How Small Tweaks to Your Membership Structure Can Yield Big Results      

Raising dues is always a sensitive topic, but what if there were a way to avoid it altogether and still have significant increases in member recruitment and retention? A CEO shares strategies that worked well for her association.

A question on many people’s minds, as evidenced by a popular thread on ASAE’s Collaborate network [ASAE member login required], is whether now is a good time to raise dues. An even better question might be: Do I even need to raise dues?

For instance, a membership restructure can raise revenue without the need to raise dues, which is one way to get past a thorny issue. Christine Gardner, executive director of the Ohio Association for Career and Technical Education (Ohio CTE), noticed not a lot of teachers were joining the group, which she thought was odd because it represents career educators and has lots of teacher-focused benefits like professional development and special interest groups. However, Ohio CTE did have lots of members who were administrators.

Update Categories

After spending time thinking about it and talking to lots of people, a teacher finally told Gardner that when she looked at Ohio CTE’s membership category called “professional” she thought it only meant administrators. “They weren’t recognizing themselves on our membership application,” Gardner said.

People join associations to be among like-minded people, and if they don’t see themselves in the member category, they don’t join. So, Ohio ACTE changed its categories to include a teacher membership along with the administrator membership.

Gardner recommends asking a simple question: Are the titles of your membership categories still relevant, or are they too generic?

“Make sure someone can go on and recognize themselves,” she said.

Keep it Simple

Another good tactic is to make sure it’s easy for members to join. “Subconsciously, I think we make it too hard,” Gardner said. And that starts with the membership application, which is often designed to wring every detail of information out of a member from the get-go.

“I basically want them to sign up, give me their contact information, and pay their dues,” Gardner said. “Then, I can follow up with them and get more in-depth information.”

If an application takes 10 to 15 minutes, these days that’s too much. “I don’t think people are willing to spend that time unless they’re really invested in joining,” she said. “They’re not going to jump through all these hoops.”

She recommends getting the fundamental information you need and then having a communications plan to reach out little bits at a time, which is good because it increases touchpoints with members while they’re new.

Group Rates

Gardner also decided to streamline the membership process by creating an organizational membership, so a school could send a list of everyone they wanted to cover under that membership and pay one fee. That way it’s all taken care of with one transaction, which eliminated obstacles and made the whole process easier. It also had another advantage.

“Since we instituted that, my membership has literally doubled,” she said. “We’re at 6,000 members now.”

Before implementing the group membership, Ohio CTE staff extensively studied how to price it because they had to figure out how to charge organizational members since some schools have one thousand students, and some have 200.

The other way Gardner sold the organizational membership to schools was to reach out to the decision maker at schools, which is usually the school superintendent. She explained they could offer the benefit to the entire staff, and they would have access to professional development and all the other benefits of membership. Some superintendents were surprised that everyone could join. Some asked, “What if the bus driver wants to join?” Gardner replied, “Hey, if they support career tech, put them on the list.”

An updated member category that more accurately reflects prospective members, a barrier-free way to sign up for membership, and a new organizational membership significantly increased membership and revenue without having to raise dues. Definitely a win-win.

Has your organization restructured membership categories? Please share in the comments or send me an email.

(RapidEye/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Lisa Boylan

By Lisa Boylan

Lisa Boylan is a senior editor of Associations Now. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!