I was recently asked to speak about the success factors of a successful membership organization. I prepared by reflecting on my own experiences over the last two decades, speaking to other association colleagues and researching the topic. Here are the common attributes of a successful membership organization:
- Effective communication. Regularly zero-in on what information it is that members need and want and then provide them with that information — a task facilitated by today’s technology. Listen closely to members through surveys, face to face meetings, social media, online forums, committees or other means to understand their issues, needs and concerns.
- Volunteer-driven, but staff managed. Most boards of membership organizations are comprised of volunteers. This group must focus on the horizon, setting that set the long-term vision and strategy and working with staff to make the hard choices. These volunteers must be supported by competent staff that manages the association day-to-day and serves as the face and voice of the group, providing industry leadership.
- Clearly articulates return on investment. Good association’s simply run the numbers: For your membership dollars, you will receive this much value, quantified.
- Successful leadership transition. While volunteer directors come and go, the organization stays on track and accomplishes its work. Successful organizations transcend leadership and management changes by providing a stable governance structure, messaging and direction.
- Proven value. The value of belonging to an association should not be “because it’s the right thing to do.” Strong associations provide tangible products and services critical to members’ business success — i.e., the value lies with far more than in it “being the right thing to do.”
- Clear multiyear vision. Essential are a set of long-term goals and strategies supported by an annual work plan and budget — i.e., key documents that ensure the membership, leadership and staff are all ‘on the same page’ regarding where the association is going and how it will get there.
If those are attributes are key to a successful organization, a VERY successful membership organization also does these things:
- Represents the entire membership and the membership trusts they are being represented. We work with associations that have big, small and really small companies as members. They all have different needs and often those larger ones have the means to influence the agenda and service offering. It is important for leadership to focus on the whole of the organization’s members, ensuring that they all have an equal voice and are receiving services specific to their needs. a voice — i.e., size alone does not dictate the dialogue
- Leaders of successful organizations put personal agendas aside and focuses on what’s best for whole. Volunteer leadership often brings an agenda, and that’s okay –it drives progress and change. But those changes must be done for the good of the whole, not a few. When I hear an incoming year chair ask, what is my legacy going to be, I worry.
- Open and transparent (versus closed-door) governance and decision-making. Obvious, yes but this often replaced with small groups behind closed doors making key decisions. Nothing worse than people asking: How did that decision get made, but whom and why? A successful association provides a spot light to members so they can cast it into the organization’s decision making.