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Modeling membership: membership guru Mark Levin, CAE, offers insights on developing membership models.

DURING A COFFEE BREAK WITH ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT, seasoned association executive and accomplished membership expert Mark Levin, CAE, president of BAI, Inc., Columbia, Maryland, cautioned associations not to get caught up in the "membership model mix-up." When membership numbers are down, many organizations are quick to question their membership models and start making changes--mixing things up--without identifying the real problem.

"There's a lot of experimenting going on," says Levin, author of Millennium Membership: How to Attract and Keep Members in the New Marketplace (2000, ASAE). "Associations are incredibly concerned about their declining memberships, and they should be. However, loss of members does not necessarily mean that you should change your association's membership model."


The problem could be with the implementation of your association's model rather than the model itself. If that's the case, a quick fix won't resolve the issue. Says Levin, "changing the terminology that you use to describe membership in your association does not equate to making integral changes in your model. If you cannot identify specific changes that you've made in membership benefits or how you interact with members, then you have not changed the model."

According to Levin, an association's membership model consists of three main components: its culture, dues structure, and value to members (benefits and services). He goes on to say that any of these areas can be problematic from time to time. "The culture of an organization typically reflects the culture of the industry or profession that it represents, which is why every association is different." As changes occur in the industry or profession, subsequent changes to the membership model may be necessary. Recently, Levin led his own organization through such a change.

In addition to running his consulting company, Levin is executive vice president of the Chain Link Fence Manufacturers Institute, Columbia, Maryland. As a consolidation of the industry began to take place, Levin recognized the need to adjust the institute's membership model. The group expanded its membership levels from two to six. "Expanding our membership categories and creating the elite membership program helped us to engage more members by giving them more options and benefits to choose from," he says. "Our bylaws prevented us from changing our dues structure, which is based on how many plants members own, but our members like the recognition and prestige of this new level of membership, and they are willing to pay more for it. The goal here is to upgrade members to a higher level of membership."

The institute was successful in making these changes, Levin says, because it was able to identify and provide specific, additional benefits for members. Members responded particularly well to the addition of a VIP communication package that allows them to add staff to the distribution lists of confidential, special publications offered by the institute.

Cultivating member service

At the same time, Levin stresses that an association's membership model is irrelevant if the organization has not committed to a culture of membership. "The culture and the model have to work together," he says. "Otherwise it doesn't matter what model your association is using." He identifies the following as key components of a membership culture:

Be committed to member service. This is more than a philosophy. You need to develop specific member service policies and procedures. For example, when members call, it's never a bad time; you always have time to talk to them. Your staff creates your member service culture and should want to help members be successful in the profession or industry.

Get buy-in from the board. Providing better service to members may cost money. When you present your board with a plan to increase member service, provide a budget and stress member retention as your objective, or board members will wonder why you haven't been providing that level of service all along.

Provide regular and consistent customer service training. All staff members need to participate in customer service training quarterly. When employees understand the association's standards for working with members, they are empowered to solve problems and be proactive about following up with members. Consider asking staff to write down all their interactions with members for 30 days and then review them. You learn so much from this exercise. If you understand people's problems and how to handle them, they will do business with you.

Measure and monitor your success in serving members. Evaluate what level of member service your association offers by hosting focus groups with members and making service calls to find out how satisfied they are with your service. Get input from members about what's important to them. Find out what makes good customer service.

Associations need to conduct shorter, more frequent member surveys and then report back to the membership: Here's the information that you provided, and here's how we're going to use it.

Implementing a change

Even if your association has the key components of a membership culture in place, Levin acknowledges that in some instances, you may need to adjust your membership model because of industry changes or other external factors. He cites the consolidation of companies in the manufacturing industry and the privatization of the health care industry as examples. According to Levin, if you're planning to change any component of your membership model, you need to take a number of steps:

1. Get member input. Through surveys and focus groups, determine how members feel about a new membership model before implementing it. Clearly, members are your best source of information about how the new model will be perceived. The culture of your organization needs to be flexible and encourage input from your members.

