Member Services From Top Down to Local First

To revamp its membership and marketing efforts, the CFA Institute recently made an organizational change to support local societies using a new membership activation program. It was a new way of working for an organization with a tradition of top-down operations.

Michael Collins is a relative newbie when it comes to association management and leadership. He spent the majority of his career working in the private sector at Fortune 500 companies like J.P. Morgan, Rockefeller & Company, and Computer Sciences Corporation.

Today, he’s 18 months into a job as chief marketing officer at the CFA Institute, a large global associations of investment professionals. The institute has 142,000 members in 159 countries and territories, including 136,000 members who hold its prestigious certification and 147 member societies.

While you might expect that Collins was hired to bring his business acumen to the association universe, he’ll be the first to admit that associations are teaching him a thing or two about good business.

“With the private sector, you always think of customers, and it’s a profit goal. But in associations, you think of your members, and you’re trying to reach a service goal,” he says. “What I’ve learned to ask in my short time here has been: Is this good for the member? Do they want it? And will they truly value it?”

One thing CFA Institute’s local societies sorely needed was marketing support. In a member survey, the association learned that most independent societies had a hard time communicating member value. While the institute is widely known in the investment profession for its rigorous certification and exams, many members felt less engaged, valued, and represented when it came to member services like career development and networking at the local level.

That led Collins and his team of about 120 marketing, communications, and global customer care support staff to reprioritize the budget, growing a line item to support societies in areas like branding, advertising, public relations, and digital marketing.

It was a dramatic shift for an organization with a top-down approach. Historically, the institute operated like a business with global headquarters at the center, supported by smaller, regional outposts. Collins effectively reversed the flow of funds and services from headquarters to local societies.

“What we found was that the traditional business approach, or the top-down method, doesn’t really work anymore,” Collins says. “What is winning our members over is a new model focused on working locally with societies and supporting them under a new, global framework.”

Membership With Local Flavor

Regardless of your association’s size or setup, you can learn something from CFA Institute’s new local-first approach. Consider, for example, its new a member activation program, called “A Difference That Matters.”

Here’s what one of the program’s many marketing materials looks like:

So far, 105 of 148 local societies are participating in the marketing effort, which reaches about 90 percent of membership worldwide. The institute is funding the campaign to the tune of $3 million.

“My goal has been to change the way that we work as collaborative partners with our societies,” Collins says. “Because big and small tactics at the society level will enable us to succeed in the future . . . [and] we continue to learn something new from them every day.”

In the case of CFA Society Chicago, local leaders set preliminary goals around driving membership attendance to events that further professional development and networking opportunities. CFA Institute worked with the society to establish a year-round calendar of programming, as well as content offerings and resources to extend those event experiences.

What makes this program most effective, Collins says, is the mindset switch. CFA Institute works to serve the societies first, especially when it comes to membership resources and funding. At the same time, CFA Institute can collect and organize marketing materials and spread them globally through an online portal. Collins says it’s an easy way to share materials and best practices.

“Our portal is mobile-friendly and easily accessible by members,” he says. “We are relying on them to input great ideas and bring us back to the local flavor and unique qualities of membership.”
Of course, ushering in a process of integrated marketing, communications, content, events, and brand management led by local members is no easy feat. CFA Institute still has societies that operate under their own independent identities.

But there have been some signs of progress and conversion. Most recently, the institute worked with the Boston society on a complete rebranding process, which is helping to encourage other local societies to follow suit. Collins says he’s working with New York and Hong Kong on similar efforts.

“Our members are beginning to see the success of our collaboration and support,” Collins says. “And that’s driving awareness to others who are interested and eager now to work with us.”


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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