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Selling a dues increase.

Whether you choose the hawk strategy or the dove approach, being prepared is the secret to success.

Most associations today realize that a balanced growth of dues and nondues income is necessary to finance association activities and plan for future growth. To maintain this balance, they have two choices: Recruit more members or increase dues.

Recruitment is preferable but not always possible or practical. Increasing dues is always a tougher decision, but once it has been made, an association can take some steps to both ensure a smooth transition and alleviate fears that a dues increase will result in lower retention, member resentment, or chapter-national friction.

Before trying to communicate, gain approval for, and implement a dues increase, the association executive or leader in charge of selling the dues increase has to know all the facts about the actual decision-making process:

* Who originally recommended the increase--a special committee or task force, a member, or staff?

* Who makes the final decision--the general membership or the board?

* What process of approval is used?

* What were the reasons used to justify an increase at this time?

It is important to know these factors because often you may be asked to justify the increase. Knowing the background on the increase will help you be consistent when explaining it to members, chapters, leaders, and others.

Some of the reasons used to justify an increase might include launching a new program; funding a specific project such as a scholarship; or expanding educational programs. The reasons you offer should always focus on improved service or new programs. Members need to be told "where the new money is going that the old money was not," as one association executive puts it.

Especially in a bad economy, it is not enough to say that the increase will enable the association to do a better job. The same service for more money sounds like a justification for higher staff salaries.

If some members say they are happy with current levels of service and don't want to pay for new ones, they need to be reminded that everyone--not just certain groups--benefits from increased services.

One other sales point worth mentioning is the tendency of some member leaders and staffers to compare the cost of being a member in your association (under the new dues structure) to the cost of joining similar or competing associations.

This approach can cause more problems than it seems at first. You are not just like the other groups. Your services are not identical, and neither are the benefits of joining. By comparing your association to another one, you are telling your members that by being a member of both groups, they are duplicating their services. That only asks your members to choose one or the other.

Know the history

This is probably not the first time your organization has increased its dues. Check back through financial and membership records for three things.

1. Determine the amount or percentage of increase last time versus this time. If the amount or percentage is about the same and there were no retention problems last time, then maybe there isn't going to be a big problem this time either. If the last dues increase resulted in a significant membership drop, the association may want to consider a phased increase--$5 a year for the next five years, for example. This approach can work especially well if the association can link the increase to planned growth in services or programs.

2. Study the conditions in the industry or profession the last time dues increased. If conditions are similar to those during the last dues increase, then you probably can anticipate a similar reaction this time.

3. Review the strategy used to sell the dues increase. If it proved successful, you might want to consider using it again.

Knowing the background of previous dues increases can help you better prepare a strategy for selling a new one to your members. It can also help you avoid previous mistakes, anticipate responses and potential problems, and manage the budgeting process.

Choose a strategy

Two basic strategies--the "hawk" or the "dove"--can be used to sell a dues increase to your members.

The hawk approach is based on the theory that an aggressive, open, and all-out campaign to sell the dues increase is the best way to gain member approval.

* Newsletter or magazine articles by key volunteer leaders can explain not only the need for the dues increase but also the methods used to approve it.

* Special mailings, often including a letter from the association's elected president to the members on the topic of a dues increase, can help personalize the campaign and draw special attention to the fact that the association isn't hiding anything.

* Chapters or affiliates can announce the increase and explain what the money will be used for. One organization compiled a chapter information kit with written materials, questions and answers, and so forth. Getting chapters involved in the selling process is crucial for organizations that rely on chapters to collect dues--you need their buy-in as much as members'.

* Volunteer leaders (and staff) can go out into the field to talk to chapters and members. This personal approach allows members to get one-on-one answers to questions.

Like any strategy, the hawk approach has both pros and cons. The pros include the appearance of openness and the ability to get more member feedback and enlist the support of your association's chapters. Its drawbacks include the cost of extensive publicity and the potential for confusion and misinterpretation, because members and leaders at all levels of the organization are explaining the increase in many different ways.

For example, members not involved at decision-making levels--that is, board or executive committee--may try to explain the increase in terms of increased costs, rather than increased services.

The dove approach is based on the assumption that the decision to raise dues has been made, and the less said about it the better.

Associations that take the dove approach often choose to make only one announcement about the dues increase and then proceed to implement it. This announcement typically takes the form of a magazine article, a one-time special mailing or letter from the association president, or a special brochure that explains the dues increase process and rationale all at once.

The dove approach is less expensive than the hawk strategy because there is less publicity. The potential for misinformation is also lessened because not much information is being given out and fewer spokespeople are involved.

On the other hand, the dove strategy can convey a feeling of sneakiness. Since it doesn't encourage feedback, the association also doesn't truly know how members view the decision.

Whatever strategy you employ to sell a dues increase, here are additional ideas to consider that can enhance your efforts.

* Establish a theme--for example, "Time for a Change"--and use it throughout the year.

* Describe efforts being made to control overhead and keep most of the dues increase in programs and services.

* Develop a slide show or videotape to send to chapters--use leaders' testimonials on the need for the increase.

* Hold a staff briefing to be certain all facts and procedures for answering questions are clear.

* Encourage early renewals by creating the incentive of avoiding the upcoming increase.

* Provide payment options.

