Is It Time for a New Model of Membership?

I recently spoke on this topic as part of the April Alexandria Brown Bag focusing on Grassroots Membership Strategies, where I shared the story of my fab client the American Medical Student Association. About a year ago, they switched to a free membership model (disclaimer – I cannot claim any credit for this, as we started working together in the aftermath of the switch). They’ve had some really interesting outcomes, as I’m sure you can imagine.

At the same time, there’s recently been a big discussion about membership models on ASAE’s Collaborate community, which frankly, got a little chippy. I think the reason for it resulted from a fundamental misunderstanding: one, considering new membership models doesn’t automatically mean an organization is going to switch; and two, “new membership model” does not automatically mean “free membership” (despite the fact that it’s been garnering a fair amount of attention recently).

In fact, I’m currently working with another client on looking at their membership model with an eye towards a potential change, and we’re not even considering free membership as a possibility.

If you are considering doing the same, there are a few key things you need to think about:

  1. You need to make an accurate and clear-eyed assessment of your association’s financial picture. No rose colored glasses, no overly optimistic assessments of future increases in revenue or decreases in expenses, review of your investments, review of your reserves and what you are and are not willing to use them for, how big a change in revenue or expense you can absorb and for how long, etc.
  2. You need to know where your revenue comes from and where the potential for growth lies.
  3. You need to have an open and honest conversation with your Board and your senior staff about potential risks, what you will do to ameliorate them, and how you would handle the worst case scenario, should it arrive.
  4. You need to be CRYSTAL clear about your goals and be certain about how you’ll know you did or did not achieve them.
  5. You need to be willing and able to give it time.


5 thoughts on “Is It Time for a New Model of Membership?”

  • Great post Elizabeth. Especially in light of the discussion on the ASAE Collaborate.

    Association cannot and should not afford to ignore a serious and ongoing look at their membership models. And we need to recognize that not all models work with all associations.


  • Thanks Steve. The biggest thing that struck me on Collaborate, as I mentioned above, was that it seemed like everyone was equating “new model” with “free membership.” While that’s AN option, it’s not the ONLY option, and it’s not for everyone (although it IS for some). But we always have to be willing to question what we’re doing and why, lest we fall victim to the dreaded, “But we’ve always done it that way!” syndrome.

  • Your presentation at the brown bag was great, not least because of the skill in speed delivery. But I really appreciated your insight about the core source of revenue for this association and how it lay in access to the members. Thanks for both the orientation and the post.

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