Too Many Ideas for Boosting Member Retention? Never! — Associations Now

While an in-depth look at the state of membership retention in associations awaits in the mid-summer issue of Associations Now, get a preview with these bonus ideas on boosting retention from several association pros and experts. If you’re not a journalist, here’s something you might not know about the typical article you read (or video,…

via Too Many Ideas for Boosting Member Retention? Never! — Associations Now


Overwhelmed Engagement


Recently I’ve been worried about some of my organization’s volunteers.  I see a lot of the same faces at all of our events and activities.  I can’t help but wonder, “Are we overwhelming our members?”

We all know of the 80/20 rule; 80% of the work is done by 20% of the people.  Technically the rule states that 80% of results are attributable to 20% of the causes. This rule is also known as the Pareto Principle (This link from provides a concise explanation and a short video.)

We know that the 80/20 rule applies in many places, especially volunteer organizations.  However – are we creating a scenario that I call “Overwhelmed Engagement”?

I define overwhelmed engagement in this way.  We continually ask the doers to do a little bit more.  Why?
…because they say yes,
…because we have a good relationship with them,
…because it’s comfortable to ask.

It’s like the idiom “the straw that broke the camel’s back”.   This oriental proverb has a long history and has seen much iteration all leading to the fact that seemingly minor matters may end with major unexpected consequences.

We don’t heap big tasks upon these volunteers, but at times it’s easier to assign the work to one who’s responsibilities are similar to what needs done. Eventually said doer gets overwhelmed – sheds tasks – takes a break – or may even quit the organization.

One group that I am familiar with continually asked a sitting officer to add to their volunteer workload.  It was easy to say that many of the new tasks fell into his responsibility.  When said officer mentioned to other leaders that the job was taking more time than he had available, he was met with little to no help or sympathy.  Eventually, this person resigned their position and left the organization.

How can we engage our members yet not overwhelm them?  There is a balancing act between Overwhelmed Engagement  and what I described as “Membership Guilt” in an earlier post.  Perhaps those with this guilt should be asked to lead a projects or activity?  Would this solve both challenges? Hmm.

In today’s hectic world I like to encourage “one off” events or short term assignments.  People are more likely to say yes to a defined role and time period rather than commit to chair an omnibus committee for a year or more.

So how do we move forward here?  A colleague used to ask seminar participants, “How do you eat an elephant?” as a part of her presentation.  The answer – “One bite at a time.”

What can your organization do to take manageable bites out of your activities.  Can you assign someone to organize and host one social event rather than every event throughout the year?  Or how about one community service project?  One fund raiser?  You get the point here.

In this way you can define the end goal and set a timeline.  A volunteer/member/etc is much more apt to accept a role with the goal line in site.

Look at fundraising campaigns.  There is always a set goal and an end date.  Can membership organizations and other nonprofits do the same and retain members along the way?  Perhaps by creating more short term events there is a chance for a larger number of members to become involved as well.  Or at least that’s one of the opportunities,

When all else fails remember that we all need a vacation every once in a awhile to recharge our batteries.  Let your volunteers/members have a vacation as well.  You might need to suggest it to them.  By letting them recharge – taking the pressure off of them – they will continue to serve enthusiastically and effectively.

Scott Brown is the Executive Director of the Columbus Rotary Club in Columbus, Ohio.  He has more than 15 years of experience with non-profit and volunteer organizations. For questions or assistance contact him here.

Membership Guilt

Erase your Guilt
The word Guilt written with a pencil on white paper. An eraser from a pencil is starting to erase the word guilt.

I had a conversation with a newer member of our organization the other day.  It went something like this…

I wish to apologize to the group for turning into “The Vanishing Member”.   As you know, my business has been severely damaged by a relationship with another company, and all of my time and (also vanishing) energy has been consumed in trying to keep it alive. Since I have so many good people who have supported me, and have so much at stake, even the high calling of Service Above Self has taken a back seat to restructuring and fighting for survival.  Quitting is not an option.

I am so sorry to have not lived up to the commitment to the group as I had envisioned last year.  I am looking forward, with hope and positive thoughts, to being able to contribute to this fantastic cause in the near future—one way, or another.

Needless to say, I responded immediately with empathy and understanding; letting him know that this was not the first time I had had a similar conversation with a member.

This is an ongoing challenge in organizations that I have come to refer to as Membership Guilt.  The problem with this guilt is that members tend to quit when they feel guilty for not meeting their obligations to the organization.  They can’t see beyond the short term.  In my example it is easy to see how one could not see past the end of the month or even week.

Similar situations have become recurring phone calls or emails that I receive.  “I can’t make the meetings.  I feel like I’m letting everyone down.  Maybe I should resign until later date.”

For most that later date is…NEVER.  Yes a few return, but not as many as one would think or hope for.

What is it that organizations can do to help their members through such guilt?

In a recent article by Robert Grabel, President of Training for Good he writes about the “Golden Rules for Volunteering”.  Here he points out two matters that one need consider in a volunteer organization when dealing with someone’s guilt.
1) Our door is always open, and you are always welcome.
2) Every contribution matters and is valued.
These concepts transfer easily to almost every member based group to which I have been associated.

