Back to Basics: Membership Models

Written by Sharon Kneebone on November 21, 2017

Associations exist for their membership. Every association has a unique way of working to make their members lives easier, and membership structures are the foundation upon which associations work. The question of how to build the best membership structure for an association can be daunting, as it suggests an overhaul of how we do things from the ground up. But it need not be scary. With some careful consideration, learning from other organizations, and research into what your members need, making changes to membership models is a healthy part of an association’s progression.

From my experience in the healthcare association industry as the Executive Director at the National Society for Histotechnology (NSH), below are some of the challenges I see pertaining to membership models today - including dues, customization, and value - and how we are tackling them at my association.

Member dues and the value question

Member dues - it’s a love hate thing. Some think they are too much, some think they are not enough, but we all know they are necessary. The challenge is to keep everyone happy by helping them find value in dues so that they renew at the end of the year.

In my current organization, dues pose an obstacle for our members because histotechnologists sit in the lower tier of earnings in terms of the Bureau of Labor and Statistics. Access to continuing education motivates them the most, so we need to make that element of membership accessible, with learning resources and certification programs available to members of all backgrounds.

The trick is to ensure the value proposition exceeds the price people pay. Find out what members value, provide it, and dues won’t be a barrier. Today, associations often focus on giving a concrete return on investment to their members. This suggests a calculation of a percentage gain on the revenue channeled into a member experience, which can be useful - but in my opinion, value is not only a dollar amount. It is truly a subjective experience of value, and lies in the emotional tie a person feels to their association. Customization of the member experience can help make members feel recognized and valued regardless of how much they are paying to join.

Membership types and customization

In my opinion, membership types should be kept simple. Give members too many categories to choose from and they will be put off, particularly as their career progresses in the duration of their membership. For example, an entry-level professional membership may not be sufficient for a new graduate who quickly ascends the ranks of their industry, with needs progressing from 101-style industry e-books to guides on management and leadership in a short period of time.

In my previous position, I initiated the work for the Institute of Food Technologists’ overhaul of their membership structure. My tenure oversaw the research phase of the project. We began with in-depth research into what the organization could offer beyond a one-size-fits-all membership package. We looked at what people were willing to pay for and what types of service they wanted to access. No member will use every service an association has to offer, and not everyone wants to pay a set price for services they won’t use. Recently, I heard from their CEO that the restructuring that followed and was recently implemented has been a great success.

At the NSH, my current organization, we have three membership categories: student, regular, and retired. We are cognizant of our niche within in the industry and don’t try to be all things to all people. However, what we have right now needs to be re-evaluated and shaken up to proceed into the future with the help of research, data, and planning.

These ideas are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to membership models, and there are as many models as there are associations. Providing value to your members, in whatever form that takes, is the heart of the matter.

Does this topic intrigue you? Sharon spoke on this subject at SURGE 2017, a free virtual summit we hosted over November 7-9th. Click here to access the replay of the session.