Partnership v. Membership: Wrapping Up and the BIG Question

pile of tangled blue ropes

The Partnership v. Membership blog point-counterpoint series I was writing with Lewis Flax got abandoned a little abruptly almost exactly one year ago. I don’t know about you, but I could use some closure. And, of course, there’s the question of: How is all of this impacted by the pandemic, and the massive disruption in pretty much every aspect of our lives that’s resulted?

Membership and the Pandemic

I addressed this topic at the end of 2020, but there are a few things I want to highlight:

  • The pandemic is not affecting all professions and industries the same, and people’s needs, challenges, and goals are shifting rapidly, so you need to invest resources (time, attention, money) in learning about them for your particular profession or industry RIGHT NOW.
  • Some of your members may have to step back and become customers for a while. That’s OK. A customer relationship is a totally valid relationship for someone to have with your association. Be alert to opportunities to bring that person/company back as a member, but also, related to the point above, be aware of and sensitive to the pressures they’re operating under right now. In other words, don’t be pushy.
  • Ladders of engagement are more important than ever, and they’re probably dramatically different than what they were a year ago. You have to pay attention to your data about people’s behavior and look for patterns so you can act instead of just reacting.
  • There is literally no time like the present to kill underperforming programs, products, or services. How do you know? DATA. Learn it, know it, love it – USE IT.
  • Membership is a lagging indicator. Associations have taken hits in event revenue and in membership, and we’re not at bottom yet. Hang on – it’s going to get worse for us before it starts getting better, but it WILL eventually get better if we can make the nimble responsiveness the pandemic forced on us part of our core organizational culture going forward.

Partnership and the Pandemic

  • You HAVE TO talk to your corporate supporters. Lewis stressed this throughout the series, but changing needs, challenges, and goals are hitting supplier relationships particularly hard, because not only is their operating environment dramatically different than it was a year ago, what you can offer them is dramatically different, too. your association can still deliver value that helps them meet their goals in your market, but you are going to have to get creative and work closely with them to do that.

Thanks for hanging with us during this series! Links to all the posts in order.

Do you have insight about how the pandemic is impacting membership and/or corporate partnership in your association, what you’ve learned, and what you’ll be keeping moving forward, once we’re in the “new normal”? Share in the comments!

Photo by Fancycrave on Unsplash

Partnership v. Membership: Communicating Change

Neon sign that reads "Change"

Now that you’ve mapped out the changes you want to make to your membership program, and your board of directors is on board with those changes, how do you go about communicating them to the members who will be affected?

In contrast to communicating with your board about changes, dues increases can be the hardest sell to members. “What do you mean my dues are going up? Why?”

This highlights the danger, which I talked about in my last post, in going long stretches with no dues increase and then hitting members with a large increase all at once. It’s relatively easy to make the case that dues need to go up 2% this year because of inflation and the need to retain good staff. It’s much harder to make the case that dues need to go up 10% – or 15%, or 20% – this year, even though we’re not adding anything new, because we haven’t raised dues in five years, and now we have a problem. Some – hopefully most – members will still understand, but some will not, and you will likely experience at least a temporary dip in retention rate. So raise your dues 2% a year.

Changes like offering more choice in packages of benefits are actually relatively easy to explain in concept. “Hey! They’re giving me more choices! I like choices!”

Well, yes, but your members are likely to need guidance about which package best suits their demonstrated behavior, particularly if they’ve been accustomed to the Henry Ford “you can have your Model T in any color you want as long as it’s black” model of membersip. This is where all the data work you did creating the packages in the first place will help. You should already know what the markers are for the groups of members who would most benefit from bundled conference registration or webinars or publications or whatever you’ve chosen as your differentiators. Now you just have to connect those people with the option that will suit them best (and realize that not all of them are going to take you up on it in the first year, so you probably need at least a two year plan to educate people).

