A recent Avenue M poll found associations favor moderate to conservative approaches to adapting their membership model over aggressive shifts.

Nearly twice a month, I receive a call or email from an association CEO interested in exploring a potential new membership model for their organization. While many are eager to move forward with the exploration, some executives share their concern that their leadership is risk-averse, focusing on what they might lose rather than what could be gained. They feel the pressure to innovate but fear making changes.

Is it time for associations to reframe risk and take a more aggressive approach if they wish to grow their membership?

Risk appetite—the level of risk an organization is willing to take—is a critical factor for associations. Why? Because they operate in fluid environments made up of both opportunities and threats. That’s why defining a risk appetite is critical. When an association knows what level of risk it’s willing to take on, it can better make informed decisions, balance potential rewards with risks, and guide strategic choices.

When it comes to changing membership models, it turns out many associations say they lean toward curbing their risk appetite, according to an early-June Avenue M text poll and LinkedIn poll. 47 percent of association leaders said their organization takes a more conservative approach, 43 percent are more moderate, while only 8 percent are aggressive.

When asked why their organization is comfortable with its risk appetite for making changes to its membership model, one executive, whose group is more conservative about it, said, “The Board considers membership as a measure of the health of the association. Moving away from a traditional membership model means redefining how we measure impact.” They added that there is also concern about losing revenue, however, the staff believes “revenue would come from the sale of products and services rather than membership.”

Another leader noted, “Dues are the second largest revenue source for our association—so far, our model has been successful in serving our members’ needs. We can take risks in other areas where we have more flexibility.”

One CEO explained, “Dues are a relatively small part of our revenue, so we have largely chosen not to rock the boat with membership changes.”

A leader whose group is more moderate said, “We are launching a three-year pilot membership model program to test the feasibility of the proposed model.”

Another executive said change is necessary, sharing, “Over time, the addition of so many membership categories/pricing has created friction that is detrimental. Times change. Models change. We have to adapt.”

One CEO said, “We have made some modifications, but there has not been a complete structural overhaul,” noting that there have been discussions about the evolution of value from chapters and national organizations over the decades, but significant changes haven’t been implemented, largely due to chapter-national politics.

Another executive said, “We are open to expanding representation from more professionals in the field.”

One leader observed that their organization “wants to be aggressive, hopes to be moderate, but is likely pretty conservative in reality.”

Change is constant, but it doesn’t have to be radical, it can be incremental. It’s not always necessary to completely revise a membership model structure, but by examining what is working and what aspects of it could change, associations could make great strides with a few tweaks. Or if the whole model is outdated and not effective, maybe more organizational soul-searching is in order.

For more insights on risk appetite and updated membership models, register to attend Sheri’s pre-conference lab on Innovation and her breakout session on How to Innovate and Embrace Risk at the 2024 ASAE Annual Meeting.

Want to participate in future text polls? You can sign up HERE.

You may also read Avenue M’s quick summaries of the following resources, and click the links below.

The Benefits of Implementing a Risk Appetite Framework
Risk capacity is how much risk an organization can manage based on factors like its finances, how easily it can borrow money, and what rules it has to follow. Risk appetite, on the other hand, is how much risk a company is willing to take to reach its goals. To manage this, organizations need to set risk limits, share their risk appetite with everyone in the organization, and set specific rules and boundaries for various parts of the business.

Keeping an eye on how well the company sticks to its risk appetite involves reporting risks to the right people, making sure the board gets useful information, and taking action if things get too risky. This isn’t a one-time thing; it needs regular updates based on how the company is doing and what’s happening in the world. And everyone should be on the same page about risk, from top management to regular employees, so they know what’s expected.

New Membership Model Sparks Growth
In 2018, the Association of School Business Officials (ASBO) International was losing members due to retirements and job changes. To tackle this, ASBO introduced a school district membership in 2020, based on research showing better retention in districts with multiple members. This strategy helped them grow from 4,009 to 8,049 paying members by March 2023.

ASBO’s success came from smart market analysis and a pilot program. They targeted districts without ASBO members to offset potential revenue loss, and the new model boosted nondues revenue through increased participation in webinars, education subscriptions, and conferences, giving entire teams access to ASBO’s resources.

A New Membership Model Proves Its Value
The National Speakers Association (NSA) realized its old membership model was outdated and turned people away early in their careers. They needed a more welcoming approach.

NSA rolled out a new model with three levels: learn (free resources), subscribe (monthly fee for more access), and join (three membership tiers). This new setup boosted engagement and embraced digital offerings, keeping members active all year. NSA’s experience shows the value of being ready for change and communicating clearly and often with members.

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Contributors: Sheri Jacobs, FASAE, CAE & Lisa Boylan
Image: Sheri Jacobs, FASAE, CAE