A Creative Way to Solve a Membership Dues Riddle
The pandemic’s impact has been inconsistent—affecting people in vastly different ways. One association came up with a plan to keep dues revenue steady, while also giving its members a part to play in building—and sustaining—the community in crisis.
Making the decision to raise dues is an ongoing dilemma, exacerbated by financial uncertainty—and at times inequity. The American Sociological Association found a way to help its members—and give them a chance to help one another—with an inspiring initiative that ended up increasing membership.
With the pandemic raging by mid-2020, it was clear to Margaret Vitullo, Ph.D., CAE, ASA’s deputy director, that the group could not proceed with a business-as-usual approach to membership dues because its members were not impacted equally by the crisis.
Some members were facing extreme financial straits, including those at smaller institutions that were cutting staff, while others were able to continue their practices in home offices. Not only were those latter members able to maintain their salaries, they also lowered their expenses because they were not commuting or incurring any other in-office-related expenses. “It’s a very complicated situation,” Vitullo said.
In discussing what to do with her team, three things became clear.
- ASA had no way of knowing who needed financial help and who might be able to help others.
- The community of sociologists needed each other more than ever.
- ASA’s mission—to support sociologists in their work, advance the discipline of sociology as a science and profession, and promote the contributions and use of sociology to society—was paramount.
So, ASA developed the Pick Your Own Sponsorship program to respond to a complex reality. Under PYOS, ASA was able to keep membership dues steady. The group gave members the opportunity to either take a sponsorship—reducing their dues by 10, 20, or 30 percent, or give a sponsorship and add a donation of 10, 20, or 30 percent on top of their regular dues payment.
ASA refined the idea for the program by studying business management literature on pay-what-you-want pricing and then built risk-ratio modeling for what might happen if they did implement the program. Research into pay-what-you-want pricing revealed a need for a suggested price point. ASA used its 2020 dues rate and then gave members a range they could choose from—but limited that range.
The support of ASA’s elected leadership was a critical element in making the program a reality. “PYOS could not have happened without their vision and willingness to take risks at a time when courage was needed,” Vitullo said. The board’s willingness to go out on a limb was rewarded: More than a quarter of members participated in the program, and ASA’s membership grew by 14 percent in 2021.
An Intangible Member Benefit
ASA developed a three-question pulse survey and 70 percent of members who took a sponsorship said they likely would not have joined without the sponsorship options. “They said the sponsorship option made them feel seen, valued, and that they weren’t alone,” Vitullo said. Sponsorship donors also praised the program: “They commented on how happy they were to help their colleagues, build community, and contribute to keeping the association strong.”
The importance of community, especially in times like this, cannot be overstated. “When you start to focus on concrete membership benefits, you can lose sight of the intangible benefits of membership like community,” Vitullo said. The PYOS program reinforces that sense of community.
“In the midst of a pandemic, that’s one of the things we all need,” she said. “We all need community to make our way through this.”
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