Remodeling an Association
By: Phil Peach, CAE
When you’re a small association, it can be a little unnerving when the big guys move in on your territory.
While we don’t talk about it as much as the business world, competition is alive and well in the nonprofit sector, too. And just as companies and even entire industries can become displaced, changed, or rendered obsolete by competition, mergers, and acquisitions, so can associations.
When I joined the staff of the Oregon Remodelers Association as president and CEO in January 2003, the 50-year-old organization was facing obsolescence. A few years before I started, the local home builders association had decided to expand their membership by forming a remodelers council, competing head-on with us. Our members began leaving in droves to join the sexy new game in town. With more than five times our budget and staff, the home builders were used to throwing their weight around and getting more attention than our tiny little association.
During my first month on the job, an overdue purge of unpaid members resulted in our lowest membership count in more than a decade. The board that hired me was not even aware of the seriousness of the situation. It was clear to me that the association needed an overhaul—or perhaps a “remodel” of its own. With the new remodelers council siphoning away members, we had to reestablish ourselves as the only local organization that focuses exclusively on the needs of the remodeling industry, not as an adjunct to homebuilding.
We set out to conduct our first membership survey in recent memory, which revealed that members’ top priorities were marketing, education, and networking. Starting with our monthly meetings and seminars, we brought in top-notch speakers who shared critical information, such as marketing or human resource tips, that was too good to miss. We hired a local consultant to provide seminars that focused solely on how to make contractors more profitable.
Turning to our image, we adopted a new logo and fresh new look on membership materials and publications such as the newsletter. We forged a relationship with a prominent local home and lifestyle magazine to publish a remodeling guide that included our membership directory. The guide enjoyed substantial distribution to the publisher’s established subscriber list and became a powerful marketing and membership tool. We added more local flavor to our monthly newsletter, including features on members, and revamped our website into a popular resource for consumers.
Another important membership tool resulted from the takeover of our consumer home show. The show was established by our association 32 years ago, but until recently, it was managed by a for-profit company that was clueless about member-driven organizations. Following an expensive but necessary divorce, we regained full control and can now offer preferential treatment to members, such as a 25 percent discount on exhibit space. We also transformed our annual supplier’s fair from a lunchtime tabletop to an evening tradeshow format.
Media outreach is another important element to our growth. With horror stories about contractors commanding exorbitant, upfront fees and then delivering shoddy work—or no work at all—we recognized a chance to be proactive. Of course there are bad contractors out there, but we were able to step in and supply the media with positive, newsworthy information about how to ensure a positive remodeling experience by screening and hiring the right professional. A key part of our message is that the best professionals can usually be found in an association.
In five years’ time, we have more than doubled our membership, outnumbering our competition by more than two to one. We did it without an increase in dues or staff (except for the addition of a show manager), becoming the third-largest chapter in our national association. A key component of our comeback has been word of mouth among remodeling contractors and their suppliers. Collaboration among general contractors, specialty contractors, and subcontractors means a lot of information sharing, whether good or bad. We have succeeded in getting their attention in a good way, which is how we receive most of our referrals. It’s pretty nice not having to chase prospects; in fact, the prospects contact us on a daily basis.
These days, there is more competition than ever for people’s time, attention, and money. Association membership has to be viewed as a business necessity, not a goodwill gesture to support the industry. We have accomplished this by identifying our members’ needs, improving the methods for delivering them, and communicating them effectively to the industry.
Phil Peach, CAE, is president and CEO of the Oregon Remodelers Association, Portland. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org