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

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