Want to Grow Membership? Ask Why

For membership-based organizations, one of the most common strategic goals is to grow membership. Around the board table, at staff meetings, and among members, there is always much discussion on what the organization is doing to grow the number of members.

But are we asking the wrong question? Instead of asking how to grow membership, it’s critical to first ask why an organization wants to grow membership.

It may seem intuitive: As a membership-based organization, the perception is that membership growth equals success. But this is not always true. There are a number of reasons that an organization may want to grow members, and different reasons may mean very different growth strategies.

So why would an organization want to grow members? Here are just a few of the important – and very different – reasons:

  • To better represent an industry or profession. Do you want to serve as the voice of your members’ industry or profession? If so, you will want to determine critical mass needed before you can confidently claim you are the voice. Then you must develop strategies that maximize your market penetration.
  • To better position the organization financially. More members can mean more financial success- but it’s not guaranteed. Be sure you understand the cost to recruit, retain and serve members, and that current members feel the association’s value warrants the price tag.
  • To foster a broader community. Perhaps the makeup of your organization only represents a certain demographic, and you need to diversify. It’s critical to conduct market research on those you are trying to recruit—and ensure your organization is ready to welcome them upon joining.
  • To better balance the membership mix. If your organization represents a highly competitive industry, members may not be willing to share information with their competitor down the street–but may be willing to help out a competitor that lives a few states away. If your organization represents a highly specialized industry, you may need to recruit student members in order to ensure they have the training they’ll need to land a job in this field. If your organization allows vendor members, they need other members to sell to—thus increasing your opportunity to gain valuable non-dues revenue from sponsorship and advertising sales. Whatever the “right” mix is for your organization, it will take targeted concentration to grow in the areas that are currently underserved.

Growth can be great for your organization–but it’s important to grow strategically rather than just focusing on a number. Asking ‘why’ will ensure that you are prepared to achieve meaningful, long-term success.