Few Easy Answers Ahead to Why Belong?

Every association must convincingly answer the question why belong? to attract and retain members, and in our complex and conflicted times, the answers will not be as simple as good association management research and practice once assured.

Certified association executives have the fundamentals of the member value proposition down. ASAE Foundation survey research shared in Decision to Join confirms general patterns and trends. Association member surveys offer insight into specific experiences and products members value. By tracking and analyzing past behavior, effective association management systems can even help characterize and anticipate what individual members may want.

But as my financial advisor routinely observes in his financial forecasts, strong headwinds ahead create challenges.   

Associations must attract members from an increasingly diverse population, typically not yet well represented within their current membership. This makes diversity and inclusion a top strategic priority for associations. Whether they will succeed in unifying the interests of a diverse membership will depend on overcoming the opposing forces of polarization, nationalism, and tribalism. It would be a mistake not to anticipate potential resistance or backlash.

Members are seeking more personalized experiences, and their associations are acquiring the technology tools to deliver on that desire. However, associations shouldn’t lose sight of a unifying mission and purpose essential to a cohesive community. As more associations interact with members around their personal priorities and interests, they risk shifting attention away from aspects of their organizations that serve the common good or meet needs that members have not yet recognized or disclosed.

Belonging to an association promotes a sense of personal identity. Today work and life boundaries are so blurred that organizations can no longer assume they serve either professional or personal needs. Socializing is being reshaped around the realities of our blurred and busy lives.

How and where members work is more dynamic. What a corporate employee needs can be quite different from what someone in the growing ranks of independent workers and freelancers might need or be able to fund.  And as corporations grow even larger through mergers and consolidations, these mega-corporations may not see associations as an essential resource for professional development, advocacy, or business development.

Too many association boards believe their greatest membership challenge is attracting the next generation. The greater challenge is the changing social and work environment in which all prospective members live. To get to useful answers about why belong in 2017 and beyond, associations must evaluate their tried and true reasons against these challenging headwinds. The fundamentals of belonging may prevail but only if they are reinterpreted and updated to adapt to this changing context.