Does your association’s tail wag your membership’s dog?

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Who’s responsible for association culture? The association staff, or its membership?

[Association culture? Here’s a definition by Jamie Notter.]
“Organizational culture is the collection of words, actions, thoughts, and ‘stuff’ that clarifies and reinforces what a company truly values.”
—Jamie Notter, Definition of Organizational Culture

To explore this question, let’s be clear about which culture we’re talking. I view an association as a group of people with a shared mission, the organizational incarnation of a community of practice. Every association has an internal culture, formed by its staff, while existing in an external culture, its members’ relationships with each other and the industry or realm they inhabit.

In a dynamic association, these two cultures constantly interact with, inform, and influence each other. This leads us to the question.

Who’s responsible for external association culture?

Is it an association’s staff, or its membership? At first glance, internal association culture is the direct responsibility of its staff, usually steered by the board, which (hopefully) includes and represents members.

But who’s responsible for external association culture, which determines how members learn from and work with each other, and how the association impacts and influences the wider world?

Here’s how Joe Rominiecki, writing for Associations Now, describes what external culture can look like:

“It might be collaborative or it might be competitive. It might value academic accomplishment or it might value real-world experience. It might embrace diversity or it might fear it. Whatever your members’ culture might be, it’s there.”
—Joe Rominiecki, Where membership and culture meet

Later in the same article, Joe says:

“If any player has the position and influence to change the culture in an entire industry, it’s an association, because that’s exactly the sort of change an association is designed to do.

I disagree.

I think the primary purpose of an association is not to change “external culture”—i.e. the culture of its collective members—but rather to support and strengthen the culture. If you see associations as multi-purpose tools for communities of practice, then it’s the community itself that determines what kind of supporting and strengthening capabilities the association builds into its toolkit.

The internal culture then becomes the way in which the association structures and organizes itself to best support the external culture embodied in its membership.

Healthy external association culture

I’ve consulted with hundreds of associations over the last three decades, have served on numerous boards, and been a member of many non-profits. In my experience, healthy associations foster continual conversations between staff and members. These conversations develop the association in response to the wants and needs of the membership, the resources available to the association, and the pressures and challenges posed by the association’s commitment to its mission in the context of its changing external environment.

Such conversations can involve questions like:

  • What should the association be doing that it isn’t (or what should it do less of)?
  • How political should the association be?
  • How much member and societal education should the association provide or support, and what kind?
  • What useful things can and/or should the association do that individual members can’t and/or won’t?

There are no “right” answers to such questions. What’s important is that association culture allows and expects staff and members to ask them. And, of course, that there are mechanisms in place to:

  • Support the resulting conversations; and
  • Create appropriate organizational and programmatic changes when needed.

The devolution of responsibility from association members to staff

Finally, we get to the title question asked by this post: Does your association’s tail wag your membership’s dog? One unfortunate trend I sometimes see, especially with larger associations, is that responsibility for the external culture swings towards the staff at the expense of the membership. This is understandable. As associations grow, individual members tend to assume that the association leadership will “handle” the external cultural issues. (“Hey, I’ve got a business to run! That’s what my association’s staff gets paid to do!”) But that doesn’t mean that the staff should take over this important responsibility.

Instead, it’s vital that staff maintain a leadership role supporting how an association defines its external culture. That includes staying in close touch with member needs and wants, and the external political, social, and cultural environments. How an association responds to wants, needs, and external events, must always involve the entire association community — staff and members — so the organization responds and changes in a healthy way.

Photo attribution: Flickr user itsgreg

Is unmembership the future of associations?

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Unmembership? What’s that?” It’s a word invented by my creative friend Mitchell Beer during a wonderful ninety minute coffee break during the 2014 PCMA Convening Leaders conference a few weeks ago. Let me explain.

First, some definitions. In this post I use the term “formal member” to refer someone who has paid dues to be an association member, while “informal members” are those people who would currently consider themselves to have a significant connection with an association. Unlike informal membership, the exact number of formal members of an association can be quantified at any moment from an AMS report. Associations that have no formal members use what Mitchell calls an unmembership model.

The role of membership in association business models

Over the past few years there’s been a growing debate about the role of membership in association business models. I’m sure I’ve only heard a portion of it, but a great place to start is Jeff De Cagna‘s excellent July 2012 articles Five reasons why membership is killing association business models Part I, Part II, and Part III. (I’ve included links to some other discussions at the end of this post.)

Jeff’s reasons for concern are that membership-centric business models:

  • organize all value around the membership relationship;
  • tend to focus on association outputs instead of stakeholder outcomes;
  • often depend on cross-subsidies that create unintended consequences;
  • ask members to make the most important decisions about new value creation; and
  • require a significant investment of human effort for an insufficient return.

