Should You Increase Membership Dues?

Raising membership dues is rarely an easy decision, and the past year’s complications have made it even more difficult. Anecdotal and statistical evidence shows associations are holding off on raising dues right now, mindful of members’ struggles.

After the past year, with all the turmoil, stress, and financial instability, it’s not easy to ask for money from members. If you’re wondering whether now is the right time is to increase membership dues, you’re not alone.

The National Association of College and University Attorneys has consistently raised its membership dues 2 to 3 percent every year. Last year the group chose to freeze dues and will hold them steady again this year. “Our first instinct when the pandemic hit was to take as much stress off institutions as we could to try and maintain as much retention as we could,” said Ashley Hodak Sullivan, NACUA’s director of membership and marketing. “We didn’t want that dues increase to be the reason they didn’t renew.”

Empathizing With Members

NACUA considered the hardships members were facing and wanted them to know why the decision was made to freeze dues two years in a row. NACUA President and CEO Kathleen Santora has been in the position for 20 years and has a personal relationship with almost all of the group’s primary representatives and member institutions. In the organization’s invoice letter to members, Santora included a personal message acknowledging the difficulties they were facing and continued that messaging throughout the year, stating that NACUA would do its part to support them as much as possible.

A preview of data from Marketing General Incorporated’s upcoming 13th annual Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report shows that kind of mindfulness extending across the association community. “We’re seeing a heightened sensitivity by associations to the members’ ability to pay,” said Tony Rossell, MGI’s senior vice president and coauthor of the report. “They are trying to smooth the path, so members aren’t alienated.”

Another trend that emerged from the new data: Fewer associations said they would raise dues in 2020 compared to 2019. And a lot more associations are extending their dues-payment grace periods in 2020 than they did in the past.

Value, Innovation, and Relevance

NACUA does not offer member discounts, but its board considered the possibility. Ultimately, they decided against it. The value of NACUA membership is strong, Sullivan said, and dues revenue goes directly to programming and educational opportunities for members.

Another reason not to discount, she said, is that it makes the eventual dues increase that much larger. NACUA has focused on the incremental yearly increase to match cost-of-living expenses, which is more palatable than a 5 to 10 percent adjustment every few years. “That hits a lot harder,” she said.

NACUA members have said they appreciate that their association is considering their circumstances, and the organization’s 90 percent retention rate confirms how much value they get from their membership. Sullivan attributes that retention success to NACUA’s “gold standard” of professional development programming. “We have a very faithful cohort of members,” she said, who keep coming back for programming they need that they can’t get anywhere else.

Even so, MGI’s upcoming report will show that only 26 percent of associations saw membership growth last year, the lowest number the study has ever reported. But Rossell predicts a rebound in the coming year and beyond. “Associations are getting more flexible and putting more attention into how to strengthen their value proposition, how to make themselves more relevant, meaningful, and valuable to their members,” he said.

Sullivan is confident that even members who had to cancel their NACUA membership because of COVID-19 budget cuts will be back as soon as they have the available funds because they recognize the value they get from the group.

“We leaned into the crisis and did everything we could to be there for our members,” Sullivan said. “That really helped foster that appreciation and commitment they’ll be able to recognize later when they make the decision for dues renewal, when everything reaches a new normal.”

What is your association doing about membership dues? Please share in the comments or send me an email.

(champc/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Lisa Boylan

By Lisa Boylan

Lisa Boylan is a senior editor of Associations Now. MORE

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