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The American Alliance of Museums had been experiencing a membership decline for several years, which was exacerbated by the 2008 recession. Faced with financial strain, the association needed to become more relevant and more accessible to current and prospective members. How did a restructured membership model turn it around for AAM?
First, under the old structure, institutional members paid dues on a sliding scale depending on the museum’s operating budget. But benefits were similar for institutional and individual members, making the cost of institutional membership hard to justify. Museums also were “self-discounting,” and, facing competition from discipline-specific organizations, the association found too often museums did not pick AAM.
AAM’s leaders agreed that disruptive change was needed. “We were buying ourselves a future,” AAM COO Laura Lott said in FORUM magazine.
The association devised a tiered membership model. Dues now are based on museum staff size, but at the entry level, museums pay what they can. As they opt into higher tiers, benefits increase. Dues also are capped at $5,000, not $15,000 as under the old model.
While this was going on, the association also went through a branding change, including adopting its current name from the former American Association of Museums.
To see the full background on how AAM accomplished this, see the article in the October 2013 FORUM magazine of the Association Forum of Chicagoland.)
How is the association faring? According to AAM membership and excellence VP Janet Vaughan, the association has reached 34 percent growth since introducing the new membership model in 2012.
“We not only reversed a 12-year decline but have exceeded our previous all-time high. We’re very pleased with the way the new structure is being received in the field. Members are joining at higher tiers than we projected,” with the highest, Tier 3, gaining 59 percent compared to a projected 46 percent. Also, Tier 1 dues (“pay what you can”) are averaging $100, much higher than the $25 AAM projected.
“The new membership structure is a reflection of our new approach and overarching goal - summed up in our tagline to ‘Champion Museums. Nurture Excellence.’ We identified our niche, have been consistent in our messaging that AAM now offers multiple pathways for participation, and that we need to speak with one strong voice in making the case that museums are essential,” Vaughan said.