What if you re-do your categories to reflect changes in your industry? Well, again, communicate that (to be honest, your members are already aware that the shift in the industry is happening – you just need to explain how your association is going to respond). What usually happens is that some members dues barely change, some go down, and there’s always at least a handful that go up – sometimes WAY up.

Uh oh.

First, get out in front of it. You have to talk to those members before you announce the changes. They’re not stupid – they’ll be able to do the math on what they have been paying versus what they will be paying, and you need to prep them beforehand. Second, offer to work with them. They will eventually have to pay the new full dues amount. But there are lots of ways you can get there. Be creative, and ask for their suggestions.

No matter what your changes are, be honest. Be real. Show how your change – even if it’s sacrificing a beloved but under-used program – will benefit your members. Be prepared to explain it more than once, in more than one format, on more than one platform. And be confident! You did this for good reasons – your members will get it when you tell them why.

In his next post (which I think will be the final post in this series), Lewis will take on this topic from the corporate partnership side: if you’re switching from “$500 for the lanyards/$1000 for the conference bags” types of sponsorships to high-dollar, high-value corporate partnerships, how do you communicate that change to the current sponsors who are your potential partners?

Photo by Ross Findon on Unsplash

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?

Partnership v. Membership: Prospecting Dos and Don’ts

Elizabeth Engel's pyramid of engagement

In Lewis’s last post in our ongoing series, he shared some great advice on prospecting for corporate partners.

Lewis highlighted DO items, such as:

  • Weed out “dead ends”
  • Understand your potential partners’ business challenges and goals for your audiences
  • Focus on mutual benefit

He also called out time-wasters to eliminate (I love that framing!), such as:

  • Pursuing a company that has no connection to your profession/industry
  • Analysis paralysis (do your research, but don’t get so caught up in it that you forget to start building an actual relationship)
  • Chase pie-in-the-sky partner “suggestions” (Has one of your board members suggested: “Why don’t we go after Apple? They have plenty of money.” Yeah, just don’t. See point one above about connection to your profession/industry.)

I’m going to follow his lead for advice on prospecting members.


Identify REAL prospects

Your universe is not unlimited, and neither are your association’s capabilities. Focus on the people whose problems are most within your association’s wheelhouse to solve and whose goals are most within your association’s wheelhouse to achieve.

How do you know who those people are?

Some of that involves getting clear about your association’s mission and who you serve. Some of it rests on relying on your existing membership community to do some Word Of Mouth (WOM) marketing for you and/or provide some leads and introductions (your corporate partners can be VERY helpful with this). And some of it is trial and error.

This means there’s a logical limit on your association’s membership growth. AND THAT’S OK. You cannot be all things to all people. Hell, there will be problems your CORE MEMBERS have that are outside your ability to solve and goals they want to achieve that are outside your ability to provide. AND THAT’S OK, TOO.

Eliminate this time waster:

Deciding to target people who are engaged in a tangential profession or industry. If I had a dollar for every time a client wanted to do this, I still wouldn’t be able to retire early (but I might if I had $10 for every time).

The problem is, those semi-related people already have a “home” association (whether or not a given individual is currently a member of it), and you aren’t going to do a better job of helping them solve their problems and achieve their goals than that other association that’s specifically and directly dedicated to their profession/industry. Instead of trying to steal that other association’s members out from under them (which likely will not work and which WILL make you an enemy), look for opportunities to partner with that association. That can look like: offering joint membership; hosting co-located meetings; offering each other’s members member rates on programs, products, and services; developing collaborative professional development training; exhibit booth swaps; advertising swaps; collaborative publications; curating each other’s content for your audiences….

PS – even if you do manage to recruit some of those tangential prospects, they will be harder to keep (particularly if you lured them in with a discount offer you don’t intend to maintain), have lower engagement overall, have a higher attrition rate, and have a lower lifetime value than people from your core audiences. Again, there’s a balance to be struck here, but don’t get distracted by the shiny new potential audience and forget your loyal core community.


