Recently we’ve worked with several organizations that have some sort of membership model. One is a private school, another an association with several tiers of membership, a third is an advocacy group reliant on a subscription model. For all of these organizations, a challenge looms: Paid annual “memberships” are dropping steadily. Part of this is generational: Millennials are not habitually joiners. The spirit of annual membership in a nonprofit is stronger in Boomers and GenXers. Whatever the bundle of causes, the mindset of those willing to “join” to cover high fixed costs of institutions like private schools, museums or theaters is a waning phenomenon. And those willing to “join” to support advocacy efforts or public goods like NPR? No better.
In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville traveled from France to study American prisons. In reality, he absorbed the American socio-political ethos, turning what he experienced into two volumes entitled “Democracy in America.” His view of Americans? A nation of joiners:
“Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small; Americans use associations to give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools. Finally, if it is a question of bringing to light a truth or developing a sentiment with the support of a great example, they associate. Everywhere that, at the head of a new undertaking, you see the government in France and a great lord in England, count on it that you will perceive an association in the United States.”
It is clear that this joiner mentality is undergoing some fundamental shifts. We could quote de Tocqueville at our clients and they would not thank us for it. Instead, we’ve been working with clients to develop clearer understandings of what value those former joiners — be they members, private-school parents, museum goers, annual seat-buyers or subscriber advocates — are seeking from their association with a given organization. Once we have that clear picture of what supporters or stakeholders want and value, we help clients restructure their offerings — or their entire business model — to favor where the marketplace is headed.
The distinguishing factor we’ve found is between nonprofit organizations that are preparing for this slow steady change and organizations that are not. The former — the preparers — are willing to shift their model, brand, structures and efforts to recognize a fundamentally new marketplace for affiliation. The latter are sticking to their current models, willing to go down with the membership graph line.
What we see is simple: If you rely on a membership or joining model, you better be able to deliver a very clear and distinct value to your members, not information that they believe should be available on the internet for free, but something tangible and differentiating. Membership organizations with that kind of value proposition will be able to keep their heads above water even when other joiner groups are in steep decline.