How Leaders Can Navigate a New Nondues Era

Associations have more options for drawing corporate and sponsor dollars. But execs also have to consider how these partnerships will affect members.

Nondues revenue options aren’t what they used to be. So, many leaders have to rethink what kind of ground rules they establish for them.

For the latest Associations Now Deep Dive report, I wrote about how approaches to nondues revenue have been changing of late. Gone are the days of an advertising supplement here or a new in-person event or webinar there. Now, associations have been tasked with being more entrepreneurial. As Non Dues-a-Palooza Founder Teri Carden put it: “If we look at the new programming or new nondues revenue programs, a lot of them act like small businesses.”

Think of associations who’ve spun off for-profit consulting services, or stood up credentialing and certificate programs. Even within the familiar territory of meetings, relationships are changing. As an earlier Deep Dive report explained, corporate partners are looking for more than a chance to put up some signage or sponsor a cocktail hour. They want their executives in front of members at the keynote, at chapter meetings, in focus groups, and more. 

If a company wants to pay big bucks for member information, or an hour of their time, the pitch is tempting.

And as I share in the nondues article, corporations want to partner with associations to share their efforts around DEI or sustainability, to keep their message front-and-center with members. As consultant Lori Zoss Kraska explained, those companies “are wanting to get their branding and some of the initiatives they’re doing for the community in front of your members as well as opportunities to support like-minded programming your association is offering.”

It’s hard for any association leader to turn a blind eye to this. In-person meetings are returning after the ongoing disruptions of COVID-19, but predicting who wants to hop a flight and who’d rather check in remotely remains a challenge. Ongoing uncertainty about the economy—inflation, global crises, recession fears—makes forecasting that much harder. If a company wants to pay (as Carden puts it) “big bucks” for member information, or an hour of their time, the pitch is tempting.

And leaders shouldn’t necessarily say no to it. But they should be considering what the goodwill of their members is worth, and what risks eroding it. The line between “thought leadership” and “sales pitch” can get blurry fast without clear guidelines that the association establishes; members and customers should have clarity on what data of theirs may be made available. Survey after survey supports the notion that a key reason people join an association because they seek a sense of belonging. Being treated like a fungible object will only stand in the way of that feeling.

Association leaders looking at deepening their relationships with corporate partners should make sure that engagement with a partner is always an option, not something members are compelled to do. And the connection with a partner should always be obvious and meaningful. As Kraska explained regarding corporate-partner outreach. “What is their mission, vision, and values?” she said. “What do they like to support, and does that match what you do?” Those questions are meant to save an association from wasting time chasing bad leads. But it’s also a guiding principle to ensure that what financially benefits the association benefits the well-being of members too.

What guidelines does your association establish around corporate partnerships? Share your experiences in the comments. 


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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