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Time to Rethink the Association Model?

This article was written for and first appeared in

It was a discussion among association chapter leaders on how to increase membership. The usual campaign strategies were mentioned. But for all the tactics, I had a larger question: What is our value proposition—is it strong enough?

Even if it were, would that matter? Associations are fighting an increasingly tough battle to engage and keep members, stay relevant, and deliver numbers. Is it the fault of the associations themselves for their struggles to adapt and improve with every industry course correction? Or are we simply living in an age in which association participation is slipping on the working professional’s priority list—no time, no interest, no urgency, no energy, too many other options.

The age-old value formula for members of associations is no secret: stay involved in your industry, take advantage of resources and educational opportunities, and make new business connections via networking opportunities. Add to that frequent communications vehicles and job banks. These elements are typically available via local chapter events and a national educational conference or trade show. For years membership renewal in our industry associations was a rubber stamp for most planners and suppliers. And that was fine, particularly as members, myself included, forged relationships that led to new business.

But just as meeting planners were alerted to the importance of proving ROI, so too were executives forced to evaluate every penny spent in a treacherous economy, including association membership for employees.

Facing this new reality, where members had to justify the relevance of their membership, did associations start operating more like businesses and less like the communities they were selling to members in the first place? While the answer is a little bit of both, perhaps the rising concern over dues caused many associations to focus too much on numbers and drift away from their core strengths.

Yet wouldn’t some associations, at least at the chapter level—which is the heart of many organizations—actually be better served with fewer but more committed members, who had to think twice about their involvement before mailing it in? I raised this question a while back: Would you rather belong to a club of 800 with 20 percent engaged members or a club of 200 with 100 percent passionate ones?

A look at some riveting statistics from Meeting Professionals International’s Greater New York Chapter, for which I was vice president of education, would seem to support this concept. From September 2012 to July 2013, the chapter had five education/networking events. Of 685 chapter members at the time, only 148—or 21.6 percent of total membership—attended at least one. That means 537 members—or 78.4 percent of membership—chose not to attend any. The topics weren’t interesting? (Satisfaction scores, by the way, were through the roof.) The venue and locale were undesirable? The dates presented conflicts? C’mon. In Greater New York at least, there are many disengaged members who, outside of paying dues, seem to have limited involvement with the group.

I suggested that MPI experiment and intentionally reduce/control membership in one of its chapters to produce a stronger, more active membership. Let’s say Greater New York cuts its membership to 250 (don’t faint, MPI loyalists), institutes a qualification process whereby applicants are evaluated and accepted, and starts fresh with a smaller, more focused, more inspired membership eager to learn, share, participate, influence, and contribute. As it is now, chapters try to develop programs that appeal to the masses and draw the highest audience, but they suffer for being too general or simply irrelevant. A smaller group would be less subject to those generalities and could address more specifically meaningful topics that members could readily apply to their work. As energy levels rise, other initiatives of a motivated group could include white papers and community/industry causes of relevance. What’s more, current pressures to reach challenging membership metrics and member satisfaction levels would ease. As it is now, chapters are evaluated on those metrics and rewarded—or penalized—with funding and incentives from headquarters. The non-participatory members bring down the overall participation-level percentages of events and programs, and their lack of participation affects their answers on satisfaction surveys. Under this newer proposed model, those trouble spots could be corrected. How vibrant a group this could be—provided the chapters deliver on quality.

The changing needs of the potential membership pool call for a reassessment on the part of associations, which I imagine takes place constantly. Short of anything so radical, though, we at the chapter and national levels should work very hard to make our programs appealing. We should conduct surveys to get feedback about members’ priorities and preferences, hold focus groups, and give members every chance to be heard. And of course, we should listen and respond. But we can’t drag people kicking and screaming away from their computer screens and into the face-to-face world of live events. And why should we?

While associations at one time were the main source of information about an industry, that is no longer the case. As explained so eloquently by Howard Givner, executive director of The Event Leadership Institute: “Technology, and specifically social media, has flattened and democratized the flow of information, and fostered a wide range of education and networking in a friction-free environment. Ideas and connections now flow fast and furious across the Web, and are not bothering to make a pit stop at the association office. People are ‘on’ seven days a week now, checking e-mails and doing work at all hours of the day, and have come to expect lightning-fast delivery of information. By contrast, the traditional association is encumbered by various processes, bylaws, committees, and other legacy structures built in an era when business moved more slowly.”

If you’ll accept the current skepticism about the value of associations in comparison to other information sources, it stands to reason a new structure and dynamic might be worth considering in hope of resuscitating a lethargic membership and membership pool. Certainly, there’s easy money to be made from the many members who blindly mail in renewals then are hardly seen or heard. But these non-participatory members are hurting the greater good in the long run.

In their book, Race for Relevance: 5 Radical Changes for Associations, Harrison Coerver and Mary Byers note the six marketplace realities that did not exist 25 years ago:

• Too little available time for board members and regular members • More demanding value expectations

• Changes in market structure

• Multigenerational differences among today’s membership domain

• Competition—not only from other associations but from other information channels

• The effect of technology on accessing that information

Their solutions were along the same “less is more” theme I am proposing: smaller boards that can more easily make decisions; fewer committees with fewer members bent on sticking to the mission statement; a slight shift to more staffers and fewer volunteers; understanding that not all members are desirable ones; and even being selective about the breadth of products and benefits that are offered.

What sort of members are the desirable ones? Certainly not the ones who pay their dues, sit back, and see what the association can and will do for them. Rather, the ones who step forward with an all-in approach from the get-go, join a committee, and participate to the fullest. This was evident in a focus group I conducted for MPI Greater New York. One participant recalled that after year one of membership, she wrestled with renewal. Ultimately, she decided to stay with it and immerse herself in activity and involvement. The difference, she said, was remarkable and very rewarding. While you will never get 100 percent involvement, under the newer model you certainly would shift the balance to a higher number of motivated members.

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