Thursday, February 7, 2013

What is the purpose of membership anyway?


The fabulous Shelly Alcorn, CAE is "SICK AND TIRED of the questions about ‘what is the value of membership.’" I loved her post, most of all her observation that you can find the roots of modern associations in the associating that happened in the symposiums of Ancient Greece, guilds in Medieval Europe, and salons of the Renaissance.  Shelly points out that associating is rooted in the universal human need for connection.  I’d add that associating also reflects a human need for individuals to come together to accomplish things they cannot do easily for themselves. 

 “Associating” bodies whether a social club, fraternal organization, neighborhood, workers union, sports team, trade association, professional society, Facebook, credit union, LinkedIn, or Kickstarter – whether formal, enduring structures or short-term collaborations – all have a cost of participation.  It may be giving of your time; your attention; your talents; a commitment to your fellow members or certain ideals; or giving up the freedom of choosing the color to paint your house, conceding to be advertised to; and yes, in many cases, money – whether called membership dues, participation fees, donations, or “financially backing a project.”  Whether the cost of participation is worthwhile depends on the perceived value of the return on that investment.  That is, does participation provide a result that is 1) desired and 2) worth the effort when compared to the alternative of achieving a similar outcome another way. 

What is frustrating about many conversations about the “value of membership” is that they often devolve into “Is our price point still relevant for the programs, products and services we offer?”  What is most challenging in my mind is that these conversations tend to focus on the cost and avenues of participation, and fail to recognize what may be a bigger challenge:  if associations are designed to help individuals accomplish things they cannot do easily for themselves, we need to think long and hard about the fact that it is not as hard to do many things for yourself as it used to be.
 
Two quick examples: 

AAA: Growing up, we used to take a fair number of family vacations by car.  And critical to that was a membership in the American Automobile Association.  Not only did AAA give us assurance that we could get a tow if we needed one, it also got us the best available rates on hotels, and made custom highlighted TripTiks®, customized step-by-step maps to navigate our trip.  In the 1970’s, all three of these were extreme value adds.  In fact, to this day, I remain a member of AAA because they still have the best hotel rates, and they will take care of tracking down an available tow truck, making a potentially stressful time a little less stressful.  But there may very well come a time when I decide that paying $70 or more per year for these savings of convenience and hotel rooms is simply not worth it.  And it’s not because of AAA … it’s because smartphones and the Internet have made it easy for me to find a good price on a hotel, roadside assistance, and customized travel directions.
 

Guilds: Guilds dominated the career pathway, standards of practice, and access to markets in much of Medieval Europe.  To become a practicing craftsman, individuals typically had to endure years of apprenticeship and demonstrate proficiency in techniques determined by the appropriate guild.  In short, the guilds single-handedly controlled the pathway to being a successful craftsman, which was difficult (if not impossible) without participation in the appropriate guild.  Despite what seems like the ultimate “golden handcuff” benefit, the guild model failed … not because of the change in its value proposition of helping interested novices become skilled craftspersons, but because the external world changed ─ the rise of standardized manufacturing techniques undermined their proposition and shifts in social attitudes about free market economics changed the social acceptance of guilds. 

In my next two posts, I’ll build on this idea to look at external trends impacting associations and provide a few thoughts on what you and your association should do to ensure your continued viability. And I would love to hear your feedback and add your examples of how the changing world has impacted specific associations.

17 comments:

  1. " it is not as hard to do many things for yourself as it used to be."

    Bingo.

    At some point, I think continuing belong to an association is more akin to making a charitable contribution because you believe in the cause than it is tied to any direct exchange of tangible value.

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    1. Thanks Jeffrey. I agree that there is an element of faith and being part of wanting to change the world that contributes too. But I think it is unsustainable to expect charity on a regular basis, especially for professional associations and societies. But yes, important not to reduce association membership to a pure economic transaction - associations are made of people, and as Shelly pointed out, those are often the most meaningful elements of connection.

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    2. I don't think I suggested that the charity can be sustained, nor did I equate a "cause" with "trying to change the world." And while people are indeed the critical element of connection those connections can now obviously be made more easily without any contribution from the association as a convener. That's what led my to my charitable contribution metaphor: I pay dues because I want to financially support something I believe in (what previously we thought of as the financial model primarily for foundations) as opposed to I pay dues to an organization almost exclusively to acquire certain tangible benefits of membership.

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    3. Thanks Jeffrey -- I didn't mean to sound like I was disagreeing with you. In fact, I think we are fundamentally agreeing here that people can connect easier than before, without the aid of associations ... so while personal connections made through associations are important, it is not no longer an exclusive realm for associations to bring together like-minded people. (There is even a social network now that connects people through ideas and conversations independent of the normal social trappings of name, organization, gender, etc: http://www.socialnumber.com/.)

