Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Words Make Worlds - Part 2 - Membership vs Citizenship

(Last August, I became deeply inspired by work coming from David Cooperrider and Lindsey N. Godwin at Case Western - Positive Organization Development: Innovation-inspired Change in an Economy and Ecology of Strengths. This paper is a MUST READ for anyone interested in innovation in our association community.  In it, they use the phrase "words make worlds." We often attempt to think innovatively while not recognizing the common terminology we use can work to block us in.  This series of posts will break from my normal format and is dedicated to asking a single question. How can we change our language and think differently about the work we do?)

In the first post - we set the sociological foundation for this series.  We will be taking a systematic look at major areas of commonly accepted terminology and search for alternative language to apply.  This post is about "membership."

A democracy cannot function solely on a pay-to-play philosophy.  Barriers to participation are antithetical to the idea of an open, fair and equitable society.  On the whole, citizenry should be determined by meeting certain existential criteria rather than how much (or whether) you can pay to obtain it. As democratic institutions, we have a responsibility to embrace the democratic ideals of inclusion and provide a voice to all members of our community, regardless of their economic station.

We build unnecessary walls between “member” and “non-member” and we deprive ourselves of talent, input and creativity from those people who choose, whether by ability to pay or otherwise, to not “pay dues.”   Associations have complained for years that “non-members are just skating by because we are doing the work on their behalf.”  That is true.  You can complain about this reality, or take steps to embrace its positive potential.

A recent survey done by Kevin Whorton of Whorton Marketing and Research highlighted that the average penetration rate – active membership divided by total potential universe -as reported by California associations is around 46%.  Many are much lower.  Regardless, this is not the degree of penetration we want or need to have to credibly represent a profession or industry.  Additionally, we have systematically fenced out 50% of potential participants perspectives and brainpower while simultaneously diminishing our own clout.  Is a “better marketing message” or “finding more attractive discounts” really the answer to doubling your membership base?

Your association can make a conscious choice to accept the principle that all individuals who qualify are essentially already part of your community.  Associations can immediately expand their reach by simultaneously lowering the barriers that prevent participation and by choosing to eschew the terms “member” and “non-member” in favor of a continuum that runs from “engaged” to “non-engaged.”

Member vs non-member does not build community, it builds clubs.  “Member pricing” is a sales technique not a philosophy.  Building a “member community” that is discriminatory and has significant barriers to participation may be why we continue to struggle with involvement rates far below the ideal.  Only by accepting all qualified citizens into the system can we claim the title of “community” and benefit from all of the advantages that entails.

By embracing the “engagement continuum” we can cultivate the sociological imperatives of identity and belonging, honoring the entire lifecycle of our citizenry from emergence to contribution to the inevitable withdrawal whether through career redirection, retirement or death.  We have it within ourselves to accept this higher calling.  After accepting it, comes the hard work of implementing it.  Dues structures and benefits will need to be revised, communications will need to change, pathways to involvement will need to be developed, technological solutions to handle additional influx into the system without increasing staff will need to be implemented.  These are all challenges that can be creatively met once the overall vision is established.

Those associations that function as quasi-governmental agencies and closely regulate their member’s activities are not precluded from adopting a more open, less discriminatory atmosphere.  They may be prevented in some cases from being completely open, but they can deliberately make efforts to ensure they are minimizing barriers to participation whenever possible.

What about those who apparently behave unethically?  Many associations believe their ability to “prevent” unethical individuals from joining their association is important for both their reputation and for the protection of the public.  By using a more positive outlook we can re-frame our deficit thinking from “How do we keep out the bad guys?” to “How do we ensure all actors are behaving in the best way possible?” By changing the focus from a punitive, exclusionary process to a more inclusive one we may create additional opportunities to rehabilitate a bad player and encourage them to be a positive contributor instead.   Besides, our fear of allowing a bad actor or two into our community comes at a very high price.  And, nothing prevents the community from rehabilitating or ejecting habitually unethical players.

By shifting your terminology from "member vs non-member" to "engaged vs non-engaged member" can you see additional possibilities you may not have seen before?  Does labeling someone as a "non-member" discourage them from approaching your group or make them feel unwelcome?  How does this potential expansion positively impact your educational and advocacy efforts?

In the next post we will take a look at governance and structure.


  1. Hey Shelly - don't know if you've seen Erin Fuller's article in the March issue of Associations Now, but the organization she leads, the Association of Women in the Media, has switched to a freemium membership model, which I think meshes well with the process you're describing here. Link to the article is http://www.asaecenter.org/Resources/ANowDetail.cfm?ItemNumber=57700

  2. I appreciate the comment and thanks for the link! I was excited to see the article....

    Thanks for stopping by,


  3. Thought-provoking post, Shelly! I really like the concept of "engaged vs. non-engaged" rather than "member vs. non-member" as a tool for lowering barriers to engagement. I think we all have "non-members" in our association universes that should really be "members," that meet our definitions of membership and would benefit greatly from our membership services, but which never seem to actually join the organization, no matter how many times we reach out to them. I think the membership "pay wall" is just too high for them, and we often get into discussions about whether we should provide them with special incentives or maintain the integrity of our "membership value proposition." Looking at these "non-members" as "non-engaged" puts a different spin on the situation, and may open up our thinking with regard to getting them engaged.

  4. Thanks for the comment Eric. The fascinating thing about language is our ability to change the terminology we use and open up new avenues for action just by modifying our own schema.



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