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Engaging with members is at the heart of association culture, and it’s essential to discover new ways to engage with members, whether they’re brand new or decades-long members. In a discussion at SURGE Forward, a panel of association experts explored the topic of membership engagement from their unique perspectives.

Tiffany Kerns is the Vice President of Community Outreach for the Country Music Association. As she said, “I have the extreme opportunity and responsibility of making sure I am thinking about our 6,500 members who work in the country music genre, day in and day out. It’s a job that I absolutely adore.”

Temi Adewumi is a principal at TagB Consulting, where she works “primarily with small to medium-sized membership organizations to help them implement membership software and also CRMs. My goal is that the technology they use makes their jobs easier.”

Eva Przygodzki formerly managed membership at American Fisheries Society, the world’s oldest organization advancing the fisheries profession. Today, Przgodzki is the Chapter Engagement Manager at the Society for Fire Protection Engineers. 

Elisa Pratt is the CEO and chief strategist for Brewer Pratt Solutions, a consulting firm “specializing in the delivery of transformative strategies that increase organizational success and project-based professional service solutions that enable non-profit organizations to evolve.” Pratt said, “We’re association nerds. This is what we do. We work exclusively with non-profit organizations.” Pratt makes note that ideas should be “aspirational and actionable. None of it works if you can’t put it into action.”

Examine the Pandemic’s Impact on Business

“I think we would be doing ourselves a disservice if we weren’t talking about the impact that the pandemic has had on our business,” said Kerns. “I’m interested in understanding how our membership organizations really started to shift during the pandemic.”

Przygodzki cited meetings as something that dramatically changed amid the pandemic. With the inability to hold in-person gatherings, she says AFS was forced to pivot. “Our meetings are usually very well attended. I utilize the meetings to engage with early-career professionals.” Przygodzki said, “When the pandemic hit, keeping in touch with this group became even more important, but on a different level.”

She focused on small groups, small chats, and continued membership engagement. “Keep the conversation going,” said Przygodzki. She sought to involve early-career professionals in elections, too. “They have a direct impact on the direction that AFS will take.” 

Help Members Connect with Each Other

Pratt noted how “engagement doesn’t just mean events.” She said that the revenue loss from in-person events has been significant, so people have had to learn other ways to engage. 

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“The more we see our members struggling and uncertain, the more we have to listen,” said Pratt. 

Pratt wants to help members connect. To do this, she said, one must “harness the human element.” By putting appreciation into member segments, you can close the gap of human connection created by the pandemic. 

“They want to meet each other. They want to build these relationships,” Pratt said of early-career professionals. “Engagement has taken on so many more forms,” she said. 

This is a silver lining of the pandemic: Expansive membership engagement. 

Understand the Need for Community & Community-Focused Tech

Adewumi said the pandemic for her underscored the need for community, “and the need to get technology to that community,” she said. “Since I work with small nonprofits, they’re very difficult to persuade to get new technology.” Due to smaller budgets, many small nonprofits are not eager to spend on a software upgrade. “But once the pandemic happened,” she said, “they needed a way to communicate with their members.”

The pandemic expedited the need for certain technologies that bring members and associations together. Technology purchases have increased during the pandemic, too. Adewumi noted this was a positive byproduct of the COVID-19 crisis. For smaller associations, they may tend to be risk-averse and thus reluctant to try new technology. But the pandemic put the need for tech into hyper-drive. 

“People had to react. Their hands were forced,” Pratt said of the pandemic. “It’s exciting to see how far associations have evolved (during the pandemic). It’s given associations the tools and the platforms that they needed to be out there.” 

How to Evolve Out of Necessity 

“Everyone is getting more comfortable with being uncomfortable,” Kerns said. “The pandemic exposed a lot of blindspots for organizations and for humans.” 

Kerns advised focusing on people, not products. Being fluid and flexible is important. “We have these humans who need resources and tools. How can we propel them, and help them be successful and thrive, even during a pandemic?”

Pratt talked about the importance of members’ wellness during the global pandemic, too. One organization she knows had members call each other as a “wellness check-in.” “It was simply to say: ‘Are you okay? How are you?’”

This type of check-in wouldn’t have come about had it not been for the pandemic. “Human engagement recognizes that vulnerability and uncertainty are the new normal,” said Pratt. She also noted it doesn’t have to be a high-tech affair. The check-in could simply be sending a postcard to members or a phone call. 

Accelerate Membership Engagement Potential 

For AFS, the pandemic was a catalyst to invite early-career professionals to the table in a more substantive way, explained Przygodzki. “Being an old organization, we have to respect a lot of old traditions, and it was very difficult for early-career professionals to participate in discussion with the board and proposing anything new,” she said. 

Due to these old traditions, some older organizations and societies may be resistant to changes, particularly when implementing new tech, such as Slack. Przygodzki said her younger members encouraged their society to use Slack as a means for helping members stay in touch. “Because of the pandemic, leadership agreed to that,” she said. 

Choose Actionable Solutions

Membership engagement strategies are important, but even more so is implementing them and seeing them through to the end. Pratt is a huge proponent of ensuring the actionability of a plan. 

“It kills me to see when a project is put on the shelf to collect dust, or no one took ownership of it,” she said.

She cited this as a common occurrence.

“Pick what you can really deliver on – you don’t have to do everything. You don’t have to do it all. Do fewer things better,” Pratt suggested. 

Adewumi agreed, saying when she’s helping an organization incorporate new software, such as Slack, it may involve some extra adjustments made, particularly if the membership demographic is older. 

“The organization said, ‘Let’s get Slack going, some people know how to use it.’” Some people were resistant to using it, though. “I think associations have started to be the movers in adopting technologies,” Adewumi said. Membership engagement is also about knowing what your members' technological abilities are, and the abilities of your staff and leadership. Adewumi emphasized how important it also is for software to be intuitive and easy to use in order to make it actionable and appealing to members. 

Kerns recognized that setting up an organization’s success also means excellent communication and keeping everyone abreast of what’s going on. 

“I think there is so much fear, but looking at the pandemic, I think we have the real opportunity to say: ‘I understand it’s uncomfortable, but it’s okay, we’ve got this,” she said. “We just got through a year of being really uncomfortable and having to pivot emotions and business strategies. You name it; we can get through it.”

Ask Members: “What Do You Want? What Do You Need”

Adewumi said that honing in on what members want and need is critically important. 

As Pratt said, don’t “waste a crisis.” The pandemic is an opportunity to examine how associations can evolve and look for the new – and that comes from speaking with members. 

Przygodzki’s organization put effort into engaging members during the pandemic and creating wider audiences for digital events. “I believe that, moving forward, we will never go back to what it was. We can only move forward,” she said.

At the CMA, Kern said, “We’ve evolved faster in crisis (during the pandemic) than we have in our 60 years of existence. That’s exciting,” she says. 

Ultimately, the members are the heart of an association. Engaging with them in a meaningful way can ensure the longevity of an organization.

Related: Struggling to manage change? These 4 strategies can help your association adapt and evolve Learn More >
Anne McCarthy
Post by Anne McCarthy
June 25, 2021
Anne McCarthy is a freelance journalist who reports on tech and culture. She is a contributing writer to the BBC, The Guardian, WIRED, Teen Vogue, Ms. Magazine, and more.