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A move from membership to products and services – is a structural change the solution to dwindling member figures?

TAS has recently featured a number of articles that discuss the Association of the future – with the general acceptance being that for member based not-for-profits to stay relevant, they need to evolve. But what does this evolution entail and how is it best embraced?

The answer just may be very simple! Give your members what they want. Yes, many Boards will be under the impression that they are already doing this, but I mean give them the power to choose exactly what they want, without the irrelevant extras.

Managing Director Francis Child recently returned from ASAE’s 2016 Great Ideas in Association Management in Hong Kong where one of the key learnings was the move in Associations from a member based structure, to a product and services structure.  In a nutshell the move would mean that Associations retain their relevance whilst members can pick and choose the ‘benefits’ that they specifically need.

Individual members, or corporate members, have varying needs. Some want face to face events, others are seeking tailored professional development courses, accreditation, networking opportunities or just ready access to information relating to their chosen field. But how many want all of them and does a large annual fee for a membership that includes the whole kit and caboodle devalue the individual elements? The answer, unfortunately, is probably yes. If one attractive member benefit is packaged with six irrelevant ones, it is unlikely to retain its appeal enough to warrant an annual member fee.

However, if an Association were to offer a pick ‘n mix of member benefits, where each benefit is available as a standalone, or as part of a package then its appeal will become far greater.

Not only that, but allowing the public to customise their member benefits may also grow audiences. Stakeholders who sit on the fringes of an industry may find one in five events is relevant to them whereas the cost of being an annual member, and what said membership offers, may not be.

The transition to a product and services structure would mean that the integrity and reputation of a society would become paramount to ensure that an Association is regularly recognised as the leading source of information pertaining to their individual field.

The slightly more complicated side of things comes into play with the governance of an Association and how the Board operates. A move away from a member based structure would mean the Board are no longer being guided by a democratic member vote. This requires strategic thought, and is where the existing constitution comes into play. A current constitution should note the goals and purpose of an Association and should be used as an ethical roadmap for a Board to follow.

But the issue remains that a Board themselves would require voting in, Presidents need electing and it should fall to the industry they work for to cast these votes.

Being realistic, it is unlikely an Association would decide overnight to scrap their member structure and just offer a list of products and services. As noted in the opening paragraph, this is an evolution, it’s going to take time.

The most likely initial change would see Associations start to offer annual memberships and customisable memberships, allowing potential and existing members to choose from a list as to what their membership would entail. This would negate the concerns of governance, as the member structure would remain in place. It would however potentially appeal to a greater number of people – established members and millennials alike.

That isn’t to say the governance should be ignored, all business, for profit or not, must constantly evolve to stay relevant. It isn’t a new challenge, it’s the nature of business.

One thing is for sure though, Associations must not fear change, they must embrace it. After all, the alternative to evolution may be extinction.