CAE® Students Discuss...What Approaches Has Your Association Employed in Researching Member Needs & Which Have You Found Most Beneficial?

By CSAE Students


To research our members’ needs, we use a variety of sources:

  • member surveys
  • permanent online feedback forums
  • timely feedback forms in soft and hard copy (mainly at seminars and courses)
  • best practices and benchmarking with other associations
  • retention calls to find out why members are not renewing
  • contacting potential new members who would benefit and sending information
  • working with governments to determine relevant metrics to present to members and non-members
  • working with StatsCan and other data to determine potential market for membership

As our membership is quite vocal, all the direct feedback methods are quite beneficial. Having been conducted for just over a year now, retention calls and contacting potential new members are also proving effective.


Our association has used online survey tools, electronic polling, anecdotal anddirect feedback from members, and feedback from board and committee volunteers. All research has been coordinated internally.

The online surveys have allowed us to reach a large number of members efficiently and have worked well when we needed to hear from a large group quickly. Feedback from volunteers during committee meetings has been helpful as well. Since I joined the association, I have been trying to speak with members one-on-one either in person or by telephone. I find that members appreciate this personalized contact and I am able to probe to gain a better understanding of their needs however I reach a smaller number of members using this approach.

I would like to expand on the methods we use and see focus groups and interviews with members used to complement the mass research tools that we have been using on a limited basis. I like the idea of consultations for new programs and also incorporating ongoing research into existing vehicles such as newsletters and website polling to obtain member views on particular issues. We have a number of current volunteers and other members interested in volunteering. Having them participate in a member needs focus group may be a good place for us to start expanding that method of research and it would help us prepare for our upcoming activities relating to strategic management and planning.


In terms of approaches to researching member needs, we have used focus groups, committee feedback and surveys, but I think that the most beneficial has always been to actually go on the road via scheduled meetings all over the province in order to meet and greet our members. It is an enormous undertaking - we try to do it every two years, although when there have been very pressing issues, such as the potential admission of a new class of members, we have gone out more often. We usually go out in teams ofsenior managementtogether with a member of the Executive Committee - it means a big commitment of both time and money, and there are inevitable grumblings regarding the time of year we choose, the day of the week, etc. (not to mention weather considerations - Ontario is a very big province in the winter!) but it is very rewarding and we get very good, honest feedback. We truly try to cover the entire province and vary the communities we go to in different years so that all members have a reasonable chance of attending. We try to mirror this in smaller meetings which we offer on member request, often as a breakfast venue so that members may attend, get things off their collective chests and still get to work in order to open their businesses. We have also experimented with webcasts so that the contents of the meetings may be viewed later by those members who were unable to attend.

We also ask for feedback via our bimonthly publication as well as via our website. Although this might be within the context of a proposed change to guidelines or standards of practice, our members are not shy about using the opportunity to tell us what they need at that particular time.


One approach that I have been involved with in a couple associations has been focus group/ information gathering sessions with distinct categories of the membership. While the general surveys and other information gathering have been great to givea baseline, I always found that the face to face work that associations did with targeted parts of the membership offered interesting and "different" information than we were getting from the general surveys.

One example was a session that was drawn together from new professionals in our field. It was in response to a lack of information we were receiving from those who had been working in the field less than ten years. These members were not responding to the regular paper surveys and satisfaction questionnaires that were being sent out. They also were not volunteering for committee or other work within the association and seemed to be a silent minority at AGMs and other gatherings.

Once they were brought together with association staff and an outside facilitator, not only did we learn what they thought, but also why they felt the association had no effective method through which their young voices could be heard. The latter ranged from feelings that they were not taken seriously because they had not "put their time in" to disdain for the antiquated methods being used for data/opinion collection. Frankly, this was a real eye opener.

To break through the barriers that we all face in any membership due to generational and contextual challenges, these focus groups are great, especially if you can do similar work with distinct slices of the membership. It is true they can point out huge differences that seem insurmountable - i.e. how can we offer a product/service when I have ten different needs? But they also can show that on many points divergent groups inside the membership also have a huge amount of commonality in outlook and in what they value.


We do send out member surveys, but the questions are limited to member demographics, not necessarily the wants and needs of our membership with regards to advocacy, education and products and services. I don’t find this particularly beneficial because the questions are limited and so is the response. Although e-mail is a very cost effective way of getting our message out, we run the risk of being treated as SPAM because we bombard our members to new information and advertising every day. The association has to be more creative in getting its message out.

Some years back, we did employ focus groups where members were given the opportunity to discuss the direction of the association and how they would envision it for the future. Other discussion points were our weaknesses and drawbacks. These focus groups gathered viewpoints we might not have necessarily been recognized and became invaluable to our thought process for future endeavours. It also kept us rooted to our members’ values which should be the heart of the association.

In some ways, staff is researching members every day (for those that deal with members) and although the information is being stored, it isn’t really evaluated and/or taken into account before launching new campaigns. The ideal method would be a mix of these types of research (formal and informal). If done properly, this could be the first step to truly understanding our members. In turn, our members will feel that they have a true stake in the direction of the association.


There are several ways that our association researches member needs. We use surveys to get a statistical picture of what members think of our products and services and which products or services need to be developed. We use focus groups to do more in-depth analysis on our strategic priorities. We use interviews to assess people’s opinions on our identity and how that is being communicated. We use an “open microphone” process during meetings and listening forums to give members a chance to air out any thoughts, feelings, suggestions, and criticisms they may have on issues or key achievements made in our association.

What I have discovered is that the approach we use needs to be appropriate for the kind of information we need to gather. The information that is more quantitative in nature or easy to measure is best done with surveys. But, when the information is more qualitative in nature, the focus groups and listening forums are much more helpful. Since the most important information we need to gather is about perceptions and relationships, this demands tools and approaches for qualitative information like focus groups and listening forums. If the issue that’s being explored is more sensitive in nature, we have noticed it is important to use an outside facilitator.

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