Is your association experiencing a decline in membership?
In a report published by Wild Apricot, surveyors found 68% of organizations had difficulty growing their organization in 2019 — 11% of those shrunk, and 25% experienced no growth. The remaining 32% grew only 1-5%.
Declining membership in professional organizations is a reality for many association leaders. But why? And what can you do to reverse the trend? In this post, we’ll explore a few causes of membership decline and what you can do about it.
While there are many factors behind declining membership, financial uncertainty and struggles to connect with younger members are common issues for membership-based organizations.
Even before the furloughs and layoffs ushered in by the COVID-19 pandemic, economic instability was a major concern for potential members. For example, a 2017 study on membership trends by Kenes Group noted, “The decision to become a member of a professional association has always been a factor of perceived value, that is, what is the cost of membership and what benefits are obtained in return. The changes to the economic climate have meant that individuals place greater emphasis on the perceived value of any membership and examine in more detail if membership of an association provides value to them.”
Essentially, many potential members aren’t sure what the future holds for them financially, so they need to ensure the benefit of membership is worth the price. Associations are also under pressure to compete with free resources and prove why a paid membership is more valuable than joining a free LinkedIn community or Facebook group.
The millennial generation has been the largest generational group in the American workforce since 2016. However, many associations and professional organizations are struggling to reach and relate to these younger audiences. Understanding this generation’s values, addressing their concerns and pain points, and communicating in a way that resonates with them is important to win them over.
Combatting membership decline in professional organizations requires forward-thinking and a willingness to change and adapt new strategies.
Retaining existing members is your low-hanging fruit. It’s a lot more cost-effective to keep your current audience happy than it is to start fresh attracting, nurturing, and converting a new one.
Stay in touch with your existing members, and hold their hand every year to remind them to renew. Canceling a membership you never use doesn’t require a second thought, so be sure to target your existing members with engagement campaigns showing them how to maximize their membership.
Be sure to check out our facing the future worksheet to tally how well your organization is prepared for the next generation.
Keep in mind that membership numbers aren’t the only way to grow your association. In fact, experts suggest that approaching your constituencies as only members vs. nonmembers is an easy way to stifle your opportunities. Additionally, thinking outside the box to find other ways to generate revenue can help your association grow even when membership is on the decline.
When considering membership decline and association membership trends, try not to get too tied up in the thought of members versus nonmembers. The truth is your association’s publics go a lot further than these two categories.
Amith Nagarajan’s Open Garden approach turns these two audience divisions into four:
As you can see, approaching your organization from the restrictive lens of members vs. nonmembers eliminates important stakeholders from the equation. People who are not members may still:
As we evaluate declining membership in professional associations, keep in mind that there are other ways to drive revenue in your organization than just membership dues.
The Wild Apricot report showed that most membership-based organizations either slightly increased or experienced the same levels of revenue in 2019 as the previous year. According to the report, revenue leaders were those who were less likely to rely on their members for funding.
This creates a more sustainable path forward for your organization. Here are a few ideas for increasing revenue that don’t depend on dues:
If you’re a victim of the trend of declining membership in professional organizations, don’t panic. It’s not a dire situation, but it is a reason to innovate. Rethink how you engage your existing members, don’t neglect younger audiences, and start brainstorming creative ways of revenue generation that aren’t dependent on dues.
Sidecar members have access to exclusive resources that help them buck the trend of declining membership in professional organizations. Our online courses and worksheets will guide you through defining your member of 2030, implementing the Open Garden approach, and more. Find out how we can help you and your organization grow.
If you’re ready to increase your membership organization’s revenue, connect with an entire community of purpose-driven leaders and grow yourself, we’re ready to help you do it.Learn More
Heather Nolan is a marketing specialist at Sidecar. A former journalist and social media manager, Heather lives in New Orleans with her husband, son, and grumpy rescue dog.