Questioning the Folk Theories of Association Membership

We all know the core fundamentals of how membership works in associations—or do we? Take a moment to consider how these bits of conventional wisdom may be off the mark.

On two separate occasions last week, I found myself rethinking the same line of conventional wisdom—namely, that transparency in organizations is a universal good.

First, in Mark Athitakis’ Leadership Blog post here at Associations Now, he highlighted research suggesting that the work of association boards—particularly their in-depth deliberations on strategic matters—can be hampered when put under the microscope in the name of transparency. “When those deliberations are public instead of private, opportunities for stifling critiques and playing to constituencies can take over,” he writes.

The same problem can happen in government. On The Ezra Klein Show podcast last week, political scientist and author Francis Fukuyama discussed his view that government is bogged down by transparency rules that, while well intentioned, ultimately paralyze the ability of representatives and agencies to deliberate and make decisions. (Listen to the podcast for more, or see “The Limits of Transparency” at The American Interest for a good summary of this perspective.) He connected it to what authors Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels call the “folk theory of democracy” in their book Democracy for Realists.

For associations offering automatic renewal, the need for members to decide to renew every year is decreasing.

I hadn’t previously given much thought to this question beyond just a gut feeling that transparency is, in general, good. I still think that’s true, but I’m now persuaded that it is not an absolute.

And that got me wondering about the conventional wisdom of associations and membership organizations. What “folk theories” about membership do we tend to accept as common sense? And which of these might, upon further reflection, be not quite so universal?

Over the past few years of writing and blogging about membership, I’ve spoken to some smart people who weren’t afraid to reframe our common thinking. So, here’s a look at a few membership folk theories worth reconsidering.

More engagement equals more retention. Associations want their members to get engaged for a couple reasons. On its own, every act of engagement is a positive contribution to an association’s pursuit of its strategic goals and mission. But associations also see dollar signs in engagement, noting the positive correlation between engagement and renewal. That effect might not be as direct as we think it is.

In 2014, Sheri Jacobs, FASAE, CAE, president and CEO of Avenue M Group and author of The Art of Membership, pointed out that the desire to engage varies among members. She noted that some are highly satisfied to remain members while being generally uninvolved, as long as they’re receiving the particular benefits they seek. In other words, satisfaction, not engagement, leads to renewal. And so, rather than exerting effort to persuade uninvolved members to get engaged, “the real issue that needs to be solved is identifying ways to deliver more value to unengaged members,” she wrote.

A renewal notice is a bill for membership. In “Turn Off the Churn” in the July/August 2016 issue of Associations Now, Erik Schonher, vice president at Marketing General Incorporated, took issue with the common way association pros refer to their renewal efforts: as a “billing cycle.” What might seem like merely a problem of semantics actually reveals a complacency about the process of renewal itself, he argued.

A bill or an invoice requests payment for services already provided, but “with renewal, you’re reselling,” Schonher said. “If I haven’t delivered it yet, then I’m asking you to pay upfront. I’m asking you to do me a favor, and it’s a different ask, and it’s a different approach.”

Membership is a yearly commitment. Of course, your terminology for renewal notices only matters if members need to renew periodically. In most cases, that’s once a year. But, for the increasing number of associations offering automatic renewal, the need for members to decide to renew every year is decreasing.

Air Conditioning Contractors of America adopted a monthly membership option in 2015, in which members pay automatically via credit card. The membership term is indefinite, which means auto-payment simply continues every month until the member cancels. It’s a model that feels totally familiar in the context of fitness centers, cable TV, streaming music, and the like, but it’s rare (as of now) in associations.

More members is a cure-all. Associations regularly tout their membership totals, because there is “power in numbers.” But it’s also true that growth brings change, which might not always be good. With more members, staff and resources must scale upward; if not managed well, an association may sacrifice the quality of its member service in favor of the quantity of members served.

As Harrison Coerver and Mary Byers, CAE, wrote in 2011’s Race for Relevance, an association may be better off to “focus on the needs of a definable segment.” Growth, however, can often mean targeting new segments, which can diversify an association’s membership base beyond the association’s ability to vary its services.

Membership is the defining quality of associations. This is still perhaps my favorite questioning of the prevailing perspective, an oldie but a goodie. In 2013, Mark Golden, FASAE, CAE, now executive director at the National Society of Professional Engineers, urged us to restore mission to its rightful place atop associations’ collective list of reasons for being. Membership, while of course well suited to the pursuit of such missions, is but a means to an end, he said.

“None of our organization founders ever got together in a room and said: ‘What we need to do is collect a bunch of money so we can hire a staff to sell us stuff,’” Golden wrote in an address to a TED-style association industry symposium [PDF]. “What is needed is to get our heads out of membership models and back into a focus on mission first: What (specifically) does our organization exist to accomplish? Then, and only then, ask: What role (if any) could membership play in achieving the mission?”

What do you think? Which of these “folk theories” of association membership have you closely subscribed to? Do any of these arguments change your mind? What other convention wisdom out there ought to be debunked? 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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