Use Sponsored Grants to Strengthen Your Membership and Events

By • March 16, 2017

You’ve probably heard of grants in the context of academia or community building: An organization offers a sum of money to any individual or group that promises to pursue a project, an idea or a program within certain parameters. Receiving a grant has traditionally meant spending hours researching details that justify your need for the grant, writing a detailed proposal that outlines how you would use the grant money and then waiting and hoping you’re chosen to receive the grant.

But, grants aren’t just for academics or community planners. Did you know that associations are using grants to encourage seasoned professionals to continue their professional development or to help young people interested in their industry find internships?

During our session at the 2017 Great Ideas Conference, we presented three ways your association can leverage grants funded by industry or vendor partners to strengthen your membership: use them to draw in new members, to encourage professional development, and to support the sponsors who fund them.

Use grants to bring in new members

It can be financially difficult for professionals in your industry to become dedicated members if they cannot experience firsthand the value of being a member due to the financial cost. With many companies operating on lean budgets, money for association dues is not always available. If it is available, some professionals may have a hard time convincing their supervisor or accounting department that association dues are a wise investment in their professional skill set.

FSAE Teamwork
Membership dues grants support individuals who want to join your association but don’t have the funds to cover dues. They can also help pull in potential members who are on the fence about whether or not it is worth the money to join your association. 

At the Florida Society of Association Executives, membership dues grants specifically for professionals in the field of association management grew out of a recognized need to help people who still need financial assistance diving in to the association community. Some might have changed careers mid-life and deserve some support as they learn about their new field and strive to network and become more comfortable in it. Others may be looking to get more involved in their professional association and to further their own development. FSAE takes funds from one industry partner and applies them toward a new member grant that covers membership dues for one year plus one registration to their annual conference. This new member grant has opened the door to greater association involvement for many eager association professionals.

“After experiencing FSAE for myself, I eagerly volunteered to serve on the marketing committee to help plan and promote the 2017 conference and am happily paying to renew my membership. I am thrilled to be a part of this truly inspiring group of creative and innovative individuals!”

Lonnie Parizek, MHCA

Another membership grant that helps draw in more members is a young professionals-only grant that grew out of a need voiced by a task force made up of these professionals. They vocalized to the association board that many young professionals want to join and become involved an association but don’t have the funds from their company or individually to cover conference fees and associated travel expenses. Having the chance to apply for conference attendance funds would encourage more of their peers to actually become engaged members of FSAE. The association created an application for this type of foundation-funded grant and saw young professional involvement at the conference, through year-round committees, and on the Young Professionals task force grow. Encouraging more young professional involvement early on in their careers helps ensure that FSAE’s future leadership will be strong and sustainable.

“I am grateful to the Foundation for allowing this opportunity for our young leaders to be seen in a more professional way.”

Amanda Bowen, 2016-17 FSAE Young Professionals Task Force Chair

Use grants to encourage professional development

Another way to apply industry partner funding through grants is to designate it for professional development programs. After a few years of not distributing all the donations given to its foundation because of lack of interest in traditional professional development certificate programs and seminars, the Georgia Society of Association Executives researched what its members really wanted when it came to financial help. The answer? Assistance funding internship positions. Its member organizations, who are associations and association management companies, really wanted to attract more college students and young professionals to the field but couldn’t compete with the handsomely paid internships other industries offered.

GSAE quickly reorganized its member grant program to focus on funding paid internships among its members. Organizations that had at least one GSAE member on staff could apply for money to be used to pay for an intern for a summer, a semester, or a year. A job description for the internship must be submitted with the application and must show that the intern would do work integral to the organization’s mission and vision, and not just make coffee or file paperwork. The organization must share in the cost of the intern as well, so that the organization would be just as invested in the intern and their potential future as a full-time association professional as GSAE.

GSAE Internship Program
The Georgia Society of Association Executives refocused its foundation grants program to fund paid internships. GSAE’s internship program helps member organizations introduce young professionals and students to careers in association management and show them how rewarding and fun association work can be.

During the 16 years GSAE’s internship program has been around, dozens of interns have thrived at association management companies and associations, and many have chosen to continue working full time in the association field after their internship ended. At the same time, the program has helped out the very same members who fund it by returning their donation to them in the form of extra help for organizations that want to grow their staff but must do so in small financial increments. GSAE’s internship grant program has become a way to introduce students to the field of association management while grooming future members.

Use grants to support the sponsors who fund them

Members and member organizations aren’t the only ones who belong to associations. Industry partners and sponsors who belong to associations for access to potential customers and to give back to the professionals who patronize their business deserve to benefit from the money they routinely give to bolster the industry on the local, regional, or even national level.

When businesses donate money for grants, they often expect recognition and certain benefits in return. They want brand exposure, access to your members as potential clients, the chance to build goodwill with the association and its members, the opportunity to give back their industry, and the chance to nurture existing client-member relationships. Donating to an association’s grant fund is a tangible way for businesses to give back and show support for members. It’s up to your association to fill in the other benefits. Recognize your grant sponsors every chance you can. Bring them up on stage at your events. Thank them for their support in your publications and on your website. Consult with them about new grants you could create aimed at specific audiences they want to meet and nurture.

FSAE-Naylor Check Presentation
Recognize your grant donors every chance your association can.

Consider taking some of the money they invest in your association and invest it right back in them. The Georgia Association of Convenience Stores did just that when it learned that many of its members, who own and operate convenience stores across the state, wanted to upgrade the outdoor lighting at their stores but couldn’t easily bear the cost. GACS secured a $450,000 block grant from the Georgia Environmental Facilities Authority and redistributed this money to members who applied for their newly created lighting retrofit grant project. Having this extra cash allowed many c-store owners to enhance the lighting (and thus the level of safety) at their gas stations, which boosted their business and their profits by encouraging more motorists to stop at their stores at night.

GACS Lighting Retrofit Program
The Georgia Association of Convenience Stores won a $450,000 grant from GEFA, and redistributed that money to the people who support GACS year-round: its member owner-operators. This money helped convenience store owners afford better lighting for their gas stations, which encourages nighttime motorists to stop and patronize their stores more often.

Enhance your membership value through grants

Grants can potentially add a lot of value to your membership offerings by making membership benefits more accessible to more people. Use grants to invest in all segments of your membership. By doing so, your association will open doors for more fulfilling careers in association management, build a stronger membership value proposition, retain more members, and turn existing members into brand ambassadors for your causes.

Hester Ndoja, CAE, is the vice president for membership and development with the Florida Society of Association Executives. Reach her at [email protected].

Kelly Clark, MAMC is the manager for online marketing at Naylor Association Solutions. Reach her at [email protected].