Keeping Pace with Membership Trends

a large hand holding members in its palm September 8, 2016

Recent ASAE Foundation research examines the changing nature of membership to help associations understand the benefits that drive membership and engagement.

Membership is fundamental to the function of associations, but recent shifts in member behavior indicate a need for an examination of the future of association membership.

Over the last 10 years, ASAE and the ASAE Foundation conducted several studies that explore why people choose to belong to associations, what associations do to continue to attract and retain members, and how those engagement strategies may change in the future. Findings from these studies—The Decision to Join, The Decision to Volunteer, Exploring the Future of Membership, and 10 Lessons for Cultivating Member Commitment—indicate a number of key drivers for membership success.

Meet Members Where They Are

Many associations are trying to meet the demands of a changing workforce with more customized membership options, offering individuals the ability to select what is most relevant to them at a particular point in their life or career. In Innovations in Membership Engagement: A Benchmarking Study, Avenue M researchers found that some associations are allowing individual members to create a customized collection of member benefits to match their needs and interests. The study cited a membership overhaul by AIGA, the professional association for design, which changed its benefits structure to allow members to pay only for the benefits they wanted. AIGA subsequently doubled both its membership and its number of chapters.

Involvement Alters Perspective

The Decision to Volunteer confirmed that volunteers are among the most dedicated and engaged members of their associations. Volunteers are also more likely to promote membership to nonmembers. Associations can expand the value volunteering provides to the individual and to the organization by creating opportunities for more, and particularly newer, members to get involved. Associations that find they often have the same people in the room can diversify their volunteer pools by recruiting members in different career and life phases to serve on boards and committees, while ad hoc volunteering options appeal to individual interests and serve as low-commitment opportunities for first-time volunteers.

AIGA changed its benefits structure to allow members to pay only for the benefits they wanted. It subsequently doubled its membership and its number of chapters.

Curated Content

Now that the internet makes volumes of content available with just a click of a mouse, associations may no longer be the primary source of professional information for their members. This does not mean that associations need to start churning out more material. Instead, associations can serve members by curating the available content.

One challenge of the internet era is that, with so much information available, it can be difficult to identify the most reliable and relevant content. In Exploring the Future of Membership, researchers found that through curation, associations offer their members value by "separating the wheat from the chaff," pointing members to the resources they can use to do their jobs. Instead of competing with, and potentially getting lost in, the constant flow of content, associations can seek out the sources that best complement their research, learning, and advocacy agendas and share them with members, retaining their reputations as repositories of knowledge for their industries.

Value Remains Key

While the ways people engage with associations are shifting, the benefits associations provide—with regard both to personal growth and to the good of the field as a whole—still drive the membership choice. In The Decision to Join, association members and nonmembers assessed the importance of different individual and field-wide benefits of membership to their decision to join an association. Specific individual benefits—networking, access to current information on one's field, and professional development opportunities—were rated highest overall, but "good of the order" benefits—including promotion of the field, the creation and maintenance of standards and codes of ethics, and advocacy—were rated higher as a group than personal benefits. Delivering on both individual and whole-field benefits will encourage member retention and membership growth.

Members and potential members believe in the value of association work, but static models of membership and benefits may no longer appeal to their needs. By making adjustments to reflect their communities' interests, associations will be able to position the benefits they offer to engage current and future members.