Understand Membership Culture to Improve Engagement

Your members create a culture that leaders and staff should understand and act on. One association executive, speaking from experience, explains how the nuances of membership culture drive member engagement and volunteer involvement.

Beth Brooks, CAE, has spent a lot of time getting to know her members. For almost 30 years, she’s led many different associations—from the Texas Society of Association Executives to the National Association of Women in Construction to her current position as executive director of the Texas College of Emergency Physicians (TCEP).

In each organization, members engaged differently. “I’ve worked at an association with hands-off members and at another organization with very involved members eager to take on new roles,” Brooks says.

Member engagement springs from an organization’s membership culture, she argues. “What comes to my mind when I think about [membership culture] is tradition,” Brooks says. “What is that association like traditionally? Do they do things like they’ve always done? Do they have a large number of experienced members they lean on? Or are they willing to try something new?”

Brooks is only six months into her current position at TCEP but already recognizes several nuances of a membership culture that’s shaped by the profession the association serves.

“What’s so interesting to me is that my doctors love to learn, and they value knowing answers,” she says. “That push to learn and excel is an important facet of their experience, and so we need to present them with opportunities to do just that.”

Many TCEP members want to volunteer in face-to-face lobbying roles during the Texas legislative session. “[We] always put the doctor out front,” Brooks says. “They are the experts. They are the spokesperson.” At a trade association, members might defer to the executive director as the “face of the organization,” she adds.

Another important element of TCEP’s membership culture is time—specifically, the limited amount of it that members have to volunteer or engage in other ways with the organization. “Our members work in the moment, and so, when we give them deadlines, we have to understand their other priorities,” Brooks says. “I have learned not to stress out, because I know they’ll do the work and do it well.”

She notes that ER doctors tend to have a triage mentality that they also apply to volunteering, prioritizing work and volunteer obligations to meet critical deadlines. “It doesn’t matter if they have three months to write an article,” Brooks says. “They will do it, guaranteed—no need to remind them—and they will do it better than anyone, but it will be sent to you usually on the day it is due.”

Knowing your association’s membership culture and how your members are most likely to engage can help you refine your communication touchpoints, Brooks adds. She communicates to TCEP members in as directly as possible, realizing that physicians are in many ways busy “five-minute members.”

“When I email, whether it’s a generic ask or one with a specific question, I will put in the subject line: ‘action needed’ along with a deadline and date,” she says. “Maybe it’s a member vote or a committee request. I’m comfortable speaking in a direct manner with members.”

That tone might not work as well in another association with members whose profession doesn’t involve the same sense of urgency, which is why understanding your membership culture is so important. And that understanding can only come from members themselves.

“Any time you’re with a member, take time to listen. And ask them what’s on their mind. What are their worries? And how can we, as the association, help?” Brooks says. “Getting that feedback will speak to what they value most as a community.”

(yuoak/DigitalVision Vectors/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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