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Is your association experiencing a decline in membership? 

In a report published by Wild Apricot, surveyors found 68% of organizations had difficulty growing their organization in 2019 — 11% of those shrunk, and 25% experienced no growth. The remaining 32% grew only 1-5%. 

Declining membership in professional organizations is a reality for many association leaders. But why? And what can you do to reverse the trend? In this post, we’ll explore a few causes of membership decline and strategies that can help drive engagement and prevent member churn. 

Why are professional organizations seeing a decline in membership?

While there are many factors behind declining membership, some of the biggest factors that associations should factor into their retention strategies include financial uncertainty, changing member needs and interests, and struggles to connect with younger members, among others. 

Cost and financial uncertainty

Even before the furloughs and layoffs ushered in by the COVID-19 pandemic, economic instability was a major concern for potential members. For example, a 2017 study on membership trends by Kenes Group noted, “The decision to become a member of a professional association has always been a factor of perceived value, that is, what is the cost of membership and what benefits are obtained in return. The changes to the economic climate have meant that individuals place greater emphasis on the perceived value of any membership and examine in more detail if membership of an association provides value to them.”

Essentially, many potential members aren’t sure what the future holds for them financially, so they need to ensure the benefit of membership is worth the price. Associations are also under pressure to compete with free resources and prove why a paid membership is more valuable than joining a free LinkedIn community or Facebook group. 

One way to combat this, which we’ll dive into further below, is creating that unique value that makes your membership un-missable. Whether that means networking opportunities, mentorship or exclusive experiences at your events, creating value beyond your free resources should be a top priority for your staff. 

Struggles to connect with younger demographics

The millennial generation has been the largest generational group in the American workforce since 2016. However, many associations and professional organizations are struggling to reach and relate to these younger audiences. And coming right behind them is Gen Z, who is estimated to make up over 27% of the workforce by 2025. 

Their interests and concerns also vary greatly from that of your membership today. Understanding this generation’s values, addressing their concerns and pain points, and communicating in a way that resonates with them are important to win them over. 

While we’ve covered what it takes to hire Gen Z staff, those same strategies can also apply to the focus of your association. As an example, Gen Z prioritizes DEI initiatives and hands-on activities that move the needle. Developing opportunities and educational offerings that align with those interests can help your organization grow that young professional demographic.

Educational offerings 

One of the leading reasons for the Great Resignation is that professionals are looking for newer opportunities that align with their needs both professionally and personally. While this can affect associations on the staff side, it also creates an opportunity for their member offerings. 

In order for your members to continue to grow and fit the needs of their new roles, education and professional development are needed. While many organizations have set training and certification, expanding those offerings can be a great tool to combat declining membership.

Best of all, coming up with those ideas doesn’t need to fall solely on the staff. Instead, look at hiring trends in your industry and survey your membership to ask what they’re most interested in and what they need to advance in their careers.

In some instances, it’s a matter of updating your existing offerings, while member answers can also create opportunities for completely new programming. 

What to do about membership decline

Combatting membership decline in professional organizations requires forward-thinking and a willingness to change and adapt new strategies. Additionally, not every strategy may work for your specific association or needs, so understanding your pain points and looking for the reasons behind your member churn can help you choose a path to explore. 

Maintain engagement with existing members

Retaining existing members is your low-hanging fruit. It’s a lot more cost-effective to keep your current audience happy than it is to start fresh attracting, nurturing, and converting a new one. 

Stay in touch with your existing members, and hold their hand every year to remind them to renew. Canceling a membership you never use doesn’t require a second thought, so be sure to target your existing members with engagement campaigns showing them how to maximize their membership. 

Plan for tomorrow’s members

  1. Consider Your Pricing – Young professionals are eager to learn and prove themselves in their industry. Newly or several years out of college, they’re likely earning lower salaries and can’t always afford the price of an annual professional membership. Provide flexible pricing options and affordable rates to attract this demographic. 
  2. Start Engaging Early – Whether it’s through scholarships, internships, educational curriculum, or other programs, begin building relationships with high school and college students to invest in your future members. 
  3. Pay Special Attention to Newcomers – Be accommodating to potential members going through career transitions. It can be intimidating to join a professional association in an industry you’re new to. As an organizational leader, you should be aware of career shifters and make your community accessible and welcoming to association newcomers
  4. Don’t Ignore Future Tech – Understand which platforms your future members use and what’s important to them. That’s where you should establish a presence to build relationships. This is especially true with the increased popularity of social media platforms. If your association has zero presence where young professionals are meeting – the chances of them even considering joining are slim to none. 

