It appears that many membership organisations are facing an existential crisis. In the past two decades the means by which we can establish and sustain networks has changed dramatically, first through tool like email and latterly through the emergence of social networks. In an era when the cost to communicate with a group of people has dropped to just about zero, the puts a significant question mark over the value inherent in traditional associations, societies and professional bodies.

Such organisations, however, in a common trait of bodies under threat, might be looking at the wrong things when it comes to plotting a course through this disruption. The focus may well fall on the services that they offer, missing that the network itself is this thing of sustaining, intrinsic value. These are some of the observations that came out of the co-coaching session that I organised last week with the CEO of a professional institution, and the Technology Director of a major sporting association.

Putting effort into the wrong thing at time of disruption is what I sometimes refer to as the Railroad Problem. It’s a fairly large chunk of Clayton Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma too. And it ultimately can end in destruction.

For membership organisations, it’s easy to get distracted by things other than the actual network, especially when trying to address the issue of sustaining a network in today’s environment is really quite challenging. In a very generalised way, it seems that for professional bodies and sports bodies, their are three quite separate value exchanges acting around the network:

Membership value exchange 1

The obvious one, and the one that probably is easy to neglect, is the members’ value exchange. Members offer money (in the form of subscriptions) but more importantly time to the network, and in return get the benefits of affiliation. A sense of belonging is a fairly primitive human need (if you follow the thoughts of Maslow), but being part of a membership organisation potentially offers all sorts of benefits in terms of broader status and sense of purpose. For many membership organisations, active volunteering is something that people towards the end of their careers get involved with, and that can prove challenging both in terms of managing volunteers, but also from the perspective of how attractive that might make the organisation to newer blood.

Without members, a membership organisation is fairly meaningless, although “members” might be individuals or other organisations (sports clubs, for example).

The next group that receive value from a membership organisation are, for a better term, clients. In the world of sport this group often today have become disproportionately important – media organisations acquiring broadcast rights and advertising acquiring space and sponsorship. For many sporting organisations today the media rights circus is what makes the world go around (just witness the recent bidding for Premier League rights in the UK).

For professional bodies, this value exchange is not nearly in the same league, but can be as disproportionately important. The provision of training, consulting and continuing professional development services to corporate clients is big business, and the professional body represented last week makes many times its membership revenues from its services to corporates.

The final value exchange that we spoke about was that for “consumers”. In the professional associations this is the assurance that comes from using people with the right badge, from a Chartered Accountant to a Doctor or Lawyer. Different professional bodies have different levels of power in this regard, although apparently only medical professionals are required by law to be a member of their appropriate body – everything else is through varying levels of convention.

For a sports body, this is a little less important, but still there – mostly manifesting in accredited training programmes which I guess provides the same level of assurance for participants and parents.

In both cases, the thing that consumers are going to have to pay for is a premium rate for a member-provided service. Our willingness to pay that premium depends on circumstance – just look at what Uber is doing to the Licensed Taxi Drivers’ Association (or, for that matter, services like LegalZoom to legal bodies).

With this complexity, it’s easy to see how the management of membership organisations run the risk of being distracted by the wrong thing. But my hunch, ultimately, is that if you can’t get the membership to believe enough in the value of the network then outside disruptors will be unstoppable. But taking a ground-up approach to reinvigorating a network is a really big challenge in comparison to, say, rejigging one’s training portfolio or signing a new TV rights deal.

Keeping that sense and importance of the network, and continuing to attract new members, is an even bigger challenge. Creating a strong sense of affiliation whilst not scaring off anyone new is a difficult balancing act. A balance of inclusiveness with exclusiveness.

I’m sure that whilst technology has been a catalyst to many of these emerging challenges, it could also provide a catalyst to providing new approaches. Going out and finding where potential new members congregate in networks outside, as a start, might be something to look at. Making the things that have traditionally been closed to members might, counter-intuitively, also be a way to extend out membership in the future.

This is a starting point. It’s undoubtedly the case that there are no magic answers – but thinking around the problem will help to identify potential approaches. It’s also quite possible that in some (if not many) parts of both the organisations that I spoke with there will be those who don’t even see that there is a problem.

The next stage of the co-coaching experiment will hopefully start to unpick some more of these issues, but more importantly start to think of some further experiments that can see how to keep these organisations able to balance their traditions with having vibrancy through new membership.

2 thoughts on “Membership

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