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Associations Now

New Membership Structure Brings Surprises

ASSOCIATIONS NOW, February 2011 Intelligence

By: Mark Athitakis

Summary: Optimist International's electronic offerings meet potential members halfway.

An upbeat outlook on life isn't supposed to go out of style, but by early 2010 Optimist International (OI) recognized it was having a hard time attracting younger members.

According to Chief Administrative Officer Jim Nagel, part of the problem was its organizational structure. The club model under which OI operates—it's a 501(c)(4), which comprises civic leagues and other community groups—isn't immediately attractive to busy young professionals.

So last summer, the St. Louis-based organization decided it would meet potential new members halfway through social media, giving them an opportunity to connect with the organization in a way that didn't require finding a meeting. On July 7, it launched eOptimist (eoptimist.org), a website that promotes OI values, with a two-tier structure. Free members would receive an e-newsletter, while members who paid $35 per year would have additional access to webinars and audio interviews, as well as opportunities to contribute to the eOptimist website and blog. Watch a video used to promote the eOptimist site through social-media channels

By the fall, OI had attracted approximately 1,600 members, a third of whom paid the $35 membership fee. Many of those memberships came thanks to direct outreach to bloggers and people who've focused on optimism in their own online presences, says Manager of Community Growth and Marketing Maggie Fairchild. "Since this membership class is strictly online, that's been the focus of where we're looking," she says. "We've targeted a lot of blogs that hit on the theme of optimism or happiness."

Though the effort helps meet the goal of presenting OI's mission to a younger generation, most of the paid memberships have actually come from older members. Paid members, says Fairchild, are often people such as coaches and consultants who already promote optimism somehow in their work and feel the eOptimist site is a useful platform; younger members sign up for the good feeling but are less inclined to see the value in a paid membership.

Nagel is, perhaps unsurprisingly given his organization's mission, unfazed. "Our main mission is to still go after the younger member, because without them we may not exist one day," he says. "But what's interesting is that it's taken off on a whole different path. I'll take that too."

Regardless, OI's parent foundation is impressed enough that it's given eOptimist $15,000 to work on improving its online presence. And though the recruitment for the larger organization is a hope, the staff is more focused on creating more gathering spots online for the members it does have to learn and discuss the organization's mission. "We're not sales-y, we're not pushing people into buying anything," Fairchild says. "We're just trying to build relationships for now."

Mark Athitakis is senior editor of Associations Now. Email: mathitakis@asaecenter.org

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