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.