Ask Three Questions to Avoid the “Dark Side” of Membership

Membership isn’t always pretty. Sometimes a sense of belonging can lead to entitlement and power struggles. One expert recommends asking yourself three critical questions to avoid membership’s “dark side.”

I tend to think of membership as a win-win. After all, people pay dues and join an organization because value and benefits come with the experience.

In her book The Membership Economy, Robbie Kellman Baxter, president of Peninsula Strategies, also focuses on the many positives of membership. She even predicts that it will become “the future of all business models.”

While we are certainly seeing the consumerization of membership—think Amazon, Netflix, Spotify, or Blue Apron—not all member experiences have rosy outcomes. In fact, Baxter notes that membership has a “dark side.” She first heard about it from a friend who at the time was running a news-sharing site built around a wide base of online members.

“What happened with his business, and what ultimately put it out of business, was that this very small group of committed members—the heaviest users [and] the most engaged—pushed really hard for the company to go in a certain direction,” Baxter says. “The business became more and more focused on serving this very small segment, and it became really unappealing to new members.”

This gradual shift can occur naturally as membership organizations mature, Baxter says, and it’s a cautionary tale for associations that might have a track record of primarily serving small member segments.

“Something about belonging can create entitlement,” she says. “Then the organization moves in a direction where it only listens to the loudest and most powerful voices.”

Therein lies the dark side. But you can resist it by staying focused on serving all of your members. How are you doing with that? For a little self-assessment, Baxter recommends asking yourself three basic questions.

Are You Listening to the Right Voices?

Many associations are structured to serve longstanding members well, overlooking the needs of new members or prospects, Baxter says.

“Keep in mind your members have a lot of influence, even more than a customer, and they expect to be heard, which creates a model where everything is optimized for the 20-year member,” she says. “How often do you think about the member who’s been here for zero years?”

That question might come as a challenge for some associations because they don’t provide an open forum or space for new members—or for nonmembers looking to become members.

At Salesforce, the cloud-based platform for customer relationship management, a wide array of online user groups serve as sounding boards. Salesforce maintains not only a user group of MVPs—deep users—but also dedicated online groups for new users, students, and product buyers.

“Their goal is to hear the whole symphony of voices,” Baxter says. “The bright side of membership is that you have all these people telling you what’s happening and what’s unique. You don’t have to really pay for market research. You can just follow the member, but you also have to follow the right types of members.”

Is There a Seat for Rank-and-File Members?

Frequently, the dark side of membership is directly linked to a governance issue. If your board does not know what rank-and-file members are struggling with, how can they begin to serve those needs?

“Too often, governance becomes an entitlement or prize,” Baxter says. “Whatever your mission is, your board better be best-positioned to achieve it.”

Increasing your board members’ face time with members can help build empathy for a variety of member needs. Baxter suggests inviting your board to take time outside of the boardroom to meet with new-member groups.

She also suggests a simple tactic—reading aloud the association’s mission at the start of every board meeting to provide focus. Or you can take the approach of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, who deliberately leaves a seat open in important meetings for the imagined customer voice.

“It’s a psychological trick that gets you to always think about the member in the back of your head,” Baxter says.

How Do You Keep the Big Tent From Collapsing?

Depending on your organization’s size or structure, conflicts among members are bound to arise. Some members may even try to collapse your “big tent” association or splinter off from it, Baxter says.

Be on the lookout for these issues, and stick to a core set of values to help you maneuver through difficult times. (In the January/February issue of Associations Now, I explored how the American Library Association has reinforced its core values to maintain community cohesion during a politically divisive period.) Baxter says it comes down to an unwavering commitment to your mission, as well as an openness to pursue change when necessary.

“Have the courage to only do the things that you see value in and that meet your mission,” she says. “But also be more fluid about your structure and about letting members form and reform task forces, committees, or subgroups.”

That flexibility can help keep your big tent propped up, and it may even open the door to make room for new members.

Has your organization faced the dark side of membership? What was the issue that challenged you, and how did you overcome it? Leave your comments in the thread below.

(baona/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

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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