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Membership Recruitment & Retention

“The Decision to Join” – How individuals determine value and why they choose to belong
By James Dalton and Monica Dignam
Research and Analysis from ASAE & The Center for Association Leadership

Executive Summary By: Suzanne C. Pine, Executive Vice President

In 2007 ASAE & The Center for Association Leadership issued groundbreaking research titled The Decision to Join. The research was designed with three primary parts:

  1. Respondentís predisposition to join, because it asked a series of questions about respondent attitudes toward associations in general.
  2. Sponsoring associations asked respondents about their perceptions of the value that a particular association delivers and how those values influence (or would influence in the case of nonmembers) their decision to join.
  3. Demographic questions that were used to generate the cross-tabulations.

The Decision to Join data provides valuable information that will help associations understand why some people join and others do not. But more importantly, the data shows that members choose first to affiliate with your organization and then to engage with you. Therefore, your brand is extremely important in recruiting and keeping members. Philip Kotler, leading author and marketing expert, writes: “A brand is defined as a promise of value.”

  • There were 16,944 responses to the survey. In addition to their relationship (or lack thereof) to one or more of the 18 co-sponsoring associations, the 16,944 respondents identified memberships in 5,200 other associations covering the gambit in scope from local to international, interest areas from aviation to zoology, and locations from Abilene to Zimbabwe.
  • The survey also included a large response from people who are not now members of any association, both among those who have been a member of one or more associations in the past and among those who have never been a member of any association.
  • Image of Associations - When asked a series of questions about the “value of associations” in general, the industry gets very strong positive ratings and negatives that are close to negligible.
  • Former and never members see associations very favorably.
  • Reasons for Dropping – Respondents who reported having dropped their membership in an association at any point in their career were asked to give the reasons why.  Approximately half of them indicate their reason had more to do with career and other life changes than with the performance of the association. 
  • Former members are apt to be more difficult to recruit back into membership because they place less value on timely information about the field, which is the strongest benefit of many associations.
  • One half of the current members who have at some point in the past dropped membership in an association did so for reasons having to do with that association’s performance; the other half did so for reasons that had little to do with the association’s performance. 
  • Former members are more likely to be employed by organizations that don’t pay dues and never members are less likely to know whether their employers provide support, probably because they have not asked.
  • Levels of Involvement – The impact that voluntary service has on the perception of value was looked into by segmenting three groups based on levels of involvement and a fourth for those who were not involved.  Predictably, respondent perception of value received from their association increases with their level of involvement.
  • Advocacy, networking, and opportunities to gain leadership experience are benefits that become significantly more important as level of involvement increases.
  • Probability of being a “promoter” of the association increases with level of involvement.
  • The value of networking increases significantly with level of involvement, as does the importance of leadership opportunities.
  • Generations - Several of the benefits to which they as leaders give low importance ratings are the very ones that those difficult-to-recruit young people rate as the most important.
  • All of the attention that has been given to the unique attributes of younger generations and the adverse effects this may have on the future of associations are not corroborated by these findings.
  • The perception of the value of associations increases with age in all but one of the overarching value questions.  Asked about the need for associations five years from now, the youngest age group gives an importance rating that surges ahead of all other age groups.  This corresponds with other research indicating that this awakening regarding the value of associations occurs in the late 20’s to early 30’s.
  • The assumption that the younger age group is more comfortable with emerging technologies is not supported.
  • Gender - When males and females are compared without regard to their work settings, the differences in the way they discern value from their association are modest. 
  • At first glance, gender appears to have little influence on an individual’s decision to join a professional association.
  • In a straight comparison of male and female responses, fewer differences exist between men and women than might be expected.
  • Both women and men in female-dominant fields report a significantly greater sense of value of associations in general and assign greater importance to both personal and good-of-the-order benefits offered through a particular association serving their field.
  • Overall, men tend to volunteer more than women, but both men and women in male-dominant settings volunteer at higher rates than they do in integrated or female-dominant settings.
  • Women put greater emphasis on the need to take collective actions that will change their environments, while men emphasize the need to acquire information on the environment they are in and the implications that has for them as individuals.
  • Employment Settings – Regardless of employment setting, when employers endorse the value of association memberships through support for dues payments, those members are, not surprisingly, far more likely to retain their memberships.
  • The number of employers who are willing to pay association dues is dropping precipitously.
  • Respondents working in nonprofit environments, including government and academia, tend to have a higher estimation of the value associations provide than do those in the private sector. 
  • Outside of the United States - Nearly 20 percent of the respondents to this survey were located outside the United States.
  • Global respondents are far less interested than their domestic counterparts in professional development, possibly due to the distances involved; but they are far more interested in networking, where distance is not incidental. 
  • Domestic members rank the establishment and enforcement of a code of ethics near the very top.  When Global respondents enter into the equation, the rank order of ethics drops significantly.   Maintaining a code of ethics is less important to global members certainly due to extreme variations in the way different nations frame and enforce ethics.
  • From a strategic standpoint, one of the most important considerations that an association’s leadership should take into account when considering growth outside the United States is in understanding the way this population will change the association’s priorities.
  • One of the more distinguishing attributes of the respondents residing outside the United States is that networking is high on their list of important benefits despite the reasonable inclination to think that distance might inhibit this.  Furthermore, they show a stronger tendency to volunteer.
  • Training and professional development benefits were not as important to global respondents.
  • Global members rank government advocacy lower than do United States members.
  • By a very substantial margin, global respondents have a higher employer affiliation with academic institutions.
  • Global respondents are disproportionately male, the most substantial gender difference seen in any of the segment comparisons.
  • Predisposition is not a predictor that determines how one will make a decision, because thoughtful people are not always consistent in the way they think.  Disconnects emerge as decision makers move from predisposition to their actual choices.
  • Affiliation - The decision to join is more accurately a decision to affiliate.  The term join implies jumping in, like a party in a pool. Affiliate means more than that.  It incorporates the notion of shared identity.
  • Associations are about advancing a cause based on a common vision and shared values.

For a full copy of “The Decision to Join” publication, visit the ASAE web site at http://www.asaecenter.org/Marketplace