December 17, 2017
    Member sustainability and growth: Make the case for your worth

    Understanding the issues of membership is the first step

    By Jim Thompson, CAE | 07/21/2016

    One of the most common challenges for today’s association is trying to grow membership. To understand the problem, it is first important to understand the issues that are facing associations today.

    There are five key issues that are impacting associations and their ability to retain and recruit members: generational, technology, value proposition, diversity and “we’ve always done it that way.”

    For associations, theses issues are having an impact on recruitment, retention, leadership and even the overall revenue.

    It’s not all doom and gloom, however. According to data in the most recent Membership Benchmarking Report by Marketing General, some of the challenges to membership growth are actually clues to how associations can grow their membership.

    Association staff revealed the top barriers to retaining members. The first was difficulty in communicating value. The second was insufficient staff. Next was the membership was too diverse. Last was difficulty in proving Return on Investment. Notice that the first and the last item are all about value, or the lack thereof.. If the association can’t make the case for why an individual or company should invest in membership with the association, it will be very hard to grow membership.

    For the member, there are some common themes in the reasons they gave for not renewing their membership. Of the top-six reasons members gave for not renewing, five were related to value. The first was lack of engagement. Obviously if a member isn’t engaged in the organization, they aren’t going to see the value. How many times have you dropped a gym membership because you just never could get there to workout? Another was members said they could not justify membership cost with any significant ROI. There’s that idea of the return on investment again. Rounding out the bottom were employer quit paying dues and lack of value. These two reasons also point to a lack of perceived value. If your employer pays your membership dues, hopefully the membership is of such value that you’d continue paying. However, in many instances, that is not the case.

    So, how can we turn these challenges into opportunities?

    As it relates to the value, the association should spend quality time examining the benefits of belonging to the association. Now, there is a big difference between features of membership and benefits of membership. The fact that the association offers education is a feature. The fact that you can get all the education you need to maintain a credential and save hundreds of dollars a year doing it is a benefit. Ed Rigsbee, in his book the ROI of Membership, does a good job at explaining how associations can look at their benefits and put a dollar value on them so you can demonstrate value.

    As far as engagement, the association has to do a better job and ensuring members have a way to engage with the association that means the most to them. Some members are OK with being a checkbook member. Some want to be involved in service. Some are collegial members and want the benefits that can come along with networking. You need to find out what membership engagement looks like in your organization. And then you need to determine if that fits the needs of your current, former and prospective members. If it doesn’t, the association needs to develop a plan. Part of that plan could be just to provide some sort of orientation or onboarding so members see how they can engage with the association. Or, it could be something as simple as investing in additional technology to provide members a way to network with each other on their time, in addition to the networking at in-person events.

    For your association to sustain its membership, you have to make a commitment to determining how you are doing to demonstrate the value of the association and once you got the members in the organization, that you get them engaged so they realize you are needed as a part of their business or career.

    Thompson is association management VP at Capitol Hill Management Services. This article is based on his presentation at the recent Florida Society of Association Executives 2016 annual meeting. Contact Thompson at

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