Creativity and Innovation: Pillars of the Future of Membership

A happy group of people. May 28, 2024 By: Jeanette Gass

Traditional membership models are not working. What can your organization do to rethink its structures to ensure it is not only sustaining but thriving?

In an era when the traditional membership model is no longer viable, and current and prospective members are looking for customizable options—or are purchasing an association’s products and shifting away from membership entirely—associations find themselves looking toward creative and innovative ways to continue to attract members. Organizational sustainability revolves around meeting the customer where they are and ensuring the association’s offerings meet the needs of the communities they serve.

In February 2024, an international panel from the U.S., the UAE, and Europe gathered around the topic of “membership magnetism” at the 2024 Dubai Association Conference. While each of the panelists had their own suggestions for new ways of thinking about membership, the end result was a true global knowledge exchange around membership best practices that lasted long beyond the panel itself. This article provides some takeaways from the panel that can be applied to new ways of thinking about membership models.

The “Freemium” Model

The International Water Resources Association (IWRA) flipped the traditional membership model on its head a few years ago when they started offering basic membership for free. Most membership professionals reading this sentence will think, what do you mean they started offering it for free? That’s not profitable.

Sure, free membership itself does not generate revenue; however, by offering the free option, they have generated organizational awareness and built community around their issues. They are reaching people who may not be able to afford the annual fee but still want to keep abreast of community issues and may volunteer for the association, purchase products, or attend events.

For those that are interested and able, IWRA offers two other paid membership tiers which they market as upgrades to the free membership. In using this model, IWRA expanded its network and opened opportunities for revenue diversification. As a result, organizational stability is less dependent on membership dues which increases organizational sustainability.

What About the Would-Be Members?

Every association has its own models of the typical member; but what if there was no typical member and an association saw value in creating space for groups of would-be members—those people who would be members of the association but there is something prohibiting them from doing so. They could be put off by organizational bylaws and structures, finances, or something else.

In 2021, the International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP) saw an opening to create a space for people with the lived experience of pain to come together and create new educational materials not only for themselves but also for the researchers and clinicians working in pain science and management. While people with pain experience were left out of membership due to dated bylaws, their perspectives and knowledge are invaluable to IASP’s core mission of improving pain management and advancing pain research worldwide. Many research or clinical grant opportunities require a lived experience perspective and IASP created the opportunity for dialogue between those living with pain and those researching and treating it.

Members of the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) are often fired, forced to resign, or otherwise involuntarily separated from their positions due to political or other environmental challenges to working in local government. And anyone working in associations knows that people sometimes simply do not renew due to changes in contact information and inability to log in to their member accounts, which prevents them from receiving notices of expiration or other important association information.

ICMA’s Members in Transition program provides a wide range of resources for those that have recently experienced involuntary job loss. Not only does this program help keep them connected to their peers, but it also helps keep them in contact with the association and leads to future membership renewals or other purchases. While not every association’s membership has this issue, providing resources and continuity for those changing jobs is an idea many associations can replicate to help increase retention.

Building the Membership Organization of the Future

Thinking about new membership models would not be complete without thinking about the next generation of members. Younger members are looking for diverse, inclusive, personal, and meaningful membership experiences. Joining an association is no longer something to do just because everyone else is doing it.

To create the organizations of the future, we need to break down traditional association membership structures to provide opportunity and access for all who want it—while at the same time creating a thoughtful community with useful and desirable resources and competing with others in the space, whether those are associations or for-profit organizations. Sounds complicated, right? It can be, but it does not have to be.

Associations maintain thousands of data points on current, potential, and former members. The key to success is to determine how to effectively use this data to allow the organization to thrive amid the ever-changing, ever-advancing world we live in and to truly meet the needs of the member of today instead of trying to retrofit the organization. What would you do if you could reimagine everything about your membership model? How would you meet the needs of the member?

Jeanette Gass

Jeanette Gass is an association executive focused on global partnerships and development.