Create ladders of engagement for prospects

I’ve talked about this many times on the blog, but you cannot ask someone to marry you (join) before you’ve even been out on a date. This is the number one mistake I see clients make – they try to move too fast. The first communication a prospect gets from you shouldn’t be “JOIN NOW” – they have no idea who you are! That level of commitment is WAY too high.

Start by offering something that’s low cost (time, energy, attention, money, commitment). For the people who say yes to that first offer, present something that requires a little more commitment. For the people who say no to that first offer, make a different low cost offer. Pay attention to what people respond to. Lather, rinse, repeat. Once you’ve developed a relationship, THEN ask them to marry your association.

Eliminate this time waster:

Bombarding people who have no idea who you are with increasingly desperate pleas to join. This wastes money and other scarce association resources (like your time), and can burn leads that would have been good and would have converted to membership if you’d just put the time into nurturing them first.


Know when to ask

How do you know that?

I’m so glad you asked!


Paying attention to past behavior can help you begin to predict what may happen in the future.

Look back over all the new members who’ve joined in the past year. What did they do in common BEFORE they joined? How many rungs up the ladder of engagement, on average, did they have to climb before they were ready to join?

Now look for prospects who’ve done at least some of that same stuff, or taken that many steps up the ladder. They might be receptive to your “here’s specifically how our association can help you solve pressing problem X and achieve important goal Y” pitch. And if you’ve done a good job with nurturing that prospect, you’ll know what her specific most pressing problem or important goal is.

Eliminate this time waster:

Throwing all the membership benefits at the prospect all at once to see what sticks. Remember, you’re building a relationship here. That means you should know the person you’re pitching. Don’t pitch your career services at her if she’s just landed her dream job. Don’t pitch your certification at him if he’s nearing retirement – or fresh out of his formal schooling and won’t qualify for five more years. Solve MY problems, not some hypothetical problems that someone in this profession or industry might hypothetically have.

Once you’ve done your research, identified your prospects, and started building those relationships, how do you structure what you’re going to offer them so that, quoting Lewis again, you’re not “continually reach[ing] out to the same prospects repeatedly asking for funding”? Lewis is going to address that in his next post.


Partnership v. Membership: What Behavior Do You Want to Encourage?

Dog getting a treat

That question is not rhetorical.

Corporate membership can be complicated. To being with, there are at least two main types:

  1. Companies that are your core audience (i.e., trade associations’ typical members).
  2. Companies that are NOT your core audience (i.e., the suppliers who often comprise the associate members).

Even in the “are your core audience” arena, things get complicated. Individual/professional membership associations almost always want to offer some sort of company/institutional membership, particularly in fields where it’s common for employers to pay individual members’ dues. Those types of “corporate” memberships are usually more along the lines of group discounts – sign up four staff members and get the fifth for free, buy a ten-pack of memberships that you can distribute among your staff and get a deep discount, we’ll give you 10% off if you handle all the individual memberships at your company on one renewal notice and pay them all at the same time, etc.

(On the trade side, it’s also usually the case that associations look for ways to involve as many people in the organization as possible, both in order to provide value commensurate with what are often hefty corporate membership fees and also to provide an insurance policy in case the key membership contact at that company leaves. If she’s the only person your association has had a relationship with and she sells/retires/takes another job, you might lose that member.)

However, thinking just about the associate/supplier members and what those memberships might entail by way of benefits, you have to ask yourself: What behavior do you want to encourage?

First let me point out that I am a BIG fan of the style of corporate relationships Lewis promotes, getting away from $500 to get your logo on the lanyards, $1000 to get your logo on the conference bags, or $1500 for a full-page ad in the magazine, and moving to a $50,000 customized year-round relationship that might include lanyards and bags and ads if the corporate partner happens to care about that stuff, but is fundamentally shaped by everyone’s larger goals.

