Thursday, 17 October 2013

Delivering the Intangible Benefits of Membership – A Conundrum

Associations are in the business of connecting people, whether it is connecting members to government, members to members or members to products and services.  The irony of this is that as society becomes more and more connected, that associations some would argue are becoming irrelevant.  Gone are the days when belonging to a professional association was a given.  Back in the day, belonging came as second nature and it was the ‘stickiness’ of community that drew professionals into the association web of their peers.
Today’s professional is seeking a memorable user experience and the return on investment that they are seeking means that ‘one-size fits all solution’ no longer works.

Understanding and responding to our segmented communities is one of the keys to survival in the 21st century association world.

My association’s mandate is to be the voice of our profession and the federal government and other stakeholders turn to us for information or feedback on particular topics.  While this is a noteworthy objective, it could be argued that it is an intangible benefit that on a macro level benefits our community as a whole but has little immediate practical value for individual members.  One can argue that this benefit accrues to the whole community regardless of membership status and so is taken for granted.

Delivering value to my association’s present and future members means that we are working harder to demonstrate both the tangible and more importantly the intangible benefit to belonging.  ‘Belonging’ is the key word in that last sentence, because ‘belonging’ in my view is the key reason that members will join and remain engaged.  The challenge and opportunity for associations in general is that members and potential members don’t perceive this ‘belonging’ as reason to join and stay and so our challenge continues to be to quantify and market what ‘belonging’ means.   I believe that it entails a complex mix of elements but in essence it is in this complex bonding, that the core of membership value is to be found.  I would argue that it is only after a number of years that this benefit is manifest.  So how do we keep those new members from leaving after the first or second year, when they really have not experienced the full potential of the experience that long standing members value so much?

Many of the professionals who interact with my association are not members, but will identify with the community we serve in many ways.  Two years ago, we threw open our doors to non-members to engage with us and this initiative is being encouraged as a way to ‘test-drive’ the association to potential future members.  Grappling with this large non-member population is an interesting challenge, because while they are not (yet) members, they perceive themselves as having a voice in what goes on in the community.  The opportunities presented are many:  we are now in a position to communicate directly with them on topics that are of interest to them; we can promote opportunities to them to engage with members through research, and through our conference and professional development events and lastly we can offer our corporate members a wider viewing audience for their goods and services.

In this networked and connected world of ours, it can be argued that our members no longer need us to associate and collaborate.   I would argue that associations still offer a unique and valuable opportunity to bring people, ideas, products and services together.  Our challenge continues to be to offer the potential, new and longstanding member an experience where they feel valued and where they perceive that their collaborative efforts will support the community, strengthen relationships with stakeholders and government to better serve Canadians.  The associations that will survive and thrive will be distinguished by their courage and creativity and more importantly, members and non-members will have internalized the notion that the value of membership rests not just with tangible benefits but also in the intangible value of belonging.  Belonging means there is an interactive relationship between the association and the member, both are benefiting in different ways, with the net result being that the association and the community becoming stronger and more resilient.

Geraldine Hyland CAE is Member Services Manager with the Canadian Library Association.  She has worked for over fifteen years in charities and not for profit sector and received her CAE in 2004.

No comments:

Post a Comment