On trying to map membership

We had a great dinner for CEOs of the organisations involved in the Future of Membership project last night, which followed a productive – if exhausting – day of scenario planning for the full project think tank last week.

Over supper, we got into a long discussion as to why we have membership.  It’s a question that’s come up again and again throughout the project – what do we mean by membership?  Often, it really it depends on what each organisation says it is. 

We’ve tried throughout the project to come up with a typology of membership, mainly based around key axes of democratic rights and responsibilities, and tangible benefits and ‘payments’ of time or money.  In our initial meetings we had a further twelve ‘continuums’ of membership based around factors such as age of members, federalised or centralised structure and the like. 

Last night, the CEOs round the table came up with a tripartite division between Fundraising membership (membership as solely revenue generating), Activist membership (members as campaigning on behalf of the organisation, with full involvement in shaping the organisation’s direction) and Footsoldier membership(members campaigning and fundraising on behalf of the organisation but around set messages).

As we’ve developed our thinking on typologies, one of the things I’ve found most useful has been Gordon and Babchuk’s “Typology of Voluntary Associations”, written in the States in 1959. This distinguishes between ‘expressive’ (this says something about me as a member) and ‘instrumental’ (by being a member I can get things done to make the world a better place) memberships.  What this exposed, which fits with my knowledge of membership organisations, is that there is often a huge overlap between the two – particularly where there are local parts of a national charity.  If I join a membership organisation to get something done, it fast becomes something I think about a lot, and a part of how I think of myself.  With time these kinds of feelings across a membership can result in a mission creep on aggregate – an organisation becomes about not what it does but who its members are and their own set of beliefs (“we’ve always done it that way”).  But there is also a huge opportunity in this that often we fail to capitalise on as membership organisations – as organisations we can be a large part of people’s lives and identities.

I’ve also found very useful the distinction made by in the 1990s by Alix Slater and Debi Hayes between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ benefits.  Harder tangible benefits are often offered alongside softer benefits with less financial, but equally strong personal, value. Among these are the warm sense of belonging, which is a major reason for being a member for many members and organisations.  Perhaps we risk underselling this aspect – particularly in retention, where altruism seems to play a larger part than in recruitment – at our peril.

These typologies are something we’re still grappling with, because there are many parameters to consider.  But it’s useful to consider them, because it helps us as membership organisations to understand the breadth of form within the sector.  It also helps us to think about not only where we fit, but also to what extent our actions are in keeping: not only with the aims of our organisation, but also with the type of membership our members feel they hold.

Last updated at 14:06 Tue 24/Nov/09.
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