In thinking about offering supplier membership, however, you have to think carefully about the points Lewis raised in his most recent post:

  • What is your association trying to accomplish in allowing suppliers to be members?
  • What are suppliers trying to accomplish that would be better served by membership than some other type of relationship?
  • What are your core members’ goals with regards to their relationships with suppliers, and what structure best accommodates those?

The answer to those questions may or may not include membership for those suppliers.

Quoting from my previous post in this series:

 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.

In my previous post, I had already outlined some of the things you need to consider in structuring supplier membership. But if you’ve decided that you want to offer BOTH supplier membership AND corporate partnership, you need to make sure that you are providing incentives for and rewarding the behavior you want to see.

Do you want a supplier to pay $500 for membership, or $50,000 for a partnership?

That’s what I thought.

(Although do remember, those large scale partnerships may not be in every supplier’s budget, and even if they are, you likely need to provide lower-price entry points where they can try you out before they will be willing to make a large-scale financial commitment.)

At a minimum, you probably want supplier membership to be a standard component of your corporate partnerships. But you’re going to have to delicately balance what programs, products, services, and opportunities are available to supplier members versus what’s reserved for corporate partners if you want firms to be writing those big checks and be WANTING to write those big checks because what they’re getting in return helps them achieve their goals in your market.

What that looks like is going to vary for every association. Which is why I’m going to, once again, urge you to talk to your supplier supporters to learn what goals they’re trying to achieve in your market, what problems they’ve encountered on the way that they’ve been unable to solve on their own, and what your association can do to help them. And then you’re going to have to make some choices about who gets access to what.

But let me provide a concrete example of what that might look like, one I talked about in my previous post: advocacy support.

Supplier members are often just as concerned about your industry’s regulatory environment as are your core members.

How do you structure who gets to do what in a way that both provides value at the membership level and also encourages stepping up to partnership for those who are able?

What that might look like is:

  • Your supplier members participate in your legislative action network, but only your corporate partners have the opportunity to serve on your policy committee.
  • Your supplier members are invited your fly-in, but only your corporate partners are invited to a VIP event with your board of directors at that fly-in.
  • Your supplier members participate in your lobbying training prior to your Hill meetings, but only your corporate partners get to speak from the podium during the training event.
  • Etc.

The bottom line is: you need to make sure that you are providing value for your supplier members for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that not every supplier is going to be able to afford corporate partnership, but you also need to make sure that the corporate partnerships provide enough additional value to justify their cost in the minds of the people writing the checks.

Now that we’ve got our theoretical framework built and have had a chance to consider what partnership is, what membership is, and how those pieces might relate to each other, it’s time to start talking tactics, the first of which Lewis will address in his next post: How do you find potential corporate partners? How do you nurture those relationships?

Photo by McDobbie Hu on Unsplash

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.

Partnership v. Membership: Defining Terms

Four quadrant matrix - association membership versus corporate partnership

Lewis and I are both going to take a crack at this topic, and I’ve elected to go first.

I see partnership and membership as being founded on the same broad idea: individuals or organizations that seek some type of a relationship with an association. Whether they are individuals, companies, or other types of institutions, they have problems they can’t solve, or goals they can’t achieve, all on their own. So they’ve decided to associate in order to do those things more effectively than they can in isolation.

However, that desire for relationship can be expressed in a variety of ways.

The people who are engaged in the work of your profession or industry are coming to your association to solve problems and achieve goals that are – or at least should be – core to your mission. They need to get jobs in your field, improve their skills and networks in your field, and then get better jobs in your field. They need you to provide or point them to the education that will help them do that. They need you to uphold standards in your profession or industry and potentially discipline those who violate them. They need you to organize efforts to advocate on behalf of their profession or industry in their state houses and on Capitol Hill. These core constituents can be individuals, as is the case in professional societies, or companies/institutions, as is the case in trade associations.

