3 Ways to Manage Organization Memberships and Help Your Group Thrive
Membership and message form the core of association management. Without members, you don’t have a group, and without a focus, you don’t have a message. That’s the philosophical basis of non-profit groups, but on the practical level, membership management requires practical tools to ensure that you engage with and retain the members who are so essential to your purpose.
So how do you connect with your members and keep them loyally involved? Beyond their interest in and commitment to your message, you need to think about how you sign them up and keep them enrolled. That’s where association and member management software can make your life as an organization administrator ever so much easier, with tools to simplify both signup and renewal processes. Beyond the practical value of those tools, begin with a full consideration of what your membership offers and why your members should continue their commitment to your group.
“What’s in it for me?” The question may sound self-centered when you put it that simply, but in essence, that’s exactly what members ask you and what you have to answer to engage them.
Chances are that you establish the cost of your membership levels based on assumptions about the role of membership dues in funding your organization, in comparison to groups that you consider to be similar to yours in size or prominence, or (whether or not you want to admit it) purely randomly. Ideally, the cost of membership should reflect the value that members receive for the money they pay, either in terms of goods and services or based on some level of status or prestige.
So the randomly chosen membership fee structure isn’t such a great idea. Unless your group benefits from a substantial financial base derived from sources other than membership, you need to connect the cost of membership directly to the value it provides.
How long does a membership last? The answer to that question is as individual as your group itself. Short-term memberships may look appealing for groups that center their activities around seasonal athletics or goals that accompany a school year, for example, but for other groups, longer terms make better sense. If the goals for which a member joins your group take longer to play out, it makes no sense to sell that member a one-month or even six-month membership.
Put yourself in your members’ shoes and think about membership duration in terms of the way they look at their involvement with your organization. What do they want to accomplish? How long will it take? Is your group one that automatically experiences a certain amount of membership churn as members age out of what you offer? Or are you focused on enduring, more nearly philosophical values and objectives to which members can remain committed for years? Structure your membership duration to match the reasons your members join.
Once you think about membership from the standpoint of ideal length, with one or more levels depending on the nature of your group, you need to consider how you handle membership renewals. The two basic versions of this process—opt in versus opt out—take different approaches to membership that essentially amount to viewing it either as a privilege or as an obligation.
You may never describe your membership categories publicly in these terms. However, when you design membership as an opt-in process, in which one membership term expires and the member engages in a subsequent term on a completely voluntary basis, you treat membership as a privilege that your members confer on your group because they value what you offer or what you stand for.
Conversely, an opt-out membership process automatically renews at the end of each membership term. This process forces the member to reconsider what amounts to an obligation and decide whether to re-engage with it each time it expires.
Each of these approaches offers value. The opt-in process essentially says to your members, “We value you enough to give you full, conscious control over whether you continue your relationship with us, and trust that you will decide to do so.” When you take this approach, you risk losing some members—and gain the respect of others who believe this is the correct way to handle membership engagement.
In contrast, the opt-out process commodifies the membership and makes it cyclical. Only those members who track their renewal dates and actively decide not to renew will withdraw, but opt-out memberships can leave some people wary of a relationship that requires some vigilance to discontinue.
You may make more money with opt out, but you may make more fans with opt in. Entirely beyond these questions of mindset and value, you must consider whether local regulations mandate one approach or the other. In some areas, only the opt-in approach is allowed by law. Know the rules in your state or city and make sure that your membership system complies with them.
What to consider
Regardless of how you decide to approach these questions of member engagement and management, it’s essential that you communicate your terms clearly upfront to prospects and equally clearly on an ongoing basis to members who sign up with you. No organization wants to deal with chargebacks, if members mistake an auto renewal for an invalid charge on their credit card. The fallout from this kind of financial accident can have more negative consequences than the occasional membership loss in an opt-in system.
Look for association management software with membership management features that make it easy for you to handle these matters the way you want to conduct them—and to change the way your organization does business if you so choose. However you decide to approach membership value, duration, and renewal, remember to put communication first, and your policies will meet with greater member approval.