A couple of examples of unmembership

I agree with all of Jeff’s arguments. Rather than repeat them I recommend you go and read the original articles. In this post I’ll share my experience as the co-founder and president of two small associations, which now both use the unmembership model.

The Marlboro School Association

One of these associations, a 501(c)(3), is so small that its lack of formal members is not especially remarkable. The Marlboro School Association (MSA) was founded in 1994 to raise an endowment for the small K-8 public school in the Vermont town (2000 census population, 978) where I live; endowment income is used to improve attending students’ educational experience. The MSA was set up using an unmembership model right from the start. Volunteers run this non-profit, which has built a $250,000 endowment over the last twenty years. The informal members of the MSA are those community members who support the work of the MSA through donations of money or their time. We have no need for formal members.


The other association, edACCESS, a 501(c)(6), was founded in 1992 as a vehicle for administrative IT staff at small schools to explore the use of some amazing new devices called “personal computers”. For ten years, edACCESS used an annual dues membership model. At the time it seemed necessary. Potential vendors for our annual trade show would ask us how many members we had, and we felt compelled to be able to give them a number.

But over the years it became clear that maintaining formal membership was more trouble than it was worth. We discovered that tracking and collecting dues from formal members was distracting us from our core mission: supporting and fostering a community of informal members who shared the association’s purpose. In 2002 we abandoned our formal membership model. The trade show vendors didn’t seem to mind, because by then they were asking how many decision-makers would be attending our annual conference, and we had good information available for them.

Volunteers ran edACCESS for sixteen years. In 2008, when I stopped consulting in the educational IT field and began a professional shift to meeting design, I asked the organization (the board, our conference steering committee, and the participants at the annual conference) if it would consider paying me to continue to coordinate its activities. Now I am the sole paid, very part-time, staff member (volunteers receive various perks and we reimburse their expenses).

The annual conference process effectively uncovers participants’ issues and occasionally leads us to hold further focused events during the year. A listserv (old-fashioned, but effective) and private wiki provide places for community members to access resources, ask questions and get support at any time. We also run a site-visit program that allows interested schools to receive targeted consulting for modest fees.

What is the edACCESS revenue model? Our income comes almost entirely from our events—the vast majority from our annual 3½-day conference. We construct our event budgets to cover our modest administrative needs. Over the years we have built up sufficient funds to weather several years of poorly attended or canceled events, though we have had no problems so far during our 22 years.

What can we conclude from these examples?

First of all, I hope they illustrate that unmembeship is a viable path for small associations. The MSA has enjoyed a few hundred informal members during its history, edACCESS a few thousand. Both associations are fulfilling their missions while maintaining healthy finances. As Joe Rominiecki comments in his article referenced below, adopting an unmembership model “removes some complacency; the organization has to be relevant to its community, or the community will just go elsewhere. They haven’t committed money in advance that might keep them around.”

What about associations that supply other benefits to their members? Industry research, lobbying, and chapter support, for example, all cost money to provide. I think there’s a role here for tying support to unbundled programs using a Kickstarter approach. “Want your association to do X? $Y is what such-and-such level of X will cost. Here are suggested donation amounts, (which might be associated with specific individual/corporate benefits). If pledges reach $Y we’ll do X, otherwise we won’t.” Funding models for potential programs would incorporate the associated administrative expenses incurred. In other words, rather than guess or impose what your association community wants, let them choose for themselves.

“Free membership” association models

I haven’t said anything so far about “free membership” association models that straddle the formal and informal definitions I’ve given above. Clearly, as the rapid growth of Doximity shows, there can be demand for a free service when the target “member” is a well-compensated professional defined by third-party certification. The question in my mind is whether it’s possible to generate sufficient revenue to pay for the “free” service. In Doximity’s case, revenue currently seems to be a combination of advertising, LinkedIn-like recruiting firm fees, and, perhaps, ultimately consumer subscriptions to some kind of referral service. Time will tell whether this is a sustainable model.

Finally I don’t think that all associations will embrace an unmembership model in the future. For example, any associations that have a lock on key certification requirements or continuing education for their industry are very unlikely to give up the membership income that their members essentially have to provide to become or remain certified in their field. Nevertheless, I expect there to be a growing trend towards unmembership associations providing flexible unbundled services to the informal members who find them of value.

Other posts that may be of interest on the role of membership in associations

Are Free Membership Models the Future for Associations? by Joshua Paul, Socius, March 2011
Who Belongs to Whom? by Joe Rominiecki, Associations Now, September 2013
New Social Network for Docs Already Outpaces AMA Membership, by Rob Stott, Associations Now, January 2014

Photo attribution: Flickr user sonofgroucho