by Steven Hacker | December 01, 2015

Many association professionals of late have voiced concern about how much more difficult it has become to recruit and retain members. And, after researching some statistical data on the subject, I’ve come to the same conclusion. The big question, then, is: Why has it become so much more challenging? I believe that the principal reason is because many leaders are not keeping pace with a rapidly changing recruitment environment. They may not be using the appropriate tools. They may be failing to offer programs or benefits that align with modern (read: younger and more diverse) members’ changing needs. Both of those problems are certainly correctable—but only if leaders take steps to modify traditional thinking.

A Lull in Recruitment. Here’s a reality check based on recent research: According to Marketing General Inc., an organization that specializes in helping associations recruit and retain members, 2015 was “moderate” compared to last year’s recruitment growth. That’s a kind way of saying membership recruitment has slipped. The organization’s Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report, which is published annually and reflects key trends in membership recruitment, revealed that 46 percent of associations reported membership growth this year, a decrease from 53 percent in 2014.

Making Assessments and Constructing a Modern Board. If your organization is having trouble recruiting or renewing, chances are the problem lies in your methodologies. I suspect it may be time to reexamine your membership-value proposition or question whether you have adequate resources to get the job done. It is obvious that if an association is delivering real value to its members, word gets out pretty quickly and membership recruitment becomes relatively easy. So, that begs the question: Are your programs still relevant? This needs to be addressed objectively. Because within the association community, groupthink around board tables often has us convinced of the inherent value we deliver. (“Of course we offer value! How else have we stayed in business for more than 100 years?”) But groupthink is also closely tied to group fantasy.

It may be time to recalibrate the composition of your board’s leadership to ensure that younger generations and more diverse members are adequately represented. This will undoubtedly affect decision-making. Think of it as the antidote for groupthink. If your board doesn’t already include directors who are Millennials or members of color, how can you be sure your association is really aligned with vitally important and diverse populations? Keep in mind that Millennials are about to represent the largest segment of the American workforce—hardly a population any association can afford to overlook or ignore. Likewise, the population of the nation is projected to increase by 50 million people in the next 30 years based largely on legal immigration. We need elected leaders of diversity to bridge new cultural divides and serve as association advocates.

Some future-thinking groups started making plans for newer, more integrated boards years ago, though the numbers leave something to be desired. The 2012 Pulse Report, published by the Ontario-based association-management consultancy Greenfield Services, surveyed 147 Canadian nonprofit organizations and found that nearly a quarter already had plans in place to engage younger members, and more than a third said such plans were under development. There is no reason to think the American nonprofit experience is any different. If only a third of our associations are thinking about this issue, it’s a concern. The time for thinking about how to recruit younger members is long past, and unless you’re now actively and effectively recruiting them, your association is falling behind the curve. It is also important to remember that, unlike past decades, nonprofit groups are not immune from competition such as nonprofit startups or commercial enterprises.

Money Matters and a Dearth of Staff. Perhaps what is most troubling about the Greenfield 2012 Pulse Report is that while “nearly half of respondents said their membership numbers were stable, and more than one-third reported increases, nearly half had no membership marketing plans in place.” If half had no membership marketing plans in place, one has to wonder what it is those boards of directors do. Surely, monitoring growth must be among the highest priorities, and if staff doesn’t recognize the value of a formal membership-marketing plan, the board should.

A prime reason why many associations are struggling to recruit members, I am convinced, is chronic underfunding. The sad fact is that many organizations are simply not furnished with the resources, both financial and human, it takes to mount effective year-round membership growth programs.

Marketing General’s report disclosed that 20 percent of the associations surveyed cited “insufficient staff” as one of the top three challenges to growing their membership. At the top of the list of challenges was “difficulty in communicating the value of membership to their prospective members,” a lament of 33 percent of those surveyed, while 18 percent said that “difficulty in attracting and/or maintaining younger members” and declining member or employer budgets were also proving to be problematic.

When you stitch together these clues, what emerges is a scenario in which too many associations are run by an insufficient staff, which may or may not be using the most effective communication tools or channels (perhaps dictated by limited funding) and may or may not be communicating their group’s value, which results in limited membership recruitment and retention possibilities.

Marketing and Communications Concerns. There have never been more impediments to effective communications than exist today. There’s too much noise, if you will, too many messages flying around that make it difficult to discern differences or process which option is best. Think for a moment about the Golden Age of Television, the 1950s and 1960s, when a triad of national networks (NBC, CBS and ABC) completely dominated the commercial airwaves. Back then, an advertiser who wished to reach a key demographic needed only to craft an effective message and broadcast it. Today it’s all about narrowcasting.

Associations must market themselves using all communication networks, including social media, direct mail, email, telemarketing and Internet sources. Each is a pathway connecting your organization to different subsets of members and prospective members. Moreover, it’s not a matter of which channel to utilize but which channels to engage, and to be effective, you must advance an offense that includes several outlets. Likewise, you can no longer rely upon just one or two messages; you must advance multiple messages containing different benefits crafted to different audiences. This can be complicated, I know, and it’s why so many associations have not yet found the right combinations of messages and channels.

Underlying all this varied media marketing is demographics. And you have to invest time, money and effort to really understand the demographics of your current and prospective membership. If you don’t or you can’t, you probably won’t be able to recruit or retain as many members as you’d like. Success in marketing and sales comes down to how well your unique selling proposition resonates with your different and unique audiences.

Another significant change is that selling membership in the classic sense is largely passé. Associations must strive to engage members and prospects by allowing them to conclude that the value associations provide are of significant value. By provoking discussion and engaging members and prospects, we allow them to close the sale for us.

Piecing Together the Package. Think about all the ways to get members and prospects to your annual meeting, trade show, conferences and seminars. Are you using webcasts and live streaming to reach far-flung members? Do you offer continuing education programs and/or professional designations to offer value? Are your statistical reports relevant and valued? Are you succeeding in attracting sufficiently diverse and younger members to your committees and task forces and board? If not, determine why not.

There are a lot of questions you must ask in the process, but you need those answers! Anything your group can do to engage members is an important step to building membership and keeping your retention rate high.

Membership Recruitment Tactics Simplified

While it’s true that it has never been more challenging to recruit and retain members, following this simple six-step formula will ease the process:

1. Take inventory of your current membership services and programs. Do they still provide unique value? Abandon anything obsolete and develop new high-value programs.

2. Own your membership demographics. You must understand your members and prospective members better than anyone else. Period.

3. Match your membership marketing efforts to appropriate communications channels. There are no hard and fast rules. Be curious and courageous about experimentation. Embrace social media as the powerful tool that it is, and engage multiple channels.

4. Demand that your board allocate adequate annual resources that will enable your staff to build membership year-round.

5. Focus on retention relentlessly.

6. Create innovative ways to engage all current and prospective members—you cannot be too niche-oriented. Think about age, ethnicity, career standing, job functions, gender, anything that might define a group of members and result in some sort of new engagement opportunity.