as·so·ci·a·tion | \ ə-ˌsō-sē-ˈā-shən
- (often in names) a group of people organized for a joint purpose.
- : an organization of persons having a common interest : SOCIETY
To those of us working in associations, the decision to join an association feels like a no-brainer. Why wouldn’t someone expand their job prospects, advance their professional education, and— maybe most foundational of all — choose to associate with fun people like those in the association community?
But joining a trade or professional association isn’t always an automatic decision. Getting involved with an association costs time and effort that a potential member could otherwise spend on their work, their hobbies, or with their family. Then there’s the monetary cost of dues plus extras such as event registrations, fee-based resources, travel for association activities, or swag.
ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership conducted a thorough study in 2007 about the reasons people join — or decline to join — associations. You can check out the report here (note that it’s a fee-based report). Since then, several organizations have tackled this basic question in an attempt to recruit more members or keep existing members engaged. Members are the lifeblood of an association, so understanding why people join your association —or not —is fundamental to keeping your mission going strong.
If it’s been a while since you’ve considered why members join your association, put yourself in your members’ shoes and consider the reasons below. Most of these broadly apply in some way to all trade and professional associations, though your association might be able to think of several more reasons why a professional in your industry would benefit from membership.
Why members join associations
Group influence, and the power to change an environment is stronger than at the individual level. Associations are the hub where individuals organize their resources, plan their strategy, and assign action items. Some thought social media would gradually replace “brick and mortar” associations, but while platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn make it easier to recognize connections, they haven’t displaced the power of good old-fashioned face-to-face meetings to make lasting change happen.
Associations are the original social media network: Meet with like-minded professionals interested in the same issues as you; take in content that enlightens and sometimes entertains; discover connections within your community. Sure, members can connect online, but digital connections aren’t always as strong as those made in person. Ever notice how meeting face-to-face with a remote-working colleague makes future projects with them run more smoothly? In-person networking is the grease that makes collaboration run better, and associations are a low-pressure forum to grease up.
Access to resources
No one finishes school, an apprenticeship, or other formal education completely prepared to handle every project that will come their way over the course of a career. But going back to school to learn new skills can be expensive. Associations fill that gap between doing nothing and paying thousands for more higher education. Because they’re a hub for brainpower and funds, associations have the ability to produce a variety of educational settings and tools that fit the educational needs of many.
While finding members jobs isn’t expected or even common, many associations provide some kind of job seeking assistance as a member benefit. Some host simple job listings on their main website; others maintain robust career portals that not only list up-to-the-minute jobs but offer resume critiquing services, interviewing tips, access to career counselors or even monthly webinars about presenting yourself better in your job search. Members can also make their own job connections simply by showing up and forging their own connections that lead to a position. Professional associations have long been the type of organization that attract motivated, hard-working, successful industry leaders looking to grow their businesses, so they’re intrinsically a career center even without the digital frills of a career center.
Because of their purpose in elevating the standards of an industry and those who work in it, professional associations have long been the type of organization that attract motivated, hard-working, successful industry leaders looking to grow their businesses. When an association’s membership boasts these types of professionals, others naturally want to join in hopes of rising to the same level (and beyond). Association affiliation brings an aura of trust, integrity, and reliability to its members. Consider the prestige bestowed upon those who receive the rank of Eagle Scout within the Boy Scouts of America or the reverence given to academics with a PhD. Membership in a select group commands respect, and professional labels often translate to a better chance of business success.
Why people DON’T join associations
There are a variety of reasons why people don’t join an association. Some don’t feel the need to join one because their profession doesn’t have stringent continuing education requirements. Others don’t understand the benefits of participating in association life, an issue that many respondents to the Marketing General’s 2018 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report acknowledge. Having a clear mission statement, running an association efficiently, communicating clearly and consistently with members, and carrying out all the responsibilities and activities your staff promises members are common themes echoed among associations that see their membership declining.
Finally, based on anecdotal evidence, some people don’t join associations because of all the emails. So, associations would be wise to thoughtfully plan out their communication to avoid overwhelming members and potential members with too much content.
The takeaway? Membership in your trade or professional association obviously has its benefits. It’s up to you and your staff to make sure those benefits align with the aspirations of potential and current members while conflicting as little as possible with their financial and personal constraints. Understand your audience’s needs first, and they’ll be more receptive to your association’s story — and want to be part of it.