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.