      As to dues as pure financial support of something because you believe in, I think the external landscape is changing so much that the assumption for that to continue is challenged in the professional association space. The competition for money is increasing (just think about debt as a measuring stick) and rising awareness of "return on investment" influences too. But a changing landscape does not mean that it is not a still factor and that it won't continue to be a factor.

      With all that said, I suspect we both agree with the broad observation reinforced by ASAE's Decision to Join: supporting the larger good AND providing tangible benefits are both important in the professional association model. The challenge, however, is to make sure your larger good and tangible benefits are still in fact adding value to alternative of members doing similar things on their own.

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  2. This is a great analysis Greg and thanks so much for the shout-out....I am looking very forward to your next posts on the topic! Love the discussion.....:D

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    1. Thanks Shelly! If only I could have found the right song track to add ... love how you interweave pop culture with your posts ... all I've got is a picture of a Plymouth Volare station wagon!

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  3. Great examples Greg! I used to love getting TripTiks and the AAA guidebooks to plan for all the fun out-of-way stops on trips.

    Now I don't need them.

    Although I do still love being able to have a tow-truck save me thanks to AAA. It helps keep my life easy.

    What can associations do to make my life easier?

    Can't wait to see your next post in the series!

    Cynthia

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    1. Thanks Cynthia -- That's a great question for associations to ask, especially of not-yet-members: "What can we do to make your life easier?"

      And funny story on AAA ... saved my wife enough times in college that we learned that they will eventually send you a letter notifying you that you will not be towed next time!

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  4. I will be looking forward to you upcoming posts on this topic. Related to the history of membership, I also wrote up some ideas on this. I called it the "membership gene". Here is a link to that post:

    http://membershipmarketing.blogspot.com/2011/09/is-there-membership-gene.html

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    1. Wow Tony -- the breadth of your reading is impressive -- Aristotle, de Tocqueville and the good Dr. Seuss! I enjoyed your post.

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    2. The Aristotle quote came out of a book I was thumbing through from my son's masters program. I wish that I had the time to read more.

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  5. Having goals that matter matters more than ever.

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    1. Very much agree David. Goals that matter help align the Board, staff, volunteers, members, and partners on achieving the same outcomes. They can be inspiring, and can help attract and retain people who care about the goal to the organization. But I'm sure you'd agree that just having the goals isn't enough in itself -- you must show progress, and communicate that progress too. And need a sign that goals matter? Just look at how for-profit companies are tying themselves to larger goals as evidenced by the rise of cause marketing: http://www.hoxworth.org/about/cause_marketing.html

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  6. Greg, it seems to me that your AAA example exacerbates the point that associations must evolve continually to a new, and updated, value proposition in order to keep members. As you mention that discounts may not be enough to keep you a member...so it goes with associations. If they cannot prove the "ROI of Membership" then how can they expect members to stay?

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    1. Totally agree Ed. If you are not changing, you are likely becoming irrelevant. Imagine if AAA could help with more efficient commuting systems for individual drivers. That would be valuable. And their battery replacement service in my driveway is a real value add for our family.

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  7. Greg - thanks for this post. It was also good to see you last week at the AMC Inst. Annual Meeting.

    May I suggest that there are two general types of associations based on "purpose". One type serves a more "transactional purpose" -- this would be your AAA example. Personally, I resent that the term "member" is used to label the subscribers or customers. There's nothing wrong with this model, except the patronizing way they refer to their customers -- really, there should be a "Naming Police".

    I tend to think of these transaction-based organizations as "co-ops". People join them to lower the average cost of things they'd buy anyone (e.g., insurance, supplies, education/training, advertising, etc.). Again, these are valuable and I'm a happy AAA "subscriber".

    The second is the more classic association that exists to have some impact outside of itself.

    The other important distinction is whether or not the dues-paying member (at least one class of membership) gets a vote in matters of importance in the organization.

    Perhaps another way to think about organizations is the difference between "renting" and "buying". If I get a vote for my membership dues, I'm buying something. I've made a deeper commitment to the overall success of the organization -- to the future of a profession or a line of business. If I don't get a vote, I don't have the same commitment to the organization -- it's more like I'm renting.

    Just a second .... okay, the bulls' eye is firmly in place... let the arrows fly ;-)

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    1. Thanks Michael -- I think the two types of organizations you outline parallel the two different categories of membership benefits examined in ASAE's Decision to Join (DTJ) series: Personal benefits and Good of the Order benefits. DTJ found that Good of the Order benefits were slightly more important to the decision to join or maintain membership. This was consistent across the multiple times the studies were conducted.

      However, I do think that most associations offer a combination of benefits, and that it may be difficult to define an organization solely as a "buying collective" beyond organizations like BJs ... even AAA has advocacy initiatives.

      And I am sure we can all identify at least one organization to which we currently or previously belong in which we had the right to vote, but didn't vote ... in other words, home owners who acted as renters in your analogy. I don't think it is a purely a governance structure position ... I think it is a true leadership challenge: How will you engage your members to exercise their ownership interest?

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