Membership Incentives: Pro and Con

A look at the benefits and pitfalls of membership incentives.

Last fall, Richard Markel decided to take matters into his own hands. Instead of waiting to see how many members the Association for Wedding Professionals International would lose to the economic downturn, he proactively worked to keep them.

"We decided to give our staff some incentive," he says. "We told them that in November, if they could reach or surpass the renewal numbers we had a year ago, we'd take them all to an IMAX theater nearby for a show."

Did it work? He says yes: In November 2008 renewals were at about 65 percent, while those in 2009 hit 85 percent.

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"It was just a matter of that one extra spark," he says. In January, he offered staffers a free dinner out with their families if they could
bump the numbers from a year before, and he's already planning another incentive for later in the year.

"Our people like working here," says Markel. "This just gave them a little extra bonus for doing a great job."

… Or can you?

Considering staff incentives for membership recruitment? Some associations that have tried them say that while they help bring in memberships initially, keeping the momentum going is just about impossible.

Candice Johnson, now a marketing manager with the Association for Career and Technical Education, says at her previous association she offered cash incentives to staff people who brought in memberships. "Each staff person had dedicated phone time to call members," she says. "Whomever got the most people to renew or join received a small cash bonus."

"It boosted the numbers initially," she says, "But you can't sustain that effort. You can't have staff people, who are responsible for other activities, being on the phone all the time. So you get that initial bump, but three months later, you're back where you started."

The phone time, she says, became a distraction to employees who still had their regular jobs to do. Her then-association had better luck offering state affiliates incentives to bring in members—things like free national conference registrations—but even that wasn't flawless. "It goes well depending on if your state organizations are unified or not," Johnson says. "It obviously works better in more unified states."

She says she wouldn't offer staff incentives for memberships again, given the option. "It gives this false sense that everybody's working on membership, but just for a week or so," she says. "I'd rather build a culture where everybody is working on membership all the time and not just doing it for those immediate rewards."

Kim Fernandez is a freelance writer based in Bethesda, Maryland. Email: [email protected]