Membership in Freefall? What Now?

By: Sarah McIntosh

If your association doesn’t benefit from mandatory membership, creating value and engaging members is always top of mind. So, if engagement is low and membership is dropping, what now? Whatever you do, don’t panic! It’s a situation that many associations will find themselves in at some point and recovery is possible.

DO remember that retention begins when membership does. Retention should always be top of mind, not just at renewal time! Indeed, the process is “influenced by the efforts and actions of the entire organization.”[i] Membership engagement begins from day one. That first year will greatly influence how members see your organization and how much they value their membership.

DO connect with your members. They are your greatest resource! And they’re usually very happy to tell you what they think. If engagement is low, you may need to pursue them on a more personal level than through the regular newsletter communication. However, it’s absolutely worth the extra time and effort. If you don’t already have one, introduce an exit survey and collect as much data as you can directly from the source. Remember that what members value differs depending on who each member is, and is also likely different depending on how long they’ve been a member.[ii] New professionals aren’t looking for the same perks as those almost ready to retire. Recognize that solutions will not be one-size-fits-all.

DON’T mistake silence for complacency or contentment. If you’re having difficulty attracting and retaining members, consider this: renewal rates are not an accurate measurement of member satisfaction.[iii] Often, many members are unaware of the full benefits their membership has to offer. An engaged member is much more likely to understand the benefits and take advantage of them, and much more likely to renew.

DON’T segment your membership. You can’t please everyone all the time but you can stop treating them as a homogenous group. One of the current challenges many associations are facing is the value split between baby boomers and millennials. Don’t be afraid to pursue different methods of engagement and offer different programming to both (as resources allow, of course). And do beware of only considering averages. While they can be helpful, they won’t help you discover outliers. Examine your membership data in a variety of ways, and do so across several years if you can. Data is hugely helpful, but only if it’s used correctly!

DO reach out to other associations. There’s a reason we return again and again to benchmarking. No, they may not want to share the gritty details of their own struggles. (Nor may their struggles be public knowledge.) However, most associations are happy to answer questions such as “what is your most effective membership engagement tool?” and “what product/service is most valued by your young professional members?” etc. You can also benefit from readymade resources and surveys, such as those conducted by CSAE or, for example, the Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel!

DON’T throw money into the marketing budget without first understanding the root of the problem. Why is membership dropping? And exactly what is it that you’re selling? We should all heed the advice: “member retention is a function of both marketing, and more importantly, a great membership experience. If you can’t keep your members, then you are wasting money recruiting them until you fix the association.”[iv] We all know it’s more expensive to recruit new members than to retain existing ones, so address membership value before you begin that new recruitment campaign. Retention first, recruitment second.

DO set and measure Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). To successfully execute any plan or strategy you must always include KPIs. Otherwise, you won’t know how you’re doing. Set measurable, achievable goals so you can see how any new or altered plans are affecting your membership numbers. Remember – you must be prepared to change or adapt plans when something clearly isn’t working.

DO consider getting some help. Whether it’s hiring a membership engagement specialist or an outside consultant or perhaps investing in some training for staff, you may need to accept that the expertise to solve the root of the problem lies outside your current staff. That’s okay, but be prepared to invest in possible solutions.

DON’T make drastic changes spontaneously. Reckless promotional campaigns, significant membership dues discounts or promises that can’t be fulfilled are examples of drastic and (typically) unsustainable actions. Such dramatic changes may lead to even more disappointed members, as well as strain relationships with current members who paid full price, etc.  Shelly Alcorn describes this as “Leadership obsessed with recruitment at all costs.”[v] Remember, if you alienate your current membership, the cost could be quite high. Do your research before making changes: conduct a value assessment, conduct a member survey, do a benchmarking study, etc. Don’t simply cut costs or launch programs without first understanding what the issues are and how best to engage your members. At best, it isn’t sustainable, and at worst, you may anger your current members. (This is a problem you may encounter in good times as well but remember, the best recruitment is both manageable and sustainable.)

Likely, there isn’t just one reason that your membership numbers and/or engagement are falling. Similarly, there likely isn’t just one solution to the problem as well. The bottom line is, consider your current values and resources and create a plan. Don’t rush into isolated changes that aren’t sustainable or needed. And don’t hide your head in the sand! Change may be coming but you can manage that change if you get out ahead of it.

Sarah McIntosh is the Manager, Membership & Certification at the Canadian Association of Management Consultants. In 2017, she was presented with the CSAE Donna Mary Shaw award for recognition of leadership potential. She is currently serving a second term as Treasurer for Annex Cat Rescue, a Toronto charity. She has a Master of Letters degree from the University of Glasgow and is nearly finished her CAE!

Works Cited

Alcorn, Shelly. “How the Mighty Fall: Associations at Risk.” Association Subculture, 2010. Accessed online July 6, 2018.

Best Association. “Should our Organization Focus on Getting New Members or Retaining Them?” Accessed online, June 30, 2018

Jacobs, Sheri. The Art of Membership. American Society of Association Executives. Jossey-Bass, 2014

Toth, Lorili, ed. Member Services. American Society of Association Executives, 2001.

[i] Toth, 50.

[ii] Jacobs, 9.

[iii] Toth, 53

[iv] Best Association, online.

[v] Alcorn, online.