsored not by a partner association but by a group of corporate sponsors. It calls the program “ScaleUp,” which was a prophetic choice of name: In nine years, AIChE’s student membership roll has increased from less than 3,000 to now more than 22,500.

The sponsorship structure puts inclusion and relationship-building front and center.

“As far as expanding our reach, it’s been very successful,” says Sarah Ewing, senior membership associate at AIChE.

If 3,000 and 22,500 aren’t enough to illustrate the potential of the sponsored-membership model for reaching under-served groups, consider one more number: $15. That’s how much it cost students to join AIChE before 2007. Fifteen dollars. That’s it! That’s apparently all that was standing in the way of thousands and thousands of potential student members joining.

Clearly, some groups are simply hard to reach, for whatever reason. But getting them into your association’s sphere of influence may be worth more, in other ways, than their dues dollars would be. If losing those dues dollars is too tough a pill to swallow, though, sponsorship could be a handy model, one that is alive in many forms in associations. Just a few more examples to add to the two above:

In 2014, I shared the story of the Northwest Food Processors Association, which eliminated dues for its associate member category, aimed at the smallest businesses and startups in its market. There, as in many other past stories about free membership, the cost of the inclusion effort was absorbed by the association, which means those free memberships were in effect subsidized by paying members. NWFPA just didn’t promote it that way.

Ewing says, however, that the sponsorship structure puts inclusion and relationship-building front and center and leads to other positive opportunities for AIChE. Much like the program at SPE, “The goal of the ScaleUp program is to connect industry to our student membership,” she says.

To start, the ScaleUp sponsors (currently seven companies) get enhanced connections to the emerging generation of talent in chemical engineering. At AIChE’s annual meeting, it hosts a recruitment fair, where ScaleUp sponsors get a special showcase and access to the bank of resumes submitted by student attendees. They also get free internship postings on the AIChE website.

Throughout the year, the sponsors are promoted through advertising, banners at events, and other communications. “We try to look for opportunities to feature their company and put their story in front of our student membership as well as getting them connected with the students,” Ewing says.

The rise in student participation at AIChE has, of course, given the organization a bigger pool to draw from for future professional (i.e., paying) members and helped it keep pace with a growing industry. “We’re seeing that trend across the U.S., that chemical engineering class sizes are growing very rapidly,” Ewing says. It now has 240 student chapters, including 72 outside the United States. That growth opened the door for more structured leadership opportunities for chemical engineering students, with the eventual creation of AIChE’s Executive Student Committee, in addition to leadership roles at each chapter.

That feeds into the long-term-investment philosophy of free student memberships. Students and young professionals, still in their formative years, seek formative experiences, and AIChE hopes providing them will pay off.

“We’ve just, as an organization, learned that it’s so important to invest the time to really connect with chemical engineers when they’re still in school so they look back at that when they’re in the professional career and remember to stay involved with AIChE,” Ewing says.

If your association offered free or reduced membership dues to one of your under-served audiences, how might you support it financially? Would your corporate sponsors see it as an attractive opportunity? How else have you engaged hard-to-reach segments? 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

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!