Membership 101: Who Counts?

Who do you consider to be your members?

That seems like an easy question: “Anyone whose dues are current,” right?

But if you dig a little deeper, it quickly gets a lot more complicated.

  • Do you offer a grace period?
  • Are there ways to pay other than money?
  • What about the people in your profession or industry who haven’t paid?
  • What about the people who support those in your profession or industry?
  • What about their audiences or customers?

For instance, many associations report trouble attracting and retaining young professionals. But if we’ve set up “pay us money” as a barrier to entry, it’s no wonder. Young professionals are young – their employers may not pay for association membership for them, and if those employers don’t pay, young professionals often can’t afford to pay out of pocket. They tend not to be making large sums of money, and meanwhile they’re paying off school debt and/or saving for major life events and purchases. Is there a way those cash-strapped young professionals could contribute something else of value? The most obvious non-monetary contribution would be serving in a volunteer position, but they might not have the capacity to be committee members either. Could they serve as social media ambassadors for you? Volunteer at chapter events? Assist in moderating your online community (after, of course, receiving training)?

As another example, what roles do you offer for the people and organizations who support your profession or industry? What are you doing to work with those who provide training and education to your entering new or career-change professionals, whether they be graduate or undergraduate program faculty or those who provide more hands-on training at technical schools or through formal or informal apprenticeships? Those trainers and educators may not be appropriate targets for your primary membership benefits, since those benefits are likely targeted to people actually doing the work, but they are critical contributors to the profession or industry you serve. What are you doing to build relationships with them?

Many associations offer “supplier memberships,” but those are often little more than fees we charge companies for the right to advertise to our paying members. What can you do to stop treating those companies like a cash register? They are critical elements of your community, too.

There is no one right answer to any of these. But all those groups – people in their grace period, people who contribute to your association in ways other than financial, the rest of your industry or profession (including supporting players like educators who train people and suppliers who make their work possible), even potentially your members’ “end users” – are potential valuable contributors to your community, if you can find the right way to connect with them.