Partnership v. Membership: Selling the Board on Change

When you’ve realized it’s time to make a change to your dues amounts, member benefits, or overall membership structure, how do you convince your board of directors to support it? Particularly if there’s resistance?

Let’s start with the easiest case: a dues increase. Your benefits are staying the same, your structure is staying the same, you just have to start charging a bit more for what you’re offering.

First of all, this should not come as a surprise to your board (actually, none of this should). They’re aware that inflation exists, that the cost of providing the services your association offers is likely going up, and that if you want to retain good staff, you have to offer competitive compensation packages (which generally involve periodic raises). They shouldn’t be shocked that just because they paid $100 for membership a year ago doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be paying $100 this year – or next.

The challenge around dues increases lies more in “how much?” and “how often?”

I think dues should go up by a small percentage – say around 2% – every single year.

This simplifies things for your board. They vote one time that dues will automatically go up 2% a year barring unusual circumstances, and then they never have to deal with it again. In the meantime, your members don’t notice. $100 this year becomes $102 next, $104 the year after, etc.

You also never find yourself in the unenviable position of not having raised dues in five…or ten…or more years, being forced to raise them A LOT, EVERYONE noticing, and a percentage of members getting mad and leaving.

I will admit, this is easier to implement in individual membership associations that charge relatively low dues amounts. But even high-dues trades can do this: your $2500 annual dues for companies with fewer than 50 employees goes up to $2550 next year, $2600 the year after, etc. It’s more noticeable than dues going up by $2 a year, but it’s manageable for your members and again, preferable to letting dues lag badly behind the rate of inflation and then having to hit companies with a major increase.

The “barring unusual circumstances” bit is important, too. If there’s a major downturn in the economy broadly or just in your particular industry or profession, you always have the option of suspending increases for a year or two. But if you get your board to vote on this change once, they never need to bother with this relatively trivial operational issue again – they can keep their focus on the fiduciary and strategic issues that are their more appropriate spheres of responsibility.

What if you need to make bigger changes?

You’ve had an “all you can eat” model and you want to go to a cafeteria or tiered plan for benefits. Or vice versa. You have benefits that are underperforming – they’re costing a lot and not many people use them – and you want to kill them. People in your industry or profession are facing a major new challenge and you need to create something new to respond. Your entire membership structure has become outdated and is no longer appropriate because the nature of your industry is changing.

Start with the why.

Presumably, you’re not proposing these changes capriciously. You have reasons you think they’re a good idea, they’re necessary, and they’ll benefit the members and the association’s bottom line.

So share those reasons. Be honest with your board about what’s going on.

Show them the behavioral data that proves that if members buy one webinar, they almost always go on to buy two more, so you want to create a tiered level of membership that includes three webinars at a discounted rate.

Show them that only a tiny percentage of your members are using a particular service, that the market won’t bear what it would cost those that do use it to fully pay for it, and that if you eliminate that service, you can also shift that full time staff person to work that serves more members – or eliminate his position.

Share the stories of the members who’ve told you about their new challenge and asked you to help them address the emerging threat.

Summarize the trends reporting that points out the fundamental shift in the nature of your industry that means that you have to change the basis of your dues calculation, because the old basis no longer makes sense.

You’re going to have to make the same case to your members – you didn’t think you could just spring a big change on them with “don’t question us – we know best,” did you? – so this is good practice in honing your messaging.

The other key point is: you can’t just make these changes because you think it’s good for the association’s bottom line. They have to be good for the members, too. Altered benefits packages that more accurately reflect their observed behavior. More flexibility in choosing what they want and will pay for. Sharpened focus leading to improved service. Holding a sacred cow barbecue to make room for new programs, products, and services that better reflect the reality in today’s and tomorrow’s environment, not the world when your association was founded 40…75…100 years ago.

What if your board is still raising major objections?

That’s their job, and you should pay attention. You may not have done your homework sufficiently to make your case. You may have mis-identified trends. You may have overlooked alternative explanations for the data you’re presenting. You may be employing motivated reasoning, posing something that’s really only good for the association as being good for the members, and they can see through that.

They’re not your enemy – they’re your ally in coming to the best decisions for BOTH the financial health of the association AND serving your mission and your members. If they spot major, insurmountable problems in your plan, it may be time to go back to the drawing board.

In his next post, Lewis will take on this topic from the corporate partnership side: if you’ve been offering the “$500 for the lanyards/$1000 for the conference bags” types of sponsorships, how do you convince your board to take the plunge on shifting to high-dollar, high-value corporate partnerships?

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