Report: Association Membership Models Need More Attention

The McKinley Advisors study says that associations risk chasing nondues revenue at the expense of their core mission.

A new research report argues that associations are neglecting their membership models, and that their role in overall value proposition requires more intent and strategy.

McKinley Advisors’ Membership Reset: Delivering on the Promise of Membership, published earlier this month, notes that in the race to pursue nondues revenue, associations have given short shrift to a key pillar of their structure. Instead, membership too often “just is,” the report said. “We often see an ambiguous connection between membership and everything else the association is doing. Most associations, for example, do not position membership as a core service line within their own business model, allocate necessary resources for investment or apply a holistic focus.”

“If you talk to an association about what their benefits are, pretty quickly you’re talking about things like the conference or education—things that you’re paying to access,” said McKinley Director, Consulting Caroline Baugher. “So what is it that membership is doing beyond discounts? I think there’s a lot of opportunity relative to community-building.”

Too often, the report says, membership “just is.”

The report contends that membership should be recentered as the key organizing principle of an association. To do that, leadership needs to identify the core problem it is trying to solve for members. Often, that’s access to information and a community of people with shared interests—an area that for-profit organizations have successfully entered in recent years.

“You might have customization within that, and a couple of different benefits, but there’s a clear and universal problem you’re solving for on behalf of your members,” Baugher said. “A group like Heymama brings moms together who are also simultaneously trying to grow their careers, and they’re offering resources to do that through community. It’s a very clear value proposition.”

The process of defining that core problem to solve can help association leaders identify which products and services to support, Baugher said—and which ones to jettison. And the conversation should go beyond the membership department and involve a broader discussion of who’s participating in the association and why. “You want to be working to clarify that unique and universal value proposition—yes, that’s part of your mission,” she said. “But it also has to be about the member and how they’re defining their success.”

None of this, Baugher stresses, is intended to diminish the importance of nondues revenue. Rather, the report asks that leaders treat membership with as much care and intentionality as it does other elements of its organization. As a starting point, associations should pay close attention to engagement metrics, which closely correlate to retention. “How much are members engaging and participating, how active are our communities?” Baugher said. “Do we have online communities that no one is participating in? We have to have eyeballs on that.”

Ultimately, these efforts are meant to pull membership out of its doldrums—“a choice you’re making as opposed to a situation you’re finding yourself in,” Baugher said. “We’re not saying membership has to be a certain way or be the be-all and end-all. We’re saying, make some space to look at membership in the context of everything else you’re doing to figure out how it needs to fit in.”

McKinley Advisors will host a webinar related to the study on July 24.

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