Monday, December 7, 2009

Peace Sells....But Who's Buying - Association Membership?

What do you mean I don't support your system?
I go to court when I have to...
What do you mean I couldn't be President
Of the United States of America?
Tell me something, it's still 'We the people,' right?
If there's a new way
I'll be the first in line
But, it better work this time.....Megadeth, Peace Sells...But Who's Buying?

The Short of It
  • Eliminating membership dues is a popular topic
  • One of Acronym's "big ideas" questions
  • I like the thinking going into the continuing debate
  • Good points on both sides 
  • But what if we take a purely ideological look at "pay to play"
  • Maybe it's bigger than just us
  • And maybe it's time associations did something about it
The Long of It

I really like the discussion that has been occurring on the topic of eliminating membership dues in associations.  I think a lot of good points are being made on both sides of the debate.  To read more check out these blog posts - RIP: Membership by Scott Briscoe from ASAE's Acronym   and to prove the idea has been around for a while check out a great post from Jason Della Roca - Free Association .

I would like to add my voice to the debate from my personal perspective.  Before we go down this road let me quickly identify what I am not: I am not anti-profit, I am not above paying a significant price for value and I am a realist.  I also believe associations have immense value.  I am also firmly in the no-dues camp because it is my belief that (drum roll please).....

"Pay to play" is stifling innovation, undermining progress and damaging our democracy.

Yes, I am taking a shot across the bow at the philosophical concept of "pay to play."  It's a bedrock value in the society we live in. It's the reason our political system is populated with only those who have the funds to run, the reason brilliant minds are locked out of the "right" educational institutions and the reason why corporate America is winning the fight on even the most basic of regulations in spite of their roles in the recent financial disaster.  The heart of the current health insurance debate comes down to pay to play - if you can afford it, you can have coverage and if you can't then you just didn't try hard enough.  (We all know how the game is played....those votes were bought in a campaign long ago in a Congress far, far away...but I digress.)

In associations, we routinely promulgate the idea of pay to play.  Our members pay a fee to gain entrance to our club.  If an individual doesn't have the money then we choose not to grace them with the pleasure of our company. On the other hand, we will take small bribes in the form of "non-member rates" to allow prospective members to come in and take a look around.  At that point we attempt to herd them into belonging and haze them if they don't (see, if you were one of us, you could have that nifty "member" ribbon for YOUR badge, instead of the "NONmember" ribbon which we admit, should probably just have a target painted on it instead).  

We salve our conscience with the idea that the member is paying us in order to subsidize all the fabulous things we do for them and the collective contribution is a way to equitably distribute our costs of doing business amongst those who choose to bask in all of our long range strategic planning objectives glory.

But isn't this question bigger than all of that?

Humans affiliate in an attempt to find like-minded individuals.  Filling that psychological need in a positive and just environment is one pathway to sociological and institutional stability.  What if associations took a larger view of their ability to impact society and decided to open the gates to all?  Suddenly, the ability to pay to play no longer plays a role in fulfilling our members desire to find each other.  At that point, the artificial barriers lose the attributes of just or unjust.  Affiliation becomes less of jumping a hurdle and more a matter choosing to purposefully participate.

When we were younger, we didn't have to "buy" our way into a group of like-minded friends. We naturally affiliated with those who shared our values and interests.  That did not mean there weren't financial rewards to be had from our individual groups.  We invested time and money into the outward trappings of whatever group we were in.  We bought music, watched movies, or disavowed movies and read books (or did both so we could grouse about how the movie butchered the books), we went to theatre, paid high prices to obtain bootleg recordings from overseas and (more importantly) wore the uniform.  Did we pay a lot of money and invest a lot of resources to identify with our people?  You bet we did.  We paid for concert tickets, we bought a lot of pizza at all-night talk fests, we raided refrigerators and camped on couches.  The authenticity of those interactions is what many of us continue to look for even while juggling families, kids and the occasional dog, cat and/or fish. 

Now that we are older, we are asked to "buy" our way into a group of like-minded professionals, some of whom we are told may actually become friends in our "network."  Just by the very nature of the transaction, we are forcing financial considerations to play a role in the human desire to affiliate.  That does one of two things: makes people feel welcome only if they pony up and/or makes people feel like the cover charge was enough and $6 per drink just isn't fair.  I wonder how many people we have missed who chose not to use the toll road but found another way around?