Are there other avenues to assist here?  Certainly!  A group can reduced financial obligations for said members, create a Leave of Absence policy, etc.  These options sound good, and have been successful in retaining membership.  I caution, however, that they should be considered one tool in the toolbox, not your final answer.

I have found that a direct, forward conversation is best.   Be honest (following the policies of your group) and tell your member what options are available to them.  Perhaps you have the leeway to work with each situation individually?  Although the latter statement is helpful, tracking it financially can become burdensome and possibly detrimental to your organization financially.

I find that admitting that one’s business, family, etc. comes first puts the person that you are talking to at ease.  In the case of my friend, a simple email telling him that he’s 1) not alone in how he is feeling and 2) that a number of his friends in the group have experienced the same thing throughout their membership put him at ease.  It also saved him as a member as he was on the verge of quitting due to his guilt.

And take a guess who showed up at our last meeting?

For additional tips check out “Executive News”, the official Publication of the Ohio Society of Association Executives January/February 2016 issue which you may find helpful.

Scott Brown is the Executive Director of the Columbus Rotary Club in Columbus, Ohio.  He has more than 15 years of experience with non-profit and volunteer organizations and can be found on LinkedIn or on his membership blog, membershipmaniac

Warm Body Recruiting


A number of membership based organizations have dealt with a decline in new members at one point or another. There are a myriad of ways to address such a situation.  Some organizations reduce fees to join or promote special pricing, others increase their marketing, and there are those that hold membership “drives”.  Membership based organizations typically address a declining base with a combination of all three strategies, as well as a host of others.

But what works?

Venerable institutions in the United States seem to be under assault.  More appropriately they are NOT under assault (with fewer new members joining) by their target audience. Rotary, Kiwanis, and Fraternal organizations to name a few are seeing a decrease in new members across the board.   For service organizations such as Rotary and Kiwanis it is not a matter of a reduced need in the community for service.   Much to the contrary; there are more nonprofit service agencies now than ever before.

The National Center for Charitable Statistics provides wonderful analysis and reporting on nonprofit entities, public and private.  A recent comparison (available here as a custom report) shows triple the amount of registered 501(c)3 public charities now as compared to the 1980’s.  Furthermore they provide that there are:

  • 1,549,296 tax-exempt organizations, including:
    • 1,076,309 public charities
    • 103,430 private foundations
    • 369,557 other types of nonprofit organizations, including chambers of commerce, fraternal organizations and civic leagues.


All of these opportunities lead to the challenge of attracting new members.

The rub, the trap, the concern for member based groups is known as warm body recruiting.  Warm body recruiting is the situation of accepting anyone that walks through your door and shows an interest in your organization and its mission.  This type of attitude can become a slippery slope very quickly.  If you open the flood gates to a host of new members you need to consider the long term ramifications for your organization.

  • Are you relaxing policies or qualifications to join?
  • Will this change the overall make up and culture of your organization?
  • What is the opinion of current members, past presidents and other important members?
  • How will this affect your philanthropic efforts?

These are but a few questions that an organization should consider if they choose to accept the person who walks through the door unannounced.  Furthermore, has the effect on your current members been considered? Will they leave?  Are you watering down the gravitas or community standing of your organization? Important questions all.

The true discussion then is this: Do you stay the course and dwindle? Or do you address the challenges, make changes and move forward?

The latter seems the best course of action, but I caution you to MAINTAIN THE IDEALS that made your organization great.  People today are not joiners, yet they are doers.  This point is made clear in Robert Putnam’s, “Bowling Alone”.  That means that to attract these people (and make them JOIN your group) you need to provide them with the Value Proposition for your organization.  What will be their ROI if they join you?

These are specific to each group, but vastly important.

One of the ways that Columbus Rotary (The Rotary Club of Columbus, Ohio) is addressing this matter is to meet with every new prospect on an individual basis.  Rotary is a membership based service club that “Joins Leaders to Exchange Ideas and Take Action on a community and international level”.  Whether a prospect is introduced to the Club by a current member or they walk through the door ready to join each person receives individual attention.

These meetings are meant to find out what makes the prospect tick; what they are looking for, and how they can plug in to the organization quickly.  They are also designed to show the prospect that the organization has a standard to uphold.  Membership isn’t attained with a piece of paper and a check.

Engaging new members within the first month or so of membership tends to reap benefits for the organization. They maintain their membership, volunteer for boards and committees, and support the organization financially.  This compared to those whose application is accepted, dues collected and are herded through an orientation.  We typically see the latter cancelling membership after one year.

One thing remains clear.  A person joins an organization when they feel welcome and where they can become engaged.  Schedules these days are packed full with other responsibilities be it family, career, school, etc.  The importance of a personal approach; making someone feel special, cannot be underscored.

Can they be overwhelmed by engagement, most certainly, but that is a subject for another time.

Scott Brown is the Executive Director of the Columbus Rotary Club in Columbus, Ohio.  He has more than 15 years of experience with non-profit and volunteer organizations.