Opening the Door to Government Members

In some fields, associations can’t fully carry out their mission of guiding smart policy and facilitating information exchange if government employees aren’t part of their membership community. But state and federal rules are sometimes an obstacle to bringing in those members. Some groups are reexamining their membership strategies to bring down that barrier.

Government employees face a conundrum when it comes to joining an association that requires individual membership dues. It’s either pay out of pocket or don’t join at all.

That dilemma is growing for employees of both federal agencies likely to see budget cuts and for states governments that have not rebounded from the Great Recession. Often, budget cuts and revenue loss translate directly into lost opportunities for professional development and networking. Meanwhile, the federal government and many states prohibit the reimbursement of individual membership dues.

This environment is causing some associations to consider new membership categories, including free and organizational memberships that could open the door to more government employees.

Professionals who work in government remain critical for many associations, says Cindy Adams, president and CEO of the Iowa Society of CPAs. ISCPA is one of many associations putting a renewed focus on membership categories that are targeted to state and federal officials.

“Right now, we are in the process of creating a group model or structure that would more closely resemble a hybrid membership,” Adams says. “We are looking at unique ways to get new and potential members from government involved.”

Complaints about the barrier to entry have been echoing around the Iowa statehouse. Only a handful of CPAs in the state auditor’s office are current members, and only 2 percent of registered members identify themselves as coming from government backgrounds, says Lindsey Haley, membership coordinator at ISCPA. Iowa’s state rules prohibit individuals from being reimbursed for specific membership categories.

“Our challenge is to stay true to our bylaws, while also being inclusive for any and all members to join,” Haley says. “We face challenges not only at the state level, but also with federal rules and restrictions that prevent potential members from joining.”

Free Membership

Although ISCPA isn’t currently considering free membership for government employees, other associations have tried it, particularly those focused on networking and in-person events. Take, for example, the National Defense Industrial Association, which has more than 85,000 members in the defense and national security community. Government employees are considered a key audience segment for NDIA, and many attend its events and programs on topics from data management to business development to federal procurement.

In 2002, NIDA set a goal to bulk up government membership by piloting a free, three-year government membership category with the option to renew as a dues-paying member. The concept was akin to a test drive for membership, but the free category proved to be more successful than expected, says Zoila Martinez, associate director of membership.

“Our goal was to increase the participation of government employees to 10,000 members,” she says. “However, the success of the program was such that we decided to make the free membership permanent.” NIDA currently has almost 18,000 government members.

Group Membership

But what if you’re a smaller association that doesn’t rely heavily on face-to-face events? You might not be able to afford a free membership category, especially if dues are your main source of revenue.

The Society for Nutrition Education and Behavior is a case in point. About 5 percent of members comes from government backgrounds. SNEB offers both individual and group memberships, but the two broad categories were not enough to serve all institutional members, from both government and academia, who had an interest in joining.

“We realized there was an issue when we had people purchasing the more expensive nonprofit organizational membership category, simply because it was the only way to get reimbursed,” says Executive Director Rachel Daeger, CAE. “For government and some universities, our membership categories had nothing to do with cost, and everything to do with how membership was packaged.”

The answer for SNEB was a new category—a small institutional membership, available for groups of five or 10 members.

Niche categories like government membership may be an unexplored opportunity for many associations, Daeger says. “We made our decisions directly off our experience, but there’s probably a good chance that many associations out there aren’t thinking about the smaller pockets of membership, like government,” Daeger says. “We worked very hard to make membership, conferences, and resources both accessible and affordable to a group that’s impacted by policies, procedures, and budgets.”

What challenges or struggles have you faced in recruiting and retaining government employees as members? Are there other membership categories that you’re targeting? Leave your answers in the comment thread below.


Tim Ebner

By Tim Ebner

Tim Ebner is a senior editor for Associations Now. He covers membership, leadership, and governance issues. Email him with story ideas or news tips. MORE

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