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New to Association Membership?

New to Association Membership

You’re a marketing person, or communications person, or project leader, or supervisor or anything else and you’ve suddenly found yourself working in the membership function of an association. First, if the whole concept of the association sector is foreign to you, read this short primer on what sets associations apart from other types of organizations. Then read through the following characteristics, which are frequently important considerations in association membership departments.


1. First: Membership basics. There are several excellent chapters of books and even entire books that do nothing but describe the important basic essentials of membership. Some recommendations of where to start appear at the bottom of this essay. The basic definition of a member is a person or company that pays dues to belong to an organization. Associations typically set goals for membership departments that include such metrics as number of members, number of new members, and retention rate. Advanced metrics include acquisition costs and lifecycle member value. There are several distinct membership functions:

  • Member acquisition: identifying markets, developing marketing and communications materials, and direct selling are all functions of a membership department, often in conjunction with other departments such as marketing or communications.
  • Member servicing: developing products and services for member consumption, communicating the value of membership, handling member inquiries, and studying member attitudes and preferences are all functions of a membership department, often in conjunction with other departments such as meetings, education, research, or communications.
  • Member retention (closely related to servicing): keeping records, issuing and processing renewals, and interviewing lapsed members are all functions of a membership department, often in conjunction with other departments such as finance, information technology, or research.


2. Common dues models. Associations assess and collect dues in many, many different ways. The following are some of the more common methods.

  • Single rate, single memberships: the simplest dues structure, every person or company pays the same rate and is a member of a single organization.
  • Chapter + national memberships: this is handled in several different ways. One is simply a single rate for membership in both a local and national or international organization. Another is mandatory membership in a local and a national or international organization, but local rates vary. Dues are usually collected by the national and distributed to the local, though the reverse is sometimes the case. Finally, many associations allow members to join either the local or national organization or both. How the dues are collected in this scenario is highly variable.
  • Variable rate memberships: Some associations vary their dues assessments by a certain characteristic. For example, a trade association might assess dues based on the company’s income while a professional society might assess differing dues amounts for different constituencies or position within a company.
  • Bundled memberships: A more recent development for associations is the bundling together of specific packages of products and services. Prospective members choose the level of service—the bundle of products and services that most appeals to them—and pay dues to receive those services. Some associations allow members to create their own bundles by choosing the specific products and services they want.
  • Online only memberships: A specialized bundle, where the member only receives access to an organization’s online products and services.

3. Associate membership. Some associations have established a separate type of membership for people or companies that are related to, but are not the central focus of the organization. Most often, associate members are people or companies that have products or services for which the association’s primary membership is a target market. Student membership could be considered another kind of associate membership in some organizations. Each association decides for itself what benefits associate members receive and whether or not associate members can serve on the governing board or in other volunteer capacities.

4. Member engagement. Engagement has become an increasingly important consideration for associations in recent years. The theory is that the more engaged a member is with the organization, the more value that member both derives from his, her, or its membership and the more value he, she, or it provides other members. Membership departments are often charged with studying and measuring member engagement as well as developing ways to maximize member engagement.


5. Volunteering. Membership departments often administer the volunteer management functions for all boards, committees, task forces, and other volunteer groups with the exception of the governing board and some standing committees. The extent to which volunteer groups are independent, need to have tangible accomplishments, decide what to do, and report results are all part of the cultural fabric of the association, and will be unique to each association.

6. Future of membership. There is little doubt that emerging social technologies are changing what people value from organizations and the ways they expect to interact with each other. Very few leaders would argue that dues-paying memberships will continue with little variation. The extent to which membership models must evolve and adapt—or in the extreme argument that the dues-paying model is dead—is the subject of much ongoing debate in the association community.

Association membership veterans reading this page: what important things did we miss? Let us know by editing an Associapedia entry on this topic. We’ll be updating this page periodically, and your help would be greatly appreciated!


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