Membership structure is definitely not one size fits all. Different organization constituencies have different needs, and what works for a 10,000-member national organization won’t work the same for a 500-member local organization. Determining the correct membership structure for your organization is essential – your membership structure will affect how members and potential members perceive the value in membership and program offerings, whether they will pursue membership in your organization, and whether they stay members once they’ve joined. Here, we discuss how your membership structure determines your success, as well as the importance of talking to your association’s constituency to see what works best for everyone.
Your membership structure determines how your members interact with and experience your organization. It encompasses who your constituency is and who can join, whether you have membership levels and what they consist of, and what benefits your members will receive. They can also affect how much value potential and current members see in your association and programs. For instance, AIGA (which used to be named the American Institute of Graphic Design) currently has a tiered membership structure with five levels of membership, each tailored to meet the needs of a specific segment of their constituency. The Contributing membership is the least expensive, and is geared towards students and design professionals who are just starting out in their careers, with very basic benefits that help find jobs and develop skills. The Trustee level membership, on the other hand, is geared towards “titans of the industry” and is the most expensive, with significantly expanded benefits that include eligibility to serve on the National Board. Because this organization serves professionals who are at such different points in their careers, it makes sense to have a structure that can differentiate between levels but still contain them under one umbrella of membership.
To make sure that you have the correct structure for your organization, you need to find out what your constituency needs. Your constituency doesn’t only consist of your members; rather, it encompasses the entire group you’re trying to serve, members and non-members alike. While talking to your members is essential, there could be a significant percentage of interested non-members who don’t join because of a specific, fixable reason. When you talk to non-members as well as existing members, you find the pain points that keep nonmembers from joining and members from renewing. For example, when the Professional Association of Innkeepers International (PAII) redid its membership structure, they conducted focus-group meetings with innkeepers who were not members to see how the new structure resonated, and solicited feedback. Because they based their structure change on feedback from their constituency, PAII has enjoyed a significant increase in membership.
The right structure can make all the difference for your association’s recruitment, member engagement, and overall health. Having an outdated or less-than-optimal membership structure can exclude potential members, discourage potential members from joining, and keep existing members from renewing their memberships. To ward off these problems, pay attention to your member composition, recruitment and retention. A handful of people complaining or declining to join or renew is expected, but if you notice a trend of members and potential members who leave aren’t getting what they need or seeing the value return on membership, it may be time to revisit your membership structure. Structures need to be updated like any other part of an organization, and the benefits of finding the right structure are far-reaching.
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