If anyone out there thought that membership was no longer that important to associations, this monthâ€™s discussions on Acronym certainly disabused them of that idea. Itâ€™s been great to see the ongoing discussion and debate around the questions of what membership is and isnâ€™t, and what it should and could be.
One association blogger whoâ€™s known for asking such big questions is Jeff De Cagna, chief strategist and founder of Principled Innovation LLC. Having recently heard him speak at ASAE & The Centerâ€™s Annual Meeting (in part) on the question of â€œWhat is membership?â€, I asked him to share some of his thoughts with us on Acronym.
So, what is membership?
In some ways, thatâ€™s kind of an existential question, and I feel like Iâ€™m maybe ill-equipped to be too much of a philosopher on that subject. But I think, fundamentally, itâ€™s such an important part of the identity that associations have had over their long history, that they see themselves as membership organizations. Thatâ€™s a very common phrase that we use all the time in our community. Itâ€™s almost impossible to separate out that idea of membership from what an association is.
But at the same time, even though itâ€™s been such an important part of our identity for many years, itâ€™s also one of the primary strategic challenges that associations are grappling with right nowâ€”trying to figure out how, in a web-enabled world, membership fits in. The traditional conception of membership fits in with what our organizations do; is there a new kind of concept of membership and new concept of the relationships that associations would have with their stakeholders that is required by the challenges of an environment in which membership feels like itâ€™s increasingly a commodity? How do you enrich the notion of membership in a way where itâ€™s something that associations can continue to offer, but perhaps not the centerpiece of the association experience? â€¦ I think weâ€™re at a very interesting reflection point in trying to figure out where membership goes from here.
You mentioned the contrast between the traditional notion of membership and an enriched form of membership. Could you describe what you see as the traditional view of membership and then what you see as this new form it could take?
Let me tackle that question in this way. I think there are really three aspects to the association that you have to take a look at: Thereâ€™s the association as the endeavor, thereâ€™s the association as an enterprise, and then thereâ€™s the association as the extended network. Letâ€™s talk about each of those in the context of your question.
The association as an endeavor: Thatâ€™s the vision, the mission, the purpose, the rationale, the reason for the associationâ€™s existence. Some larger purpose, some larger reason for wanting to change the world in some fashion. â€¦
Thereâ€™s lots of different data out there, but I think itâ€™s hard to argue with the idea that for at least as long as I have been in the association community we have emphasized membership as an expression of self interest. Thereâ€™s a â€œwhatâ€™s in it for meâ€ quality to the way we talk about membership. â€¦
Where we have to look at it going forward, from the standpoint of the endeavor, is, Are we really engaging people around purpose? Are we looking for a way to connect people with an idea of a purpose that is deeper than just their own self interest, that is larger than the needs of their particular organization, that connects with some important issue or challenge facing society? One of the things that Iâ€™m interested in and I think a lot of other people are interested in is what role associations should be playing in solving wicked problems in our societyâ€”the problems of the environment and sustainability and poverty and access to water. ... Thatâ€™s one aspect of the issue. ...
I think the second aspect, this notion of membership as it pertains to the enterprise, is really rooted in the idea of what the value proposition is. Is it an economic value proposition or is it a purpose driven value proposition?
On one hand, itâ€™s the notion of the endeavor as an expression of purpose or an expression of self interest. And then you take it to the standpoint of the enterprise, of the association as an entity that has business goals and a need to pay a staff and achieve some economic viability to sustain itself over time. Is the value proposition an economic proposition primarily, or is it a meaning driven value proposition?
Itâ€™s not to say that people havenâ€™t joined because they believe in what the organization stands for, but I do believe that we have tended to emphasize the economic value propositionâ€”and therefore the business model is built around economic propositions, hereâ€™s what weâ€™re offering and youâ€™re sort of buying that from us.
I think that we have to focus more on the meaning aspect of things going forward, which is consistent with the idea of being about being driven by purpose. How can we create a deeper meaning for people and build a value proposition that is oriented towards what people care about?
Even as we hopefully look toward a reset economy that might be stronger as we go into 2010, itâ€™s still going to look different than it did before we had this last yearâ€™s worth of economic crisis. Even if people return to work, it will still be a more demanding environment; there will be fewer people there and fewer resources. Organizations are going to look very carefully at what theyâ€™re investing dollars in, and people are going to look very carefully at what theyâ€™re investing their time and attention in.
Thatâ€™s an opportunity to really say, how can we devise a value proposition that is about something other than purely economic and built more around meaning? That allows us to think in terms of how we build meaning oriented, purpose driven business models that rely less upon traditional conceptions of membership and are looking more at a notion of connecting with the organization. Itâ€™s more about engagement and contribution than it is simply about joining the enterprise in some fashion.
The third element is that of the extended network. â€¦ Thereâ€™s a network of people who are members. Thereâ€™s a network of people who are stakeholders of other types, whether they be business partners or regulators, policy makers, industry supporters. Thereâ€™s a whole set of network relationships that exist within the framework of the association and extend also beyond the boundaries of what we traditionally call the association. â€¦
The association is an extended network that includes its closest members, its closest supporters, but also includes people who are not quite as close. And I think we have to focus our attention more on the question of, how do we engage more of the network in being purpose driven and really thinking about how to create more meaning? How do we create more value for the network and make that in some ways the most relevant unit of analysis, from a strategy point of view? Because I think one of the difficulties of where we are right now is trying to continue to think in terms of how we serve each individual member in a unique fashion. Even though that might have been a good goal and it may even still be a good goal, I think itâ€™s going to be very hard to think in terms of the unique needs of each individual member [going forward]. And it does take us down the road, as it traditionally has done, of trying to be all things to all people. â€¦
If we take a network point of view on all this, then the notion of membership also takes a different cast, because weâ€™re not necessarily even just talking about the individual membership. Weâ€™re talking about membership as a network concept, where weâ€™re not just looking at one person being a member but a whole group of people who are part of a network being connected in some way. And if we lose someone who is highly connected to other parts of the network, where there is no other alternative for building relationships with that part of the network, then we have to think in terms of how weâ€™re going to keep strategically important members and groups involved in the organization. Otherwise we start losing connection to the broader network of players.
There is a need to deconstruct this traditional way of thinking about association membership. â€¦ Itâ€™s never been a simple question of â€œis the membership model changing?â€ Itâ€™s not a yes or no question. Of course itâ€™s changing. Itâ€™s a question of how itâ€™s changing. And I think we have to deconstruct some of the assumptions that weâ€™ve made and look at it through these different lenses of the endeavor, the enterprise, the extended network, and begin to think in terms of how you construct a membership mindset and a membership model that may be sustainable but is not necessarily the end all and be all of how we make strategic decisions in our organizations. We extend our concept [of membership] to be inclusive of other ideas, other players, other contributors, and we put our emphasis on other places, not only because that makes sense in terms of what weâ€™re trying to accomplish, but also because thatâ€™s where the financial sustainability and thrive-ability of the organization is going to be found.