Your suppliers are coming to your association because they need to connect with your core constituents. They need to establish themselves as trusted partners to your members, resources that can provide the services and solutions your members need to run their businesses, or operate in their professions, successfully. One piece of that is access. Another is the “glow” that being affiliated with your association can provide. They’re also looking for the opportunity to demonstrate expertise, whether formally through things like conference presentations, research projects, “how to” guides, and white papers, or informally through interacting with your members. These suppliers are most frequently companies of some sort, although they may be very small companies, as is the case with consultants to your industry.

The way I see it, there are two key distinctions to be aware both, both expressed in the matrix above.

One describes the relationship the person or organization has with the profession or industry your association serves. Is that person/entity engaged in the practice of the profession or industry (core), or does that person/entity seek to serve people who are engaged in the practice of the profession or industry (supplier)?

The second describes the relationship the person or organization has with your association. Is it short-term and transactional or long-term and loyal?

Some of the people who are in your core audience, those who practice your profession, only need a transactional relationship with you. They’re your customers. In fact, even those who become long-term, loyal, highly engaged members will probably start out as customers. They need to date you before they decide to marry you. And some may choose to stay at the dating/customer level, and that’s OK. You don’t have the capacity for every single person who practices the profession your association serves to be maximally involved. This core audience can be comprised of individuals, institutions/companies, or a combination.

Likewise, some of the suppliers that serve your industry only need – or can only afford – a transactional relationship with you in order to achieve their goals with your membership community. They are likely to be your advertisers (website, magazine, enewsletter) and conference exhibitors, or sole practitioner/small shop boutique companies who can’t afford a large-scale relationship. They have narrowly defined goals for your industry, and they can achieve those goals through transactional relationships (or that’s all they can afford).

Some suppliers are going to have larger or deeper goals for your audience, and deeper pockets. They are your candidates to upgrade, from advertiser/exhibitor to sponsor or even partner.

What role, if any, does supplier membership play in this ecosystem? You’ll have to check out Lewis’s response post to find out!

Partnership v. Membership: Untangling the Knot

pile of tangled blue ropes

I’m excited to announce a new blog series I’ll be writing with Lewis Flax, the founder of Flax Associates, a consulting firm that helps nonprofits support their objectives through establishing mutually beneficial partnerships with corporations.

In the coming weeks and months, Lewis and I will be looking at various aspects of association membership, sponsorship, and corporate partnership.

Properly structured, these three types of relationships can inter-relate and support each other, helping all the parties (members, suppliers, and the association) solve their problems and achieve their goals.

Unfortunately, these relationships are often structured at cross-purposes, with siloed departments being given goals that, at best, don’t complement each other and, at worst, are in direct opposition, leading to competition and conflict between departments, rather than one high-functioning team all working together to achieve the mission of the association.

Lewis and I have conceived of this series as an ongoing conversation between two association pros coming at this sometimes contentious topic from slightly different perspectives, one in which we’ll help our colleagues untangle the mess and achieve harmony among their staff members in different departments and among their members and the suppliers who serve the profession or industry those members engage in.

We’ll be taking on topics like:

  • What is the difference between partnership, membership, and sponsorship? How do they relate?
  • Who are appropriate prospects for supplier/corporate relationships? How do you find and nurture them?
  • How do you structure corporate relationships so that they’re to everyone’s benefit?
  • How do you educate your board of directors about the differences in types of corporate relationships?
  • How do you deal with internal conflict and departments with conflicting goals?
  • What is the ROI of corporate relationships? How do you show it?
  • How do you retain corporate partners? How do you increase the scope of those relationships over time?

What questions do you have about the role of suppliers in your profession or industry? Leave them in the comments or email them to ewengel@getmespark.comor,  and we’ll address them in a future post.

(The Membership Q&A series will be going on a brief hiatus while Lewis and I talk about all the ways you can work with corporate supporters to the benefit of them, your association, and your members.)

Photo by Fancycrave on Unsplash