Association Leaders Get Real About Membership

By Hank Berkowitz • October 9, 2012

Hank BerkowitzIf you’re over a certain age, you might remember a famous Groucho Marx comedy routine featuring the punch line: “I wouldn’t join any club that would have me as a member.” Some would say that’s how cynical Generation X and Y’ers perceive “Young Professionals” initiatives that associations launch in hopes of wooing them. But, despite a host of economic, technological and demographic challenges facing the not-for-profit world, many associations are maintaining their membership bases—if not growing them—thanks to their ability to adapt to changing times.

  • Younger generations don’t like to be sold to. They want to get to know you on their own terms.
  • Even your headquarters can be turned into a membership benefit.
  • Members think ROE (Return on Experience), more so than ROI, when evaluating their dues renewal.
  • Associations need to improve their speed if they hope to connect with the “instant gratification” mindset of younger generations.

“Membership is everything and everything is membership,” quipped Michael Connor, membership director, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, (NACDL), who warned that you should never stop evaluating what your organization means to its members and prospective members.

NACDL’s retention has improved by about 7 percent in the past two years.”I would say that the keys to our improving retention are emphasizing emailed renewal notices over paper ones, offering discounts for online early renewal, and personal phone calls to every member before and after expiry—a total of 15 touches to expiring members, versus about six before.”

BOMA Georgia, whose membership has grown more than 20 percent since 2007, has literally overhauled the way it thinks about problems and solves them. How? By adding a healthy dose of intuition to good old fashioned hard data, according to Executive Director Gabriel Eckert. “As a result, we’re making decisions much faster with less process and less analysis paralysis,” noted Eckert, who co-authored the new book, From Insight to Action: Six New Ways to Lead with Jean Frankel. See this month’s Corner Office Profile for more.

Do younger generations have a different take on the word “join”?

Sarah Sladek, a popular blogger, demographer and head of consulting firm XYZ University, said they do. Younger people HATE to be sold to. They’ll investigate you online and with their peers before they commit to meeting you in person. And they want a grassroots experience. They’re leery of paying to join a community when so many communities they belong to are free.

Unlike Boomers who are more comfortable with big conventions, golf outings and face-to-face networking with people they don’t know, younger generations are more outwardly cautious, said Sladek, who wrote the book, The End of Membership as We Know It. Research shows you only have about 60 days to make a positive impression whether you’re talking about a new job, a new relationship or a new association.

“If younger people see nothing but 50- and 60-somethings, who are cliquey and lagging behind in technology, they’re saying to themselves, ‘I don’t feel comfortable with that group,'” she added.

Adjusting to changing times

According to our latest reader poll, when it comes to membership benefits, associations are stressing their ability to connect members to other members, their ability to help members save money and to help members advance their careers.

Source: Association Adviser and Naylor, LLC 2012

Younger generations are raised on technology. They’re used to “instant gratification, which perplexes many associations,” Sladek said. However, many associations have embraced the new landscape.

Take the New York Society of Security Analysts (NYSSA), which caters to financial analysts in a high pressure, fast-moving, technology-driven industry. During the depths of the economic downturn, NYSSA discontinued its highly regarded (print) magazine to save money and to provide members with faster access to news, research and tools that help them do their jobs better. In its place, NYSSA launched Finance Professionals Post, a hybrid daily blog and bi-weekly e-newsletter that has attracted nearly 80,000 readers in a little more than two years and has won a CFA Institute award for communication innovation. “We also added podcasts, more videotaping of our live programs for people who can’t come to our events and career development sessions where members can learn to reposition themselves if they want to switch industries or switch jobs,” said NYSSA President Dr. Amy Geffen.

Rick Bell, executive director of the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, said AIA began to rethink its member value proposition as the economic downturn hit architects hard in the New York region. About five years ago, with so many members not fully employed, “we started a program called ‘Not Business as Usual’ for members who have had trouble keeping their doors opened and who need to learn new skills to stay competitive,” Bell said. AIA also created a training center and has been providing software training “at way under market cost” to get members back into the game, Bell added.

Reader Note: See today’s episode of Association Adviser TV for more insight from Geffen and Bell.

Chip Tatum, executive vice president of the Apartment Association of Greater Orlando (AAGO), is revisiting all of his organization’s processes and is touting the benefits of AAGO’s new on-site education center to members. The new facility gives apartment managers (many of whom are first-timers) great information resources and AAGO has a great new venue to connect with members and prospective members. NYSSA and AIA New York Chapter are also turning their physical headquarters into a membership benefit.

NYSSA offers members a quiet lounge with high-speed terminals so they can do research while away from their home or office and network with fellow CFAs and aspiring CFAs overlooking New York’s frenetic Time Square. AIA New York thinks of its Greenwich Village space not as a headquarters, “but as a community center for design professionals that’s open to the public,” said Bell. “It’s a great place to meet colleagues, instead of a bar, where you can have meaningful professional encounters and deal opportunities by chance.”

Richard Kanzem, chief operating officer of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA), said its mobile initiatives and its web television show (GCSAA TV) are playing a big role in member engagement. “Our members don’t sit in offices,” Kanzem said, adding that they really want to see how their peers are solving challenges that they deal with every day on the course. The weekly TV show offers a behind-the-scenes look at major golf tournaments, the latest university research and first-hand tips from the industry’s environmental leaders. Kanzem said GCSAA has also had great success with its annual Turf Bowl—a college turf management case study competition sponsored by the John Deere Company.

Michael Connor said NACDL, like GCSAA, has had good results on the mobile front. Its mobile app for iOS users and Android users has been downloaded by more than 20 percent of members. “It carries our newsfeed and our continuing education calendar, plus access to our expert database. Members can get mobile access to our membership directory wherever they are.” As Connor explained, referrals are the lifeblood of a defense lawyer’s practice, and it’s one of the most valuable membership benefits the organization can offer.

Measuring the value of a membership

BOMA Georgia’s Eckert said members are looking for ROE (Return on Experience) with your organization more so than ROI. Will members feel you are connecting with them in a meaningful and relevant way? Will they feel you are helping them advance their careers, he posited?

People join associations hoping the organization will solve a problem for them, said Sladek. Then they renew if they feel the association is helping them solve a problem—or at least working toward solving the problem. “It’s all about service. Are they having a good experience with you?” Connor said NACDL encourages long-standing members to get connected with younger members early on and help them with “all the things they don’t teach in law school,” such as how to run a business or a professional practice.


Sladek said the word “association” may change over time, and there will likely be more a la carte membership models than the traditional one-size-fits-all. But one thing that won’t change is the need for like-minded people to connect with each other to share experiences, learn from each other, advance their careers and solve problems. “Associations have historically been there to fill the void,” she said, adding that the smart ones will continue to do so, or else fade away.

With the right blend of relevance, value and community, chance are younger generations will continue to join organizations that are anxious to have them as members.

Hank Berkowitz is the moderator-in-chief of Association Adviser enews.

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