Strategies for Overcoming Member Disengagement
Sarah Sladek’s new book MemberShift: Why Members Leave and the Strategies Proven to Bring Them Back challenges associations to get out of their comfort zones to create meaningful change that re-engages members and improves their organizations.
During the pandemic, Sarah Sladek, CEO and founder of XYZ University, began researching her new book. Many of the association professionals she spoke with shared concerns about the sudden member disengagement and decline they were seeing in their organizations.
“Though the pandemic forced us to have these conversations, there’s been a call for change in the way associations think about membership long before 2020,” Sladek said. “Data indicates that associations aren’t on the right path and haven’t been for quite some time in terms of membership disengagement and decline.”
Based on Sladek’s experience examining association membership strategies and her firm’s research into these areas, MemberShift: Why Members Leave and the Strategies Proven to Bring Them Back makes the case that associations have been misguided by borrowing best practices from business models and relying on traditions of the past—and presents ways to reverse the disengagement and decline.
Reflect on Changes
According to Sladek, there have been three major fundamental changes in the last decade or two to have contributed to the member decline and disengagement in associations.
First is that the economy has become more unpredictable and unstable, which in turn has affected consumerism.
“Joining an association requires a purchase,” Sladek said. “We’ve all become more careful, conscientious consumers, we’re demanding a greater return on investments, we’re shopping around, and there’s more accessibility to more services.”
The second change is the rise of technology, which has opened the doors to many businesses and services that can compete with associations by offering similar content and products. According to Sladek, associations are under more pressure to provide information and services faster and make offerings that members can’t find anywhere else.
“The third issue is demographics,” Sladek said. “We’ve transitioned from an industrial thinking era of hierarchies and structured processes where associations are trying to be predictable to generations in the workforce who were raised in disruptive decades.”
Due to the disruptive times that shaped them, these generations don’t have the same linear goals and focus on predictability. According to Sladek, these groups tend to value innovation, collaboration, adaptability, and creativity and are demanding a different type of experience from associations.
Given these challenges, associations can’t operate the way they have in the past and still expect membership growth.
“They can’t just have their doors open and say, ‘Here we are, come find us,’” Sladek said. “They need to be contemplative about what they’re providing and their values, they need to be intentional about their outreach and embracing change.”
In her research, Sladek found that many associations have approached membership in a product-driven way. For example, some groups tinker with their dues structure or make changes to their dues without putting in enough thought into whether it serves member needs.
“Membership is a totally different decision-making process,” Sladek said. “It’s very emotional, when you’re deciding to invest in membership, you’re deciding to be part of a community and that’s a more extensive relationship.”
According to Sladek, an immediate way for associations to respond to member disengagement is to diversify their leadership structures, such as the board and staff who get to sit at their decision-making tables.
“Every generation has different skillsets, ideas, and views to bring to the table,” Sladek said. “To stay relevant as associations and truly be representative of a changing community, our leadership has to be representative of change and reflective of a diverse community.”
Once associations welcome in board members and senior leadership of varying ages, they’re more likely to see greater collaboration, learning, teaching, and new ideas emerge.