* Have a board member, such as the treasurer, send progress reports on the dues collections and how the money is already being put to use.

* Predetermine how long it will be until the next increase--let members know this is the last one for a while.

* Have an influential member write an article on what would happen without the dues increase.

Anticipate problems

Problems are likely to occur no matter how prepared you are. But it helps to anticipate how you will respond. Here are some recommended responses to some typical problems.

Problem: You have too many people (board members, officers, all staffers, state or chapter presidents) to sell the increase in too many ways, with each person explaining it a little differently.

Solution: First, designate the official spokespeople on this issue and refer all questions to them. Next, inform all of your communication links (newsletter and magazine editors, officers and other leaders, chapters or affiliates) who these people are and how to contact them. Typically, official spokespeople include the elected president, the executive director, the treasurer or finance committee chair, and if appropriate the head of the dues increase task force. Finally, develop one written set of official answers and distribute them to your spokespeople. Make sure everyone agrees on what will be said and by whom.

Problem: The reaction of some influential members who are not involved with the decision-making process may set the tone for many others.

Solution: Set up focus groups with these people. Rather than asking permission or approval for the dues increase, ask them how to best spend the additional funds. This approach assumes they will support the increase yet gives them the opportunity to be part of the process. Later, you might be able to enlist them to talk to others (members, chapters, and so forth) with questions about how the increase was approved and how the money will be used.

Problem: You're afraid of getting blindsided by questions for which you don't have answers.

Solution: Be smart. You know what the most basic questions will be, so prepare. Role-play. Get members to think of as many potential questions as possible. Then prepare answers.

Doing your homework does pay off. Understanding the dues implementation process, researching your association's history of increases, selecting a strategy, and anticipating problems and questions will make you a confident salesperson who can convince members of the merits of a dues increase.

How a Kansas Association Passed a Dues Increase

When the Kansas Pharmacists Association (KPhA), Topeka, passed a 20 percent dues increase, it did it in a tentatively hostile environment. It had been 10 years since the last increase, and members were accustomed to getting full service for the current dues.

Proper planning was the key to overwhelming acceptance of the increase, according to Robert R. Williams, CAE, executive director.

"The board carefully reviewed the reasons a dues increase was needed," says Williams. "First of all, board members were concerned that our ratio of nondues income to dues income was too high. Secondly, there had, over the past three years, been an increasing need for KPhA to get more heavily involved in government relations. Much of the increase was designated to increase our effectiveness in this area by hiring a contract lobbyist."

A long-range plan developed by KPhA in 1989 underscored the need for the dues increase and for a sales strategy. Like most associations, KPhA works through a committee structure. The finance and operations committee is responsible for budget-related items, so the first step was to bring the dues increase issue before the committee.

Fortunately, the treasurer (and committee chair) was one of the association's visionaries and was very supportive. The finance and operations committee recommended a $25-per-member increase--from $125 to $150.

Any change in dues, which are fixed in KPhA's bylaws, must be approved by a ballot of the entire membership. The board further decided to use the balloting process to change several membership categories. KPhA leaders feared the extensive changes would confuse members, who would vote down the increase.

Once the finance and operations committee made its recommendations (which included the category changes), some board members started to worry about the reaction of the membership. "KPhA, like all pharmacy groups, represents a very diverse group," Williams points out. "We represent both retail and clinical pharmacists, each group with different goals. Some feel they are sheltered from government intervention and legislation and might not agree that a dues increase was necessary."

KPhA began publicizing the proposed dues increase as soon as the board approved it. First, the president wrote about it in his editorial in the KPhA newsletter, which also announced the dues increase. Members could also read about it in the quarterly KPhA Journal, which publishes board minutes.

In August 1990, just prior to KPhA's annual meeting, Williams attended ASAE's 70th Annual Meeting & Exposition in Chicago. There, he talked to several association executives who offered helpful ideas--like using focus groups and clearly identifying new programs to be undertaken--and lots of encouragement.

At KPhA's meeting, the board committed itself to being positive and united. During coffee breaks and receptions, board members sought out members to talk about the pending dues increase and encourage their support.

"We used a little gimmick to get board members feeling more comfortable about starting a cold conversation," notes Williams. "We asked them to put a sticker on the badge of everyone they talked to about the increase. Our goal was to have every attendee with a sticker. The board members really enjoyed it."

Members attending the annual meeting approved the dues increase and bylaws changes by an overwhelming 86 percent.

Based on his experience, Williams urges any association anticipating a dues increase to inform members as far in advance as possible and to seek the opinions and ideas of key members--past presidents, officers, or committee chairs who remain active in the association.

More on Membership

More information on building your membership can be found in Attracting, Organizing, and Keeping Members. This handbook offers samples, tips, charts, and other meaty information on the full range of membership issues. To order, send $35 (member) or $50 (nonmember) plus $5.25 shipping and handling to ASAE Publications, 1575 Eye St., N.W., Washington, DC 20005-1168, or fax your order to (202) 408-9634.

Mark Levin, CAE, is president of B.A.I., Inc., Washington, D.C.
COPYRIGHT 1992 American Society of Association Executives
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:includes related article; increase in membership fees
Author:Levin, Mark
Publication:Association Management
Date:Nov 1, 1992
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