Declining membership in professional organizations and what you can do about it

Heather Nolan
April 26, 2021
Declining membership in professional organizations and what you can do about it

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. 

Why are professional organizations seeing a decline in membership?

While there are many factors behind declining membership, financial uncertainty and struggles to connect with younger members are common issues for membership-based organizations. 

Cost and financial uncertainty

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. 

Struggles to connect with younger demographics

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.

What to do about membership decline

Combatting membership decline in professional organizations requires forward-thinking and a willingness to change and adapt new strategies. 

Maintain engagement with existing members

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. 

Plan for tomorrow’s members

  1. Young professionals are eager to learn and prove themselves in their industry. Newly or several years out of college, they’re likely earning lower salaries and can’t always afford the price of an annual professional membership. Provide flexible pricing options and affordable rates to attract this demographic. 
  2. Start engaging early. Whether it’s through scholarships, internships, educational curriculum, or other programs, begin building relationships with high school and college students to invest in your future members. 
  3. Be accommodating to potential members going through career transitions. It can be intimidating to join a professional association in an industry you’re new to. As an association leader, you should be aware of career shifters and make your community accessible and welcoming to these kinds of members. 
  4. Understand which platforms your future members use and what’s important to them. That’s where you should establish a presence to build relationships. 

Be sure to check out our facing the future worksheet to tally how well your organization is prepared for the next generation. 

Reframe your perception of growth

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. 

Adopt the Open Garden approach

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:

  • Members who pay dues
  • Volunteers who are deeply committed to your organization
  • Interested people who support your efforts
  • The general public, who are occasionally interested in what you do, depending on the news cycle

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: 

  • Work for your association
  • Visit and learn from your website
  • Attend or sponsor your events
  • Subscribe to your newsletters
  • Promote and recommend your association to their networks
  • Download or purchase your resources

Pivot to other means of generating revenue

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:

  • Host paid events, workshops, and webinars
  • Create an active YouTube channel that’s eligible for monetization
  • Sell branded merchandise
  • Hold fundraisers like raffles or tournaments
  • Create a job board with paid job listings
  • Hold online learning courses
  • Sell website ads 

MORE: 3 ways to generate non-dues revenue 

Future-proof your membership-based organization

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.

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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.

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Heather Nolan

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.

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