Associations Unorthodox Shift #1: De-emphasize membership

Over the next six weeks, I will publish a post on each of the six shifts presented in my new e-book, Associations Unorthodox: Six Really Radical Shifts Toward the Future, created in collaboration with CHIEF. If you have not done so already, I hope you will download the e-book today. Also, please join me on September 26 from 2 pm-3:30 pm EDT for my webinar on the e-book, presented in collaboration with Peach New Media. As always, I invite your feedback in the comments below, or you can join the Associations Unorthodox conversation on Facebook or Twitter using the hashtag #auxsix.

The Problem

The commitment to growing membership lives within the DNA of all associations. Indeed, the phrase, “membership organization” may well be the most orthodox description of an association’s organizational identity. Without question, it is the operative mental model behind the preponderance of association business models, even when member dues are not a major revenue stream. Yet with sky-high stakeholder expectations for meaningful value, new forms of competition and unfavorable economic shifts putting pressure on established association lines of business, the traditional membership value proposition faces serious long-term challenges. For example, the enormous popularity and global reach of public social networks has altered forever the fundamental human experience of associating, making it simple and mobile, ubiquitous and inexpensive. Membership has become a pass-through, with the effect of commoditizing traditional “pay-to-play” arrangements. As a result, the membership and member centricity of their existing business models is an increasingly unsustainable burden for associations to carry into the future.

The Opportunity

To have the chance to flourish going forward, associations must pursue the complex yet essential work of business model innovation. Specifically, associations must design and implement new business models that embrace building a sustainable capacity for radical new value creation, and not growing membership, as their principal focus. New association business models need to be grounded in an intimate and empathic understanding of the most important personal and professional outcomes their stakeholders wish to achieve. They must be organized around a flexible combination of compelling value propositions supported by strong brand equity, robust organizational capabilities and meaningful tangible and intangible incentives that combine to create new revenue streams and grow future market share. By letting go of the conventional wisdom around membership, associations can integrate their commitment to purposeful action with a clearer pathway toward responsible profitability.

Additional Thoughts

It is extremely difficult for association leaders to reconsider their unswerving commitment to membership as the organizing premise for future business models. Not only is membership orthodoxy deeply inculcated into the mindsets that association leaders bring to their businesses today, but association workflows are supported and reinforced by products, services and advice delivered by consultants, technology companies and other providers operating on the same membership-centric belief system. These partners base their business models on the conventional wisdom that their association customers will continue to hold membership as their paramount concern. In short, the entire association ecosystem operates on a shared set of traditional assumptions around membership, and it offers no obvious structure or incentive for seriously questioning those ways of thinking.

One of the reasons why I wrote Associations Unorthodox is to provide association leaders with a platform for openly and actively pushing back against the sacrosanct yet failing assumptions that are constraining their organizations’ ability to thrive. Last month, I blogged extensively about the negative impact of membership centricity on existing association business models, and I challenged association leaders to adopt a value creation-centric point of view for the design of new business models. By focusing on new value creation, associations can open themselves to a wider variety of meaningful relationships with a more diverse group of future stakeholders, and then nurture those relationships by supporting those stakeholders as they pursue their most important outcomes. This point of view is not a betrayal of membership, but a clear-eyed recognition that associations must think differently in an increasingly competitive and volatile marketplace.

To begin making the shift to de-emphasize membership, association leaders can reflect on the following key questions:

+What are the unintended negative consequences of your association’s membership-centric business model?

+How deeply does your association understand the most important outcomes its current and future stakeholders want to achieve?

+What assets, capabilities and resources does your association have available to create radical new value for its current and future stakeholders?

+How can your association benefit from the “halo effect” created by building and sustaining a strong brand that lives in the hearts and minds of your current and future stakeholders?

Please download Jeff’s new e-book, Associations Unorthodox, and sign up for P.I.’s Serious Questions electronic newsletter!


Jeff De Cagna

Jeff De Cagna is chief strategist and founder of Principled Innovation LLC, and a contrarian thinker on strategy, business models, governing and the future of associations.


  1. Kare Anderson Reply to Kare

    I respect you yet, like Kathleen, i do not see here your more beneficial alternative for associations and it would help to know it to be pulled into learning more

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