One of the biggest challenges associations face in the future is being flexible. In some cases, it will be extremely difficult for associations to bring a new generation of members into an existing culture. The need to engage members in an ongoing conversation about their industry or profession and their expectations of membership in your association is even more critical than it was five years ago.

2. Be prepared to lose members. Some members may not like the proposed model and may leave once it's implemented. If the new model is in the best interest of the association and the majority of members, be willing to let those dissatisfied members go.

3. Identify specific reasons for the changes. Your rationale for changing the model must be easily understood. The changes must be readily identifiable as beneficial to members. They have to believe that you're making the association better for them.

In the institute's case, once members started buying each other, larger company members actually suggested the change in dues structure. They recognized the value of the institute representing and marketing the industry to the public and realized that larger organizations received greater cost-savings benefits from these activities than smaller company members.

For instance, the work that was accomplished on one regulatory issue saved a member with 23 manufacturing plants $80,000. Obviously, a member with three plants did not save as much and should only pay dues proportionate to the benefits received.

4. Communicate with staff, members, and volunteers. If you change the model, you need a plan for communicating the changes. It's a good idea to prepare scripts for staff and be ready to address questions. You may even want to solicit member testimonials supporting the changes that you can feature in your publications and on your Web site.

Technology has set the expectation that associations will communicate with members more frequently. And, of course, an association needs to set standards for communicating with members so that they are not bombarded with information or sales pitches that they do not want to receive. However, clear and continual communication about the value of the association to them--both before and after changes are made to the model--is a necessity.

In his new book Retention Wars: The New Rules of Engagement (2005, BAI, Inc.), Levin offers additional suggestions about effectively communicating change to members. Look for more of Levin's insights on member service and retention in an upcoming issue of ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT.

RELATED ARTICLE: Communicating a Change in Dues Structure

When associations consider revising their dues structures, which may impact the benefits they offer, both staff and volunteers must be prepared to communicate the new structure in such a way that the members have complete buy-in for the change and understand the reasons for its implementation.


Many associations fall down when communicating a change in their dues structures to stakeholders. Usually when Association Management and Marketing Resources conducts dues studies for clients, we find that no direct link has been made to the association's value equation when the new structure is rolled out and that members had little input in creating the new structure. To avoid these shortcomings, make sure you take these steps in introducing a new dues program:

Include representatives from all stakeholder segments in discussions about alternative dues structures. Communicate early and often during the discernment process, rather than springing the new program on the members at the annual meeting.

Discuss anticipated changes to the dues structure using a variety of communication vehicles, calling for input and discussion. Conduct a town meeting to discuss the issue at an upcoming conference or via conference call. This will ensure that the association has provided every opportunity for input and discussion prior to the board taking action or the issue being put to a vote by the membership.

Use a common denominator, or unit of measurement, as a base for dues. Members must easily understand the value proposition of their membership in your association. Some associations have been operating on an unequal dues proposition for a number of years and need to rethink the dues base to make it more equatable to the various constituencies. For example, for a trade association, this may mean basing dues on total company revenues rather than on numbers of facilities owned or operated. You have to ensure equity in the application of the dues structure.

Tie the dues levels (whether fixed, variable, or tiered) to quantitative and realistic products and services provided. Regardless of the dues base you select, segment each class of member and ask how this change affects each segment and what current value each sees in the association. It is always a good idea to conduct a member needs and value assessment to link value to product to price and examine each segment's response as you develop the new dues structure and stratify it to different classes of members.

When the association and its members understand the basis for the new dues structure and feel that it is equitable to all members based on the vision, mission, goals, and value proposition of the association, members feel they are getting fair value for their membership dollars.


Stephen C. Carey, CAE, is lead strategist, Association Management and Marketing Resources, Bethesda, Maryland. Many of the concepts for this sidebar come from "The Guide to Member Value," a chapter in The Association and Nonprofit Marketing and Communication Guide, complete with best practices and templates available from AMMR. E-mail:

Apryl Motley is senior editor of ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT. E-mail:
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Title Annotation:Certified Association Executive
Author:Motley, Apryl
Publication:Association Management
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2005
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