When members are forced to pay to play we are really asking them to support every, single thing we do, however diverse.  In an increasingly customized world, that concept is becoming increasingly challenging to sell.  We are spending money by the fistful on communications and marketing pieces trying to justify the value of membership to each individual person, hoping they pick just ONE out of the huge list of reasons why they should be a member without seeing the look on their faces when they look at the list and instead realize they don't actually care about half of what we say we do for them.  #FAIL

Pay to play gives our members the opportunity, every time they see that dues renewal, to walk away and purposefully disengage from our community. What if we don't make them feel like they have to make a conscious decision to walk away from us?  What if we can create opportunities to "see other people" for a while instead of breaking up entirely?  A dues system does not allow that kind of flexibility.  As Heidi says, "You are either in, or you are out."

By forcing people to pay to play we end up with the weird, unintended consequence of encouraging them to use social shorthand in order to identify themselves to others.  They begin to see knowledge of the organization as a sort of secret that they paid for and others shouldn't have unless they pay too.  I am a "member of" can actually depersonalize a person's commitment to our organizations while they use a cryptic "insiders" vocabulary only other members recognize and non-members only learn once they pay to gain entry into the system.  When people learn to identify each other based on an artificially created line between "member" and "non-member" the subject of "why BE a member" rarely comes up at all.  What if we eliminated the line between "member" and "nonmember" and simply identified ourselves as fans of an organization's professional development programs or their lobbying team? Suddenly social interaction becomes based in active support for the values the organization embodies not the passive act of paying to play. It's different, it's more personal and it's not exclusive to only those who paid the money to be "in the know."

Don't get me wrong.  As idealistic as I can be, there is a rational, pragmatic side to me as well.  If implemented on a wide scale, this will truly revolutionize the association community and eliminating membership dues does not come without a clear, daunting and somewhat frightening mandate to innovate in a thousand other ways to successfully implement the change.  This issue is complex.  We can't simply eliminate what may be our largest source of revenue and still do business the same way we always have.  We may have to look at other radical business innovations in order to accomplish such a goal.  Lowering our overhead by establishing virtual offices (with all of the hair-raising management issues that would represent), moving into the cloud and away from brick and mortar, eliminating staff members, etc.  We may need to start publishing our operating budgets (gasp!?!?) and asking members to financially donate to specific programs in order to keep them alive.  Our boards will have to get real in a hurry if they see programs can't attract enough donations to keep them in play despite their assertions regarding said programs vital importance.  (The dirty little secret may be they never really were!)  What do you do about the member you must expel due to bad behavior if they didn't have to pay to be there in the first place?  Work through your bylaws.  What do you do about revenue streams being shared in a national/state/regional association structure?  Renegotiate affiliation agreements.  The point is, just because it would be challenging and complicated, doesn't mean it can't be done.

Before we all collectively freak out over the type of monumental institutional change elimination of dues will require, let's talk for a moment about the real possibilities of eliminating pay to play and see if the positives seem compelling enough to continue the conversation.....
  • Availing ourselves of an enormous talent pool, regardless of income status
  • Including people who, for whatever reason, chose not to pay to join but have valuable contributions they are willing and able to make
  • Bringing an influx of energy into our current organizational models
  • Encouraging students to join creating life-long affiliations  
  • Accelerating innovation in science, technology and the arts by focusing on the knowledge itself
  • Sharing ideas becoming paramount over being part of an "exclusive group"
  • Exclusivity becoming based on talent and skill set
  • Competing organizations focusing on program content instead of  bodies paying dues dollars
  • Events feeling more like communities and less like Tupperware parties 
  • Stopping local, state and national affiliates from undermining each other in competition for dues dollars  
  • Getting real and very transparent about what we do because we are no longer depending on a passive influx of money
  • Embracing the totality of our professions, good actors and bad and being forced to talk ethics every day
  • Creating legions of fans who think we're "cool" instead of customers who coldly evaluate us purely on the basis of ROI
And can we talk?  By eliminating membership we may eliminate "membership" lists which some of us don't want to be on anymore anyway.  We connect with our peers in ways that make the membership directory a thing of the past.  It seems like the only people who are using membership lists are people who are trying to sell us stuff we don't want at a members only discount we don't need. (Competition caused by economic conditions has eaten into members only discounts for years now, and they are rarely competitive enough to get members fired up and excited).  Now I realize how dangerous it is to be in these waters since endorsed vendor relationships may very well be the next, largest revenue source off of membership and events.  However, renegotiating endorsement contracts could include evolving from "price per item sold" or "number of members enrolled" model to a flat fee endorsement model like a sponsorship model.  There is still cha-ching to be had, we just need to be creative about it.

