Is Your Association Member-Driven or Mission-Driven?
In the book, The End Of Membership As We Know It, the author Sarah Sladek proposed that the world is changing and that associations must confront the changes that are coming or become irrelevant.
In the ten years since its publication, it’s clear that her message has rung true. With Covid-19 and membership offerings becoming more virtual, associations have faced numerous challenges towards their membership.
The past couple of years have been admittedly difficult for associations and responding to the Covid-19 pandemic has prompted more than a few to examine their structure, staff, revenue, or even their reason for being. Conversations about non-dues revenue have abounded, even as event revenue (a primary non-dues revenue source) has collapsed. Mergers between associations seem to be more common than before the pandemic as other associations are unable to continue.
Members vs. Mission
Is your association member-driven or mission-driven? The answer is that sometimes it’s hard to tell.
So start with this: What does your mission statement convey about the relative importance of members and your industry?
Your mission statement drives your activities. If it directs you to serve the needs of individuals who have joined the association first and foremost, you have a member-driven association. If, on the other hand, the mission statement puts supporting and advancing the industry first, you have a mission-driven organization. You might also ask, “Do we have members or customers?”
Is Membership Your Association’s Focus?
If you believe your future lies with a strong membership focus, you have to explore and create programs that meet the needs of younger professionals who are moving into positions of leadership across all industries. Don’t cling to tradition. Foster an appreciation for change and innovation. Above all, you must establish lines of communication for your members.
Here are a few ideas to help you reimagine your association for members:
- Start with an open mind.
- Imagine how the world would be if your association didn’t exist. Use your insights to determine what needs to change.
- Ask your members what they want and need from your association.
- Ask non-members what they want and need from your association.
- Compare what members and non-members need to what you offer.
- Think about how you would design your association if it were brand new.
- Consider whether or not dues revenue will sustain the association long term.
- Educate yourself. Read, listen to experts, talk to your colleagues and leaders in your association.
- Consider changes in technology that allow you to offer benefits and programs that haven’t even been invented yet.
Is Your Mission Your Association’s Focus?
If you decide, however, that your mission and your industry influence are the most important aspects of your association’s work, you will need to assess where you are right now. Do your governing documents give your board authority to make high-level changes or does your membership need to approve changes?
When an association becomes mission-focused, rather than member-focused, the association can address major shifts in the industry itself. For example, is technology like artificial intelligence disrupting the types of work your professionals perform? If so, do you need to take a proactive stance on preparing professionals for new types of work? Does the association need to rethink its advocacy efforts? Are your educational efforts effective?
As with the efforts to make membership relevant to professionals in your industry, you need to understand what your industry needs in the coming years. If you are regularly in touch with industry leaders who share the problems that keep them up at night, you are ahead of the game. Association leaders should cultivate industry contacts who can act as springboards for new ideas and sounding boards for new solutions.
Making the Change from Members to Mission
Imagine an association whose emphasis was predominantly on its membership. For most of its history, it was dedicated to its members and considered them to be its greatest strength. Its mission statement contained small portions about serving the industry, but they primarily emphasized serving its members.
The association’s services included products for its professional members, such as the educational sessions needed to renew licenses, magazines, and journals, and help with technical aspects of running an office. When members had served long and well, the association recognized them with special designations and stopped charging them dues. The board of directors puts the welfare of members above other considerations.
Members were protected and honored. They enjoyed meetings that included social events with their friends. All the while, however, membership slowly declined. Younger professionals looked to the association for different reasons than their predecessors and didn’t renew their memberships every year.
In response to declining dues revenue, this association quietly shifted its emphasis from membership to industry research and education – its new mission. In internal discussions, leaders acknowledged the association was leaving its member focus behind and began implementing programs that would support its new mission instead. Their expectation was that the new programs could provide increased revenue, and the association wouldn’t need to rely on membership dues for revenue.
As a result, the association’s mission statement has changed over the years, and now it reflects the emphasis on serving the entire industry. It serves members as part of the industry and provides some benefits for them, but it sponsors programs that are completely new offerings.
At the end of the day, you know your association and what’s best for it more than anyone else. But, if your association is experiencing a decline in membership or a lack of engagement, consider if changing your focus could provide a new life for your organization.
The disruption of the past two years gives every association the space for innovation. Connecting with your constituents – members or industry – will be the key to thriving in the future.
Emma is the Marketing Manager at Rhythm. When she's not thinking about all things content-related, you can find her traveling or shooting 35 mm film.