Reframe your perception of growth

Keep in mind that membership numbers aren’t the only way to grow your association. In fact, experts suggest that approaching your constituencies as only members vs. nonmembers is an easy way to stifle your opportunities. Additionally, thinking outside the box to find other ways to generate revenue can help your association grow even when membership is on the decline. 

Adopt the Open Garden approach

When considering membership decline and association membership trends, try not to get too tied up in the thought of members versus nonmembers. The truth is your association’s publics go a lot further than these two categories. 

Amith Nagarajan’s Open Garden approach turns these two audience divisions into four:

  • Members who pay dues
  • Volunteers who are deeply committed to your organization
  • Interested people who support your efforts
  • The general public, who are occasionally interested in what you do, depending on the news cycle

As you can see, approaching your organization from the restrictive lens of members vs. nonmembers eliminates important stakeholders from the equation. People who are not members may still: 

  • Work for your association
  • Visit and learn from your website
  • Attend or sponsor your events
  • Subscribe to your newsletters
  • Promote and recommend your association to their networks
  • Download or purchase your resources

So how do you connect with everyone? For starters, segmentation can become a handy tool for your content distribution and marketing efforts. 

Focus on your value proposition

Finally, and often most importantly, getting back in touch with your value proposition is critical. Understanding why your members signed up and what you promised them – aka your value proposition – you can reassess whether or not you’re providing said value. 

This can be as simple as updating your content to address any new changes in the industry – take for example changes stemming from COVID-19 – and ensuring that your members are as up to date as possible on the issues that can affect their jobs and career growth. 

Create new opportunities

Just like your initial value proposition is important, so is innovation. If your organization is failing to adapt to the times and address changes that are impacting the industry as a whole, your members will likely look for organizations that are doing that. 

One way to help combat declining membership is to offer new opportunities to your members. Things like:

  • Expanded educational offerings
  • New certifications or professional accolades
  • Mentorship programs
  • Leadership training
  • Networking opportunities

Essentially, you want your association to become the one-stop for your members to accomplish their goals and satisfy their professional needs. Many of these adjustments stem from a strong relationship with your members, which is why open communication and transparency continue to be important tools. 

Pivot to other means of generating revenue

As we evaluate declining membership in professional associations, remember that your association should not be depending solely on churn rates to dictate your growth and stability. Instead, keep in mind that there are other ways to drive revenue in your organization and that non-dues revenue can be critical to sustainable growth. 

Related: Everything You Need to Know About Non-Dues Revenue Learn More >

The Wild Apricot report showed that most membership-based organizations either slightly increased or experienced the same levels of revenue in 2019 as the previous year. According to the report, revenue leaders were those who were less likely to rely on their members for funding. 

This creates a more sustainable path forward for your organization. Here are a few ideas for increasing revenue that don’t depend on dues:

  • Host paid events, workshops, and webinars
  • Create an active YouTube channel that’s eligible for monetization
  • Sell branded merchandise
  • Hold fundraisers like raffles or tournaments
  • Create a job board with paid job listings
  • Hold online learning courses
  • Sell website and newsletter ads 

MORE: 3 ways to generate non-dues revenue  

Future-proof your membership-based organization

If you’re a victim of the trend of declining membership in professional organizations, don’t panic. It’s not a dire situation, but it is a reason to innovate. Rethink how you engage your existing members, don’t neglect younger audiences, and start brainstorming creative ways to generate revenue that aren’t dependent on dues. Sidecar members have access to exclusive resources that help them buck the trend of declining membership in professional organizations. One of these includes our free ebook, "Ascend: Unlocking the Power of AI for Associations." Download it now to find out how tech like AI can improve your overall member experience and boost member engagement.

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Sidecar Staff
Post by Sidecar Staff
April 25, 2021
At Sidecar, we create the professional development tools a leader needs to grow their career and their purpose-driven membership organization, like associations and nonprofits. The skills you’ll learn within our growing community, interactive workshops and from our step-by-step courses will drive innovation, empower strategic thinking and institute cultural changes wherever your career takes you.