Membership organizations have the ability to meet -- and even exceed -- the needs of members; often, however, they are based on historic governance and operational models. Membership organizations are a great approach to linking people with similar needs. These needs may change over time, though, which then requires organizational change.
Many for-profit, non-member organizations are popping up and meeting the needs of people originally met by membership organizations. Communication and delivery methods historically used by many membership organizations have since become obsolete. Mail out flyers, user-unfriendly websites, and lengthy text documents are something that seems agonizing for many people these days. Because it's not their focus, membership organizations typically have a difficult time keeping up with the newest technological frameworks, marketing strategies, and leadership models. Being open to change and ready to take risks will support membership organizations in their quest to become sustainable and exceed members' expectations.
Because membership organizations often fill a unique demand, there is a gap in the research literature about how to enhance membership. Case studies offer suggestions on areas of focus to become a stronger organization. The common factor in any study is the necessity to understand your organization.
What does your organization do well, and what does it not do well?
If you have identified a need to enhance your membership, you need to first understand to what degree does your organization need to change? Once you have answered this question, you can strategically develop a plan to enhance your membership.
To build a sustainable membership organization, it has been suggested that minor changes are often not enough. Minimal modifications may not be felt or even recognized by members, and may have only a minor and short-term effect on membership. To make a sizeable enhancement to membership, sizeable modifications need to be made.
Important areas for membership organizations that will allow meaningful change are: a dedicated and passionate leadership (executives and board members), an adaptable funding model and operations, the resources and capacity to develop effective services/products, ongoing network of organizations to learn from, and an effective technology strategy.
Understanding Your Members
The following areas can be thoroughly assessed and identified for advancement:
- Governance model;
- Enhance staff expertise;
- Define member market;
- Identify required changes to products/services;
- Build a strong technology framework.
Within each of these areas there are factors you need to consider:
- Time: These days, people have far less time to do things they don’t want to do -- and even things they want to do. How can you reduce the amount of time board members are required to spend on the organization? How can you modify your services to save your members' time,?
- Value Expectations: What are your members' expectations of the organization and the services or resources you provide?
- Specialization: What does your organization specialize in, and what value do you bring to your members?
- Member Differences: Who are your members and are there generational differences between them?
- Competition: Who is your competition? How do these organizations compete (e.g., time, membership, resources)?
- Technology: How is it being used and how can it be used?
- History: What actions, values, and operations are in place because of history versus practicality or more effective processes?
Understanding your members' needs, and how your organizational operations and governance meet those needs is imperative. Your willingness to take risks will set the stage for change and ideally support membership enhancement.
Do you understand your members' needs?
- How do you know them?
- Can you gather this information any other way?
- How can you define your membership market? What are their needs?
Do your services/resources meet your members' needs?
Have your member's needs changed over time?
- Are your operations/governance based on historical methods?
Have your services/resources changed in conjunction with members' changing needs?
What areas of the organization can be addressed to meet, or exceed, members' needs?
- Defined member market
- Programs, resources, or services
- Technology framework
What kind of risk are you willing or not willing to take to enhance your membership?
Kristen lwin is currently serving as the Executive Director of Practice and Research Together (PART), a national non-profit membership organization focused on knowledge translation for the field of child welfare. In her current position, Kristen has lead the development of a curriculum focused on promoting research evidence use in child welfare workers and supervisors, focused on promoting the learning culture within a child welfare organization.
Kristen is working towards her Doctorate in social work at the University of Toronto, and has previously earned a Master of Social Work Degree, Bachelor of Social Work Degree, Hon. Bachelor of Arts Degree (psychology), and diploma from the Assaulted Women and Children Counsellor Advocate Program. Kristen has experience in child welfare program evaluation and research and as a child welfare practitioner and in the criminal justice system. Kristen is interested in organizational behaviour, qualifications for effective practice in child welfare, and decision-making research and implications for service users.
Adding value and implementing positive change for your membership is the core of a membership organization's survival. In his book, Creating Value for Members: A Strategic Guide for Associations, Donald Belfall addresses how boards, CEOs, and staff need to work to improve value delivery to and management for membership.