By Matthew Bugnacki, Membership Management Specialist
Recently, while I was walking with my ten year old son around our neighborhood, we discovered a tree house that seemed to be falling out of its respective tree. The tree house was not uncared for. In fact, some of the boards seemed new while some seemed a bit worn with age. My son easily identified that there was a substantial problem with the tree house as it looked warped and about ready to collapse. This led to some very intellectual discussion as we continued our walk. I began by asking what he thought could be done to help the ailing tree house. His initial thoughts were to refortify the house using more wood and supporting the areas that were weak. A fair assessment for a ten old, however, this had already been done and you could see that it was only slowing the inevitable collapse.
This story came to mind when reading a recent book by Sarah Sladek, “The End of Membership as We Know it.” Sladek not only reveals ways to assess your association and its lifespan, but how to prevent it from becoming a dilapidated tree house being held up by a few temporary fixes - failing to adapt to the overwhelming change happening beneath the structure.
Sometimes in our work with associations, we see associations facing declining memberships and limited budgets with no idea how to turn their membership around. Sarah traces the source of the decline to two key areas: demographic shifts and a failure to adopt new technology. She confronts the change as a necessity for any association that hopes to move into the future. “Generations X and Y have completely different values, interests, needs, and wants from the generations before them” states Sladek. Not only is the newest generation entirely different, the greatest generation is rapidly retiring. As they retire and leave the workforce, the needs they had for associations decrease, creating less demand for yesterday’s association. She identifies that many associations have been plagued by doing things the same way for years and not meeting the growing needs of its members. Technology, including membership database software, websites, and social networking, is also a major contributing factor. The association which had once been a vehicle for networking and distribution of information has been replaced by the Internet and social media.
Sarah offers great insights for the association executive seeking to build a dominant, revenue-generating organization. I found that her assessment of the life expectancy of your association was one of the best insights in the book. Being able to accurately assess your member retention rate, loss rate and turnover can help you determine how long your association can exist without serious change. It can also help you plan ahead and accurately look at your association’s future before it is too late. Like the tree house, systems can be put into place to help adapt to change and deliver support to the changing structure. By embracing the need for change, you can begin to focus on ways to deliver better benefits and more value to your membership.
This topic was the focus of a recent blog post from a WebLink team members. Tao Stadler points out that retention of current members returns much more value than recruiting new members. Utilizing a robust member management software like WebLink Connect, integrated with your association website, can help you analyze your membership activity, membership dues revenue, and sources of non-dues revenue. It can also create opportunities to deliver new value to your members. Often associations try to out-recruit their declining membership renewals instead of focusing on what would stop the decline.
Sarah discusses ways to reengage and redefine your membership, address membership dues, and build “the must have association of the next century”. However, having the right tools can make this journey much easier and remove the emotion of unseating sacred cows. By using industry best practices and reporting, you can eliminate the guesswork of what is working and what isn’t. Focusing on what’s important to the next generation of your association, you can focus on delivering value instead of serving as an event planner for like-minded individuals. Look for association management software that can help you understand your membership without costly or timely configuration.
Engage your membership through non-dues revenue advertising programs or by driving business to their doorstep. (See Joe Scaggs recent post on using your website to drive business for your members.) Secondly, read Sarah’s book and learn about new ways to grow and retain your membership; she will help you identify if your association is in trouble and give you some key ideas on how to implement effective change that applies to your specific association. In the end, your association’s success or failure is up to you. How you choose to implement change and adapt to the demographic shifts and fast growing technology will determine whether you have 5 more years or 50. But one thing is certain; associations that are proactive in confronting this change and adapting the model are finding new ways to succeed. Their tree house in a sense has been redesigned using modern engineering and technology to keep it from collapse.
What is your organization doing to stay current?