A new report shows a downward trend in association membership over the past year. But it points to strong leadership and the ability to serve members in a more customized way as promising factors in ensuring long-term sustainability.
The new McKinley Advisors 2021 Associations Viewpoint report centers on the notion that there is no collective without the individual. That is particularly significant because associations are, of course, collectives, but the report notes that sometimes it is easy to lose sight of the unique needs and perspectives of the members who make up those communities.
The past year brought this tension into stark focus. Considering the individual means really listening to members and responding to their needs, which associations have done out of heightened necessity over the past year. And they will need to continue prioritizing that same proactive, responsive approach to member priorities.
“Associations have traditionally taken a really broad approach to serving their members,” said Shelley Sanner, CAE, senior vice president of industry relations at McKinley Advisors. When associations began to pivot at the start of the pandemic, they “started thinking about how to serve each person in a more customized way.”
The study’s findings reveal, not surprisingly, that the number of associations reporting membership declines has nearly doubled in one year, with professional associations being particularly hard hit. While survey respondents were increasingly concerned about membership and revenue declines, they said they are optimistic about the strength of their leadership.
Top 2021 Priorities
The study also shows recognition that long-term sustainability will require strategic commitments. The top three priorities for 2021, according to respondents, are generating nondues revenue (42 percent), focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion (39 percent), and improving member retention (27 percent).
Associations are going to have to assess themselves and ask big questions, Sanner said. Questions like: “How can we make membership more valuable, not just from a transactional perspective or from a communications perspective, but by making it more meaningful?”
An area of opportunity is the emotional connection that people feel to their field or profession, Sanner said. Associations need to look at ways to leverage that connection and celebrate the work the industry is doing.
“Have people feel pride in what they’re doing and feel recognized for what they’re doing,” she said. “Everyone wants an emotional connection.”
A possible communications strategy could be a shift to telling more stories about members. Such campaigns won’t necessarily have a rapid or concrete return, but they will be powerful. “Members will talk about that and feel recognized and feel emotional connections” to their professions, industries, and associations, she said.
Sanner is optimistic because she knows associations have problem solvers as leaders. Associations will need to reinvent themselves if they haven’t already, and continue to reinvent themselves. “The challenge and the crisis is the test,” she said. “It’s the opportunity to stretch and be stronger.”