Eliminating pay to play?  It's democracy.  It's community.  It's free and open.  It's welcoming. It's the spirit membership promises but can no longer deliver on.  It tolerates new ideas and innovations.  It expands our reach.  It makes us different.  It's hard.  It's difficult.  It's worth it.

Yeah, if there's a new way, I'll be the first in line.

But it better work this time.

Megadeth disables embedding codes on YouTube.  Despite my annoyance at this fact here is the link to the video if you are dying to watch it.  :D 


  1. Ah, but we always have had to "buy" our way into groups in one way or another except maybe at the very, very youngest ages at children. Child psychology and organizational development has long documented the way groups make us "pay" through conforming to group norms, seeking peer acceptance or approval, etc. For professional associations that see themselves through the lens of a guild, that type of investment will probably always be required to some extent.

  2. Jeffrey -

    Great point, sir. There is always a price to be paid whether financial or social to access any group.

    Even in the theory of eliminating dues, I'm suggesting we "re-route" revenue through other avenues, so eventually a price will be exacted. I think what I am focused on is the concept that the "price" be more carefully targeted to what people find meaningful in order to support the legitimacy of the investment.


  3. Shelly,

    Even if the professional association world shifted to free to play, entrepreneurs would begin (continue) to build exclusive communities (pay to play) for those who want to be someone with somebodies - rather than part of total open access group.

    It will never be a total free for all.

    That said, would be interesting to see how it all panned out.

    Thanks for the food for thought. Cynthia

  4. Cynthia -

    It sure would be interesting to see what kind of competitive environment would be set up between the somebody somebodies and the "upstarts"...

    Thanks for the comment!


  5. I work for an association in which membership is basically required to participate actively in the industry. Dues fund the association's activities in a major way.

    In the past, I worked for an association where we had to market the heck out of ourselves to draw dues-paying members. Trade shows were the major source of revenue.

    Both associations have passionate members that volunteer their time generously as well as members who never participate in a darn thing.

    Dues or no dues, you might just end up with about the same number of passionate people engaged as you have now. They may not be the same people, but I don't think the numbers would change drastically.

    Each industry has a certain number of people dedicated to making things happen and networking with like-minded folks. They pay dues and channel their energy into the association or find other ways to contribute.

  6. BTW, way to work in a Megadeath reference! ;)

  7. Sage -

    Thanks for dropping by and sharing your perspective. I think the dynamic definitely shifts if you are in an association that has (for lack of a better term off the top of my head) kind of "cornered the market" on "having" to be a member vs the "please come join our party" type....

    Great comment :D


    PS - it's hard work to showcase my musical taste but its SO worth it ;) - rock on friend!

  8. I can't help but think about the Social Media Club model that's working well in many cities. Sacramento has one that started right after I moved away. I'm involved in the Raleigh one. It's free to "belong," i.e. be on their email list. The monthly meeting is free. Sponsors pay for some light snacks and beer/wine. A host provides the room. There's networking with peers and education.

    I think the ideas you're talking about could work well with a professional society where many of the traditional benefits can have a pricetag attached to it (subsidized or not by sponsorships). It would be a bit more challenging with trade associations supporting a large lobbying staff, although companies could still support those efforts financially, if not, those efforts go away.

    The challenges would definitely be worth the rewards. A great post to get us thinking. Thanks.

  9. Deirdre -

    Thanks for the comment. I think the movements we are seeing with these smaller clubs are waves just kind of lapping up on the beach and storms are coming.

    It's all just food for thought, we have to be able to look at alternatives and keep our minds open juuuuuust in case.....


  10. I think Jeffrey is missing the point - a mandatory monetary payment precludes countless numbers of people from adding their intellectual contributions because a.) they don't have the money to "pay to play" or b.) they chose to cast their limited dollar votes in another direction. On the other hand, payment of a social nature, while perhaps time consuming - is a payment that anyone can afford should they chose to invest their time and energy in that particular cause and or discussion.

    Fundamentally, we all can afford to commit to a cause when the payment is free will. However, when the payment is monetary - many people who would contribute can't and we end up limiting diversity of thought and promoting groupthink. As often a humanly possible - every man, woman, or child, should have the opportunity to contribute their opinions and ideas to insure that the intellectual engine that drives the force for change is fueled by richness in thought the underpinnings of which are manifested in diversity and real freedom of speech.

  11. Dr. Bill -

    Thank you for stopping by and leaving a comment. I agree with you that we should make every attempt to include as many voices as possible in our endeavors.....

    I appreciate your readership....


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