No Dues, More Members

By: Susan Krug, CAE and Abigail Gorman

When the American Dental Education Association eliminated individual member dues in 2006, membership increased sevenfold in just a few months. It was a radical change, but as a result, ADEA's member engagement, advocacy, meeting attendance, and even paid institutional membership have all grown as well. Here's how ADEA made open membership work. (Titled "Come In, We're Open" in the print edition.)

In March 2005, the American Dental Education Association began an open membership initiative to increase institutional membership by eliminating dues for nearly all of its individual members. Under the new model, member institutions would continue to pay dues, but professionals at those institutions could join as individual members for free. As we planned to roll out the new model on January 1, 2006, we decided to start from zero.

Zero members, that is.

It was a strategic choice to ask potential members to make a conscious decision to join the dental-education community. We knew those who decided to join would be more likely to be engaged with the association.

It was a risky move, but we believed a change was in order. We estimated our potential market to include approximately 60,000 eligible dental faculty, staff, students, residents, and fellows in North America. Yet we had only a little more than 2,000 individual dues-paying members in 2004. We thought we could do better.

If open membership were to increase our number of institutional, corporate, and individual members, we would be able to engage more of the dental-education community in ADEA's programming, activities, and strategic directions. Engaging more members would mean increasing knowledge sharing, networking, and generation of new ideas. Our goal for the rollout of the open membership model was 5,000 members.

In the first months of 2006, more than 15,000 members joined. Five years later, ADEA has 18,000 individual members. For us, open membership has worked.

Time for a Change

Prior to 2006, ADEA offered institutional memberships for dental schools and allied and advanced dental programs, along with individual memberships for dental educators, staff, students, residents, and fellows. Each membership category came with its own set of annual dues. 

In 2004, however, an ADEA Membership Task Force study determined that membership dues were an obstacle for individuals in joining the association. ADEA competed for resources for individual membership with numerous other organizations, particularly in allied and advanced dental-education programs that are not components of dental schools. This finding led to the proposal of eliminating individual dues by maintaining institutional memberships but opening up free individual membership enrollment to any individual at a member institution. That approach is similar to the traditional organizational membership model of a trade association, except with a focus on actively (but not automatically) enrolling the individuals within those organizations. We then considered whether this might increase ADEA membership in a way that would allow the association to achieve both growth goals and strategic directions.

"There was a lively, friendly debate," says Frank A. Catalanotto, DMD, ADEA president at the time. "Ultimately we decided it was worth the gamble to try it. Open membership was a key strategy for encouraging more institutions to join ADEA, particularly hospital-based residency programs and allied dental education programs."

A different kind of value could come from increasing the number of ADEA member institutions and engaging their faculty, staff, students, residents, and fellows in the association's work and goals, which center around preparing academic dental institutions, their current and future leaders, and the individuals they serve for a substantially different future. Eric J. Hovland, DDS, M. Ed., MBA, of the Louisiana State University School of Dentistry was ADEA president when the open membership model began. "Immediately after the launch, I witnessed the excitement of dental education leaders. They were able to offer so many more faculty, staff, and students the benefits of ADEA membership. This resulted in increased visibility for academic dentistry throughout their institutions," he says.

Beginning January 1, 2006, individual dues—$125 annually for faculty members and $40 annually for students, residents, and fellows—were eliminated for those affiliated with ADEA member institutions (dental, allied dental, and advanced dental schools and programs, along with corporations). To activate an individual membership, an individual at an ADEA member institution simply visits and completes an online form. 

Nine Months of Preparation

In March 2005 the ADEA Board of Directors approved an implementation date for the new membership structure—a mere nine months later. We had a lot of work to do.

The decision to start from zero and ask all our members to reactivate was risky, but other viable options, such as asking schools to send faculty, staff, and student rosters for ADEA to enter into the new system, would mean our membership was a list of names rather than an active community of engaged members. It was also a prime opportunity for new members to choose benefits and select interest groups.

The short time period also presented significant implementation challenges. During this time, ADEA had to replace an inadequate proprietary membership database with a stronger membership database system. ADEA ultimately selected Association Anywhere provided by ACGI, who was an effective partner in helping ADEA achieve the planned launch date of January 1, 2006. (Despite our eventual success, we learned one tough lesson: Never pick the first day of the year for a launch event. The holidays were nonexistent for many staff and our vendors that year.)

Open membership also provided an impetus to reposition staff. The role of Executive Director Richard W. Valachovic, DMD, MPH, was adjusted for enhanced external leadership, while Abigail Gorman was promoted to chief operating officer, with her role focused on internal leadership. We created a new division of knowledge management, and we built a division of member services, led by Susan Krug, CAE, as associate executive director since 2008, by combining the divisions of membership and communications with the Office of Professional Development.

Expanded use of technology made the changes economically viable. ADEA's monthly newsletter, The Bulletin of Dental Education, switched from a print to online format, eliminating mailing costs and dramatically increasing the amount of content provided to members. Instead of mailing a printed copy of the Journal of Dental Education each month, we made journal content available online free to ADEA members (though they could pay a yearly $70 subscription to continue receiving it in print).

In January 2006, ADEA kicked off the new membership model with the "Open … Wider" campaign, designed to support ADEA institutional members in signing up their faculty, staff, students, residents, and fellows as individual members. To empower institutional leaders in this effort, we

  • Activated an online self-service portal;
  • Distributed a toolkit with a planner and posters, flyers, presentations, and FAQs describing open membership;
  • Announced a contest among ADEA member institutions to sign up individual members.

The campaign was an enormous success, with many schools devising creative ways to attract new ADEA individual members. The most successful aspects of the "Open ... Wider" campaign have been applied in ongoing campaigns to attract new institutional and individual members.

The Results Are In

At launch, nondues value and revenue substantially strengthening ADEA's position was a long-range goal, not an expectation for the first three years. But with a dramatic increase in membership numbers, we have seen growth in several measures, all pointing to successful engagement of stakeholders and greater influence for ADEA as the "Voice of Dental Education."

Among the examples of increased member engagement in ADEA:

  • Increased attendance at the ADEA Annual Session and other ADEA meetings;
  • More program submissions for the ADEA Annual Session, jumping nearly 28 percent in the year immediately following the open-membership launch and continuing to increase in following years;
  • More nominees to ADEA and external boards, task forces, committees, and other appointments;
  • More Journal of Dental Education readers, with average successful requests per week to the JDE Online spiking from about 33,000 in 2006 to 125,000 in 2010;
  • More articles submitted to the JDE, from 200 in 2005 to 513 to date in 2010;
  • Expanded membership across the 38 ADEA Sections and the seven ADEA Special Interest Groups, such as the ADEA Section on Oral Biology, which increased from 18 members prior to 2005 to more than 900 in 2010;
  • More visits to, which in 2010 is averaging more than 2,700 visits per day from a total of 317,327 unique visitors;
  • Strong clickthrough rates on e-communciations to ADEA members. On average, more than one out of every nine readers (11.7 percent) clicks a link to learn more or take action.

Also notable is a new power in speaking as the voice of dental education in legislative advocacy efforts. Many more ADEA institutional and individual members actively represent the interests of dental education and oral health on Capitol Hill and in state capitols. Our national and state advocacy programs are more visible to lawmakers now that ADEA represents diverse groups that make up the dental education community.

Open membership has also increased our ability to drive financial support for ADEA's efforts to promote greater equity and diversity in dental education. Since 2006, ADEA has established, expanded, or joined efforts on eight different programs that reach toward this goal, and we have partnered or received grants from organizations such as the Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation, the ADEAGies Foundation, the American Association for Dental Research, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, the California Endowment, and the Association of American Medical Colleges. Meanwhile, ADEA has received nearly $30 million in direct and collaborative grants in that time. More than $27 million has gone directly to ADEA member institutions for distribution, with most of the rest distributed to individual members.

More Individual Members Leads to More Institutional Members

Every U.S. and Canadian dental school was an institutional member of ADEA before open membership and continues to be today. But, as originally envisioned, open membership has dramatically increased ADEA institutional membership in our other categories.

Membership among allied dental-education programs has more than doubled, from 65 in 2005 to 154 in October 2010. Currently, more than 33 percent of all institutions with accredited allied dental-education programs, including those based at community colleges and technical schools, are now ADEA institutional members.

Similarly, advanced dental-education and hospital-program membership has also increased, nearly doubling from 24 in 2005 to 41 in 2010. Currently, more than 32 percent of institutions with such programs are ADEA institutional members. 

Corporate membership in ADEA has increased significantly as well, with 64 dental-industry companies and other organizations now corporate members of ADEA, up from 47 in 2005.

Retention rates across membership groups are high. "Advanced dental-education programs recognize the value of membership once they see the benefits," says Todd Thierer, DDS, MPH, director of the general practice residency program and medical director (Article 28) at the Eastman Institute for Oral Health at the University of Rochester and current ADEA vice president for hospitals and advanced education programs. "Before open membership, the University of Rochester Eastman Institute for Oral Health was an institutional member, but now all of our faculty and staff can join without an additional cost to them. That's a huge plus. It's also great for our residents."

A Better Model for Our Industry

Engaging more members does not by itself resolve the strategic challenges facing dental education. But it has created more collaboration and energy than we envisioned, along with an environment that encourages fresh approaches to and increased interest in shared problems. One example is the institution of ADEA Fall Meetings in 2006, an annual event that brings together disparate groups among membership for separate and joint meetings. Participants characterize the format as a significant opportunity to understand the varying perspectives among their colleagues in dental education.

"As our numbers have grown, open membership has allowed us the opportunity to continually strive to live up to our motto 'The Voice of Dental Education' with more credibility," says Valachovic. "Open membership has given us an opportunity to reach out to more individuals, get their feedback, and better represent the views of our community."

ADEA's open-membership initiative has proven to be an effective, successful structure to create benefits for the institutions and people of allied, predoctoral, and postdoctoral dental education—in short, all of dental education. While this new model will continue to require ADEA to engage in innovative thinking, improve member convergence both face to face and virtually, augment its technological skill, and bolster staff support, we are in a strong position to embrace future opportunities.

Susan Krug, CAE, is associate executive director for member services and Abigail Gorman, MBA, is deputy director and chief operating officer at the American Dental Education Association in Washington, DC. Emails: [email protected], [email protected]

Wide-Open Membership
The American Dental Education Association radically changed its membership model in 2006, eliminating dues for individual members. Naturally, individual memberships increased, but the change also had a positive effect on paid institutional memberships, as well.
2005 2010
Membership Model Paid institutional members; paid individual members Paid institutional
members; free individual members
Individual Member Enrollment 2,200 18,000
Institutional and
Corporate Members
202 330