What if associations required every staffer to cold-call one member each week just to connect and listen?

orange old-school rotary phone on a wooden desk

I am reupping this post from 2009 with only minor edits, because every word of it remains true.

What if EVERY staff member had to talk to members on a regular basis?

Despite the existence of the idea “Membership is Everyone’s Business,” too often, it’s really not. Membership retention, for most organizations, is the business of the membership department. If retention goes down, the membership staff gets blamed, even if the reason people are leaving is because, for instance, they hate the monthly magazine. Or they’ve decided to focus their energies on their local chapters. Or they’re organizing online. Or the annual meeting’s gotten too expensive. Or whatever.

(And, while we’re on it, why are we always so concerned with affixing blame? It’s pointless. It stifles innovation, because people think “cover your ass” not “come up with and try amazing new idea.” And it wastes time and mental energy that would be better spent FIXING the PROBLEM. But I digress…)

I was hired for my first association job as Director of Member Services and Technology not because I knew anything about associations or management, but because I was from the profession, and the executive director figured I’d empathize with the members. And she was right. And that was great, as far as it went. Which was as far as one staff person – me. Not far enough, by a long shot.

We all talk about the idea that we exist to serve members, meet their needs, and help them solve their problems. But most of us have no real idea what those things are. We do annual satisfaction surveys and listen to and repeat conventional wisdom and swear that we’ve been doing this long enough to know every little thing about our members, their industry or profession, and what’s best for them.


You know the easiest way to find out what people want and need? Ask them. And not in some Likert-scale driven survey way.

“Hi there, Member. This is Elizabeth calling from Association. If you have a few minutes to chat, I’d love to find out what’s going on in your professional life, and if you have any questions or comments about what’s we’re up to here at Association.”

What do you get? Information, sure, but also connection. Community. A source of new ideas. The feeling that the association cares about me. Early warning of problems that might be cropping up, whether in your industry, or related to your association.

And, more importantly, it’s unfiltered. This is not meant to imply ill intent to your membership staff (often the only staffers who have regular contact with members). But everyone filters information they receive through their own mental maps. And someone with a different map might interpret the same data differently.

How would your association benefit from deep understanding of your members, their goals and challenges, and the industry or profession you serve, spread widely across the entire organization? What could you do with that?

Would your members think differently about the association when the renewal notices show up or when they arrive at your annual meeting if they felt connected, not only to other members through the agency of the association, but to the association itself through contact with staff?

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

7 thoughts on “What if associations required every staffer to cold-call one member each week just to connect and listen?”

  • Great idea. And the first thing I thought of is how do I fit that into the rest of my day? I'm too busy running the association. Or so says conventional wisdom.

    We could all be better about connecting with our members (customers), and reaching out beyond our volunteer leaders. I'm certainly not a model to go by, but doing this little extra step once a week could greatly contribute to your community, future leadership and volunteer base. I may give it a try.

  • There are only four of us in our organisation, but then only 275 member companies as well, so getting to talk to them isn't that hard. Or at least it shouldn't be! We generally try to schedule meetings with individual members when we're in their town, but also hold regular member forums around New Zealand as well as an annual conference. But there are, of course, always some who never appear at anything and we need to make a real effort to contact them. We agree with Elizabeth that personal contact is the best (if not only) way to retain members and as a result (touch wood!) we haven't had any resignations for years.

  • Elizabeth – great idea! Also, we might want to consider using an approach that is grounded in appreciative inquiry methods which can be helpful in drawing out those who are reticent to say much, as well keeping the discussion focused on “doing more of the good stuff” as opposed to “complaining about the bad stuff.” Not that we don't want to hear the complaints, (sometimes we really need to listen to them) but we want to keep the focus on improvement and make the members feel like they are affecting positive change.

    Take care and I look forward to reading your other posts,


  • I have thought about doing this at every single association job I've had. And I have thought about asking our chapter staff to do the same, but I knew what their reaction would be, same as mine — I already have to much to do as it is.

    But really now. One call a day or a few a week? How long can that really take? I'd keep a timer going so it doesn't go too long. As you said, imagine what we could learn and the impression we would leave with our member. I'm glad you put it out there, Elizabeth.

  • Lots of candid “truisms” here, but also a risk. The risk is that everyone who makes the calls suddenly thinks he/she is an expert on what members think. Too many associations make policy decisions on the latest anecdote offered by the highest ranking manager. I have seen such poorly-thought-out results arise from this. Or, verse two, that the assocoation keeps changing course because there is a new “authoritative anecdote” each week. (I am not making this up.)

  • @Anonymous – I definitely get your point, and it's an important caution – one anecdote does not a trend make. But, on the flip side, I've seen way too many member surveys that are basically useless because we only ask about what we know about. Talking directly with members can help clue us in to the kinds of things we might not know about now but certainly should be researching in a more systematic fashion.

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