Partnership v. Membership: Is There a Membership Role for Suppliers?

Henry Ford quote - people can have the model T in any color they want, so long as it's black

In my previous post in this series, I concluded with the question:

What role, if any, does supplier membership play in this ecosystem?

Lewis responded with a strong statement that suppliers should NOT be association members, because they have “divergent interests and motivations” for their relationships with your association.

I would argue that there is, or at least can be, a role for supplier membership. Lewis actually highlighted the reason why – “shared interest in regulatory or legislative issues.”

Some suppliers are merely looking for customers and want to maintain a limited relationship with the association. They are good candidates for advertising, exhibiting, and event sponsorship, but NOT for membership. Some suppliers want long-term loyal relationships with the association and are deeply invested in the overall good of the profession or industry you serve. They may have aligned advocacy or other interests and can be powerful partners in achieving your association’s mission. They don’t JUST want to sell. They are potential candidates for supplier membership.

Additionally, people increasingly move fluidly across industries throughout their careers. Someone may start her career as a practitioner, freelance part time while her kids are young, then spend some time with a supplier/vendor in your space. That supplier/vendor might go through merger or acquisition, so she might go back to being a practitioner, and perhaps finish her career as a seasoned consultant, running her own shop, either as a solopreneur or leading a small team. She’s likely going to want to maintain a long-term, loyal relationship with your association throughout. Does that relationship HAVE to be membership? No, but it certainly could be. Should she be denied membership because she’s not currently a practitioner? Absolutely not. Should she be denied access all together when she’s running her own small consulting shop? Again, absolutely not (although she’s unlikely to be an appropriate candidate for “typical” corporate offerings of advertising, exhibiting, and sponsorship).

Again, it comes back to the question: Why do people associate? We associate to solve problems and achieve goals that we can do more effectively as a group than we can individually. Are your suppliers going to share all those goals? Probably not, but they will share some (and even your core members don’t share all the same goals).

Which raises another important point. Per the quote above, you have to beware of the Henry Ford issue: You can’t just offer your supplier members the exact same package of benefits as core members. As Lewis points out, they have DIFFERENT interests and goals. (Honestly, you really shouldn’t be doing the “any color you want so long as it’s black” style membership even with your core members, but that’s a separate topic.)

How do you know what those are? How do you know what benefits would be appealing to supplier members?

You have to talk to them to find out. 

As you’re having those conversations, keep the following in mind:

  1. Suppliers need your help to understand their customers’ (your members’) operating environment. For instance, the CFA Institute runs a free online program called Investment Foundations that is designed to help people who aren’t Certified Financial Analysts understand what’s involved in being a CFA and why the certification, which is expensive in time and cost and is difficult to earn, is worth investing in. Your suppliers might appreciate something similar for your profession or industry (and the Investment Foundations program does double-duty, helping the staff members of CFA Institute’s 150+ world-wide chapters better understand their members, too).
  2. Board service is likely to be a sticking point. Your suppliers will likely want to be involved in the volunteer leadership of your association, but board service may not be the best place for that to happen, as they may start pushing an agenda and interests that are peripheral to those of the core membership. There are other ways to deal with this, though. You can reserve one board seat (maybe even a non-voting position) for your suppliers. You can create a special supplier council or advisory group. You can encourage your suppliers to participate in the existing standing committees that are appropriate (ASAE’s Technology Section Council is an excellent example of this). You can make them formally part of your advocacy team.
  3. Supplier membership can be a great entry-point for small firms in your profession or industry that can’t afford pricey exhibit booths or sponsorships, like the solopreneur consultant mentioned above.
  4. Supplier membership needs to be considered in light of your larger revenue and engagement goals. You’re still going to want to offer sponsorships and partnerships, likely at much higher dollar levels than membership, so you need to think carefully about how you construct all those programs so as not to cannibalize yourself (i.e., make sure your programs don’t unintentionally provide incentives for a large-scale corporate partner to downgrade to supplier membership only).

Lewis and I have both alluded to the idea of corporate partnership in our posts so far, but we haven’t really delved into what that is and why it matters, so Lewis is going to address that in his next post.

Image found here.

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