When we ask associations what they see as their main path to resilience and growth, the answer—whether it’s the whole equation or one of the factors—is a given: More members.
But is that necessarily true? A recent online discussion made us wonder: What if acquiring more “members” is actually an impediment to long-term growth and market leadership?
It all depends on how an association defines “member.” The online discussion we were following equated the concept of membership with the concept of current nonprofit governance models. No interest or likelihood of participating in governance equals “not a member” and not worth pursuing for membership.
Really? Unfortunately, it’s often true. In the course of our research, we’re finding that many association CEO’s and ED’s agree with this “governance model” definition of “member.” We’re also starting to see a direct correlation between associations that are still losing members and this type of narrow, elitist concept of membership.
For associations that believe that “membership” is a relationship defined first and foremost by governance models and service to the association, acquiring more “members” may actually lead not to sustainable growth but to continued decline. Pinning hopes for growth on finding enough members who fit the current membership governance model is like trying to swim in a leaking pool: You might be able to stay afloat for a while, but eventually the water will run out and you’ll be left on the bottom with nowhere to go.
As most associations already know, the “governance model member” (a.k.a. “the engaged elite”) is already thin on the ground and disappearing fast. Generational changes, globalization, social media, and a host of other economic and cultural factors mean that members are coming to associations for different reasons and with different expectations than they did in the past. These potential new members have different cultures and backgrounds, different needs, different ways of communicating and participating, different concepts of community, different definitions of success, and different ideas of what membership value means—and what it should cost.
For many associations, there just aren’t enough traditional members left to fuel and sustain real membership growth. Maintaining a narrow definition of “membership” forces the association to chase smaller and smaller universes of potential members in a more and more competitive market at the expense of the wider, growing, more diverse markets that are not (and never will be) interested in serving on the taskforce of the subcommittee of the committee to amend the bylaws.
To better serve their current members and meet the needs of their future markets, associations need a new definition of membership—one that encompasses the new realities, and allows the association to keep what is unique and valuable about its past while giving it room to change and grow with its potential members and the world.
The sense of community, co-development, partnership, inclusion, and shared concerns is the true mission and hallmark of associations. The new definition of “membership” should reflect these values.