Local nonprofit leaders, survey respondents share opportunities and challenges facing membership-based nonprofits
by Shari Finnell, editor/writer, Not-for-profit News
No matter the nonprofit entity, numbers are traditionally used as a measure of success. How many people showed up at an event? How many email subscribers are on our list? How many donors have contributed to our cause? How many people are we serving?
In the case of some nonprofits, another critical measure of overall viability is the number of people they can count as members. These membership organizations operate by focusing on providing value to their membership community as well as supporting the causes they serve.
The landscape has significantly changed since many membership organizations were founded decades ago, according to several local leaders, challenging them to find new ways to engage people who may not be familiar with organizations like the Rotary Club, and Kappa Delta Pi, and numerous foundations, fraternities, sororities, churches, and professional, charitable, and veterans’ associations.
“There’s been a 20-year trend of associations and membership organizations trying to ensure they’re remaining relevant,” said Tonja Eagan, CEO of Kappa Delta Pi (KDP), an international honor society for educators that was founded in 1911. The organization’s headquarters are in Indianapolis.
Eagan said people who fall in the Millennials category have represented the most significant generational shift in attitudes about membership organizations. Before then, boomers and other previous generations had a deeper connection with membership organizations. “They have these long-standing traditions,” Eagan said.
“Millennials, mainly because of the use of technology and different ways of communicating and socializing, did not find many of these long-standing traditions as relevant,” she added. “Now, people might say, ‘Why do I need to come to this association meeting when I can just set up a Facebook group?’”
However, Eagan said, new research is providing insights on how associations and membership organizations can effectively recruit and engage younger generations.
As part of one of those studies, researchers with the 2022 Global Membership Health Study surveyed members, board of directors, and staff of 275 associations in 59 countries. The study revealed a significant gap in how board members and members perceived how their organizations provided value and opportunities for engagement.
According to the study’s findings, “Associations are seeking to understand the concept of value, especially in this era of constant and evolving change. The study suggests that it’s the lack of value, more than anything else, which is driving members away. Despite the knowledge this gap exists, the data also indicates associations have been unable to successfully bridge the gap.”
For example, while 49 percent of board members and staff who participated in the study strongly agreed with the statement “Membership provides a strong return on investment,” only 35 percent of members agreed with that statement.
Jenny Dexter, president of the Rotary Club of Indianapolis, said the value proposition of joining the organization has changed since the 1990s and early 2000s when the club’s membership levels often ranged from 600 to 650.
“That was during a time when a lot of businesses had headquarters in downtown Indianapolis,” Dexter recalled. “If you wanted to get connected in the community, you joined an organization. The Rotary made a lot of sense because it is a community service-oriented club and it allowed for networking around service.”
However, with changes in communication, that model may no longer be relevant to many people.
“The business landscape has changed over time,” she added. “Being super involved in your community is important but it looks different.”
As a result, Dexter said, traditional service-model membership clubs started seeing a decline in membership.
Brand perception about some traditional membership clubs also can be a challenge, Dexter said. “We have to deal with our history. Women weren’t even allowed in many of these clubs,” she noted. The Rotary Club Council, for example, did not vote to admit women members until 1989.
Currently, the Rotary Club of Indianapolis — one of several chapters in the Indianapolis area — has 169 members, which is higher than it has been in previous years, Dexter said.
The organization has grown its membership by focusing on building a brand experience that resonates with new members, according to Exter. “We’ve asked questions like, ‘What is it like when someone walks in our door?’,” she said. ‘What are the things that we’re saying about ourselves?’ ‘What are we doing in our community?’ ‘What are our actions that prove we are a modern service membership club?’”
Dexter said she believes the upward trend in the Rotary Club’s membership has the potential to continue as networking and relationship building once again become increasingly important, especially post-pandemic. “It’s another important component to building one’s business,” she said. “You still need to know others on a deeper level to gain trust and prove that you are worth investing in.”
The American Legion, which is headquartered in Indianapolis, also has relied on a membership model since it was founded in 1919. Throughout its history, it has regularly held campaigns to increase membership and membership engagement.
“The Wall Street Journal predicted our demise in 1971,” said John Raughter, deputy director of media relations for the American Legion. “People sometimes point out membership numbers to say ‘They’re dying’ or that ‘This post is closing.’ Yet, there are still twice as many legion posts as there are Walmarts across the United States. We’re still here.”
Raughter said that veterans’ associations may naturally face a decline in membership because of its association with the military, which has declined in numbers over the decades. Membership is open to any U.S. military veteran who served at least one day of active military duty, and was honorably discharged or is currently serving.
“The military is a lot smaller than it used to be,” Raughter said.
The most important measure of the American Legion’s impact is its ability to be effective in carrying out its mission to influence policy on behalf of veterans, he said.
Engaging a new generation
When seeking to engage new members, Eagan said, membership organizations need to be mindful of generational differences.
Membership organizations can no longer rely on career development, learning a new competency, and networking to attract new members, she said. “We need to ask, ‘How do you make it more relational and more meaningful?’ If associations can’t figure that out, then they’ll continue on this path of declining membership.”
Members are seeking a deep sense of belonging and ownership of the group, Eagan said, nothing the findings of the membership study. “In the old days, pre-pandemic, the way we would do that is to sign them up for a committee right away. We would engage people through volunteerism or a service day.”
However, the appeal of volunteering is not as attractive as it was before the pandemic, she said. “Plenty of research has revealed an incredible decrease in volunteerism since the pandemic,” she said. “People have decided they want to spend their time differently. Or they may be having health issues, or they’ve decided to spend more time with family or their hobbies.”
With those changes, membership organizations, as well as other nonprofits, need to focus on rethinking how they provide value to current and new members.
Eagan said organizations need to consider a more personalized approach — honing on the individual needs of individual members. “People are just burned out on webinars and being force fed information,” she said. “So, we started new teacher chats — an informal Zoom meet that gave members who are typically first-year and second-year teachers an opportunity to talk to our director of new teacher engagement and a guest, like a school principal who was a former teacher.”
As part of the chat session, people have the opportunity to share what’s going on in their day-to-day lives, including positive or negative moments, their top concerns, and how they’re feeling, Eagan said. “It’s not a formal agenda,” she added. “They just come and chat for about an hour or hour and a half.”
One of the members attending a recent chat followed up with an email expressing her gratitude for the support she received as a new teacher. In the email she said, “I definitely felt welcomed and comfortable to ask you questions, which I probably wouldn’t have been able to ask other staff members at my school.”
Eagan said that type of connection is key to a successful membership experience.
“For many of us coming out of the pandemic, and for Gen Z and Millennials, it’s important to feel that you can have a safe authentic experience and relationships,” she said. “Unfortunately, social media may not provide that authentic experience. And we may not always feel safe sharing our feelings in the workplace.”
With a more personalized approach to meeting the needs of members and demonstrating a clear return on investment from membership dues, traditional membership organizations can be sustainable, Eagan predicted.
For instance KDP, has partnered with a for-profit organization to provide professional development services to its members, Eagan said. The organization also is seeking ways to support the mental health needs of