Membership Sustainability: 2011 and Beyond

By Hank Berkowitz • November 5, 2012

Hank BerkowitzAs our society’s seismic technological and demographic shifts collide with a prolonged economic slump, the association membership director’s job has never been more challenging or more vital to the long term health of their respective organizations. Despite these challenges–or maybe because of them–several leading associations are developing innovative solutions for maintaining and growing their membership rolls, even if employment in the industries they represent has been stagnant or declining.

“You’ve got to find ways to keep the front door open and the back door closed,” related Ed Robinson, a San Antonio-based motivational speaker, author and coach to many financial and professional associations. “By that I mean you’ve got to find ways to be relevant to new members entering the profession while simultaneously staying relevant with existing members. You can’t take your longstanding members for granted in this economy. If you put all your efforts into attracting the next generation business leaders and don’t keep reinforcing your value proposition to your longstanding members, they’ll slip out the back door and right off your membership list.”

  • The membership experience you deliver to members is as important to next generation business as the tangible membership benefits you offer.
  • The value of meaningful face-to-face communication with members cannot be discounted in today’s age or 24/7 electronic communication.
  • Perceived value, relevance and career development potential seem to have more impact on membership renewal decisions than pricing plans and affinity programs. 
  • Always put yourself in a member’s shoes and never take a renewal for granted, no matter how long a member has been affiliated with you.

“Our membership’s been holding steady” despite the unsettling economic conditions around us both regionally and nationally, said Kurt Wehrs, CAE, senior director of education and membership at the Texas Pharmacy Association (TPA) in Austin. TPA has shored up its technological capabilities while simultaneously increasing good old-fashioned human outreach efforts, said Wehrs. TPA has an online education portal, as well as regular in-person town-hall meetings with members and TPA Executive Director Joe DaSilva.

Regardless of whether you’re a local, national or regional organization, Wehrs said associations need to get out there and shake hands with members as much as possible. “I don’t think association leaders have been stressing the interpersonal side as much as they used to. We’re fortunate to have a guy like Joe DaSilva at the helm. He really thrives in the chief communication officer role and draws a crowd wherever he goes. We have very experiential members, and it’s important they see the human side of our organization. We send members a timely recap of our town hall meetings and it shows them: ‘we heard you loud and clear and we’re implementing your suggestions.’”

“We’re holding our own despite the decimating layoffs affecting the teaching profession,” said Joe Syrowik, membership director for the 160,000-member ASCD in Alexandria, Virginia, formerly known as the Association for Supervisors and Curriculum Developers. “We’ve totally revised the look, feel, timing and frequency of our renewal series, introduced an online-only membership option and increased the use of e-mail blasts and added more ‘Join ASCD’ links within the organization’s e-newsletters to members.”

In response to member requests, ASCD has added five Twitter channels, Facebook, LinkedIn, an instant blog and recently launched ASCD EDge a professional networking site for educators, which Syrowik says has attracted 6,000 members and 4,000 nonmembers within 70 groups in just six months. Despite members’ average age of 51, Syrowik says the teaching profession has always been receptive to digital communication, web-based research and social networking. In response to shrinking school budgets, ASCD introduced a reduced-fee “online-only” membership plan four years ago, and it’s been his fastest growing membership category. On this plan, members get all ASCD publications in electronic form, full access to the online education portal, the social networking site and the online resource library.

The American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) has also leveraged the web to bring new value to members in this cost-conscious (and time-pressed) era. For the first time, ASAE will allow members to attend its highly anticipated annual conference and expo virtually. The conference, which attracts more than 5,000 live attendees, gets rolling in Los Angeles over the weekend–not on a Monday morning–and virtual attendees will be able to access nearly two-dozen live, on-site presentations and events throughout the meeting. As ASAE President & CEO John Graham told us last month, his organization has seen very encouraging numbers on both the live and virtual registration fronts and opened up its valuable learning component to many professionals who otherwise wouldn’t be able to attend.

Like Syrowik and Wehrs, Amy Davidson, assistant membership director for the Washington, DC-based National Court Reporters Association (NCRA), is also a keen student of membership demographics. But, she’s taken a different tack. Davidson noticed that NCRA’s membership includes many second-generation families, as well as many “second-career” new entrants to the profession who are not “22-year-olds fresh out of school.” She’s really upped her efforts to foster inter-family referrals and encouraged members and the instructor community to serve as both official and unofficial mentors to NCRA’s new and prospective members. The virtual mentoring program has been very successful, as well, Davidson related, both from recruiting and member-retention standpoints.

“Putting myself in a new member’s shoes, I’d want to find out how I’m going to meet the most number of people who can help me in my career,” said Davidson. “I’d be asking: ‘How can this organization help me connect with people who are actively doing important things in this profession? Who can I trust to tell me what to look out for in this profession, and most of all: ‘How can this organization help me rub elbows with the people who’ll honestly tell me what they never taught us in school?’”

Mentoring is also an important ingredient baked into TPA’s long-term sustainability plan. According to Wehrs, longstanding members really want to help the new pharmacists succeed. TPA has introduced a half-price membership plan for retiring members that’s been very successful for keeping them in the game and is a great member benefit for the industry newcomers.

NCRA has introduced a discounted partial-year membership to new members, said Davidson, and has tapped the goodwill of the association’s member volunteers to make dues calls to existing, prospective and lapsed members who have not yet committed for the following year. Typically volunteers make 3,500 calls over a two-day drive, and the success of the initiative stems from the fact that calls are being made by fellow members and not professional telemarketers or NCRA staff. “It’s clear our volunteer members really can really relate to the trials and tribulations of what the person is going through on the other end of the line. That really hits home and often makes or breaks dues renewal decisions.”

Overcoming impediments to long-term growth

ASAE data for both trade and professional associations found that the average retention rate hovered between 82 and 90 percent before the onset of the recession and is now several percentage points lower. Further, a recent Marketing General, Inc., (MGI) benchmarking study found that only 25 percent of trade associations saw growth in the past year.

While more than 90 percent of respondents to a recent Association Adviser eNews reader survey said “economic concerns” or worries about their “industry’s overall strength/health” were negatively impacting membership retention at their organizations, the actual cost of the annual membership did not seem to be the overriding factor. More than 40 percent of surveyed readers pointed to the aging of the baby boom generation, 30 percent blamed the advent of social networking and 15 percent cited staffing shortages or the dearth of degrees or academic programs tailored to their industries.


Factors Impacting Membership Retention, percent reporting

Source: Association Adviser eNews and Naylor, LLC 2010


The aging of the boomer population was particularly concerning to the experts we contacted for this article. Most expected 70 percent of their membership to reach retirement age during the next decade, or so. “We know 40 percent of our members are over age 55,” said Syrowik, “and another third (31 percent) are in the 45-to-54 range.” That demographic challenge is not only worrisome from a membership retention standpoint, but, as ASAEs John Graham notes, it has profound implications from a leadership standpoint. “The next generation of professionals is smaller in size, which means there’s a smaller talent pool for organizations to draw from. What you’re seeing is people assuming leadership roles at a younger age than they used to, and the preparation isn’t always there.”

Younger members seem more demanding, said Davidson, a perception that nearly half (45 percent) of Association Adviser eNews readers intimated in last month’s online survey. “They expect so much more from their associations. We’re responding to their requests for e-newsletters, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, RSS feeds and tweeting from our meetings, and we just introduced a new convention app for smartphone users [http://ncraonline.org/Live/app]. But, it’s a challenge providing all this real-time member communication when you have limited staff. It’s like being on call 24 hours a day and guess what, members still tell me: ‘I never got this’ or ‘I never heard about that.’”

As ASAE’s John Graham shared: Members of all ages still want to congregate, but you’ve to be more creative about how you get them together. Now it’s all about: I want what I want when I want it and how I want it.” There are so many ways to send and receive member communication. Just sending out a magazine and some membership promos through the mail isn’t going to get it done. It’s a lot more complicated and a lot more difficult.

Ed Robinson agreed: It’s a real “WIFM” (what’s in it for me?) mindset. What have you done for me lately? How can you help me make money? How can you help me minimize my expenses and how can you help me minimize catastrophe down the road?

“Since the Watergate scandal (1970s), each succeeding generation has grown up with an increasing level of mistrust of authority than my generation had,” shared Graham. “We just assumed we could trust society’s foundations–the government, church, companies, law enforcement–we’re ethical and doing the right thing. That applied to our politicians, sports figures, celebrities, too. As you know, that’s not the case today. Now, trust has to be earned–it’s not implied. And that’s one of the most important things an association can stress to members and especially prospective members. Earning that trust.”

Hank Berkowitz is the moderator-in-chief of Association Adviser eNews

Rate this article 5 (Excellent) to 1 (Poor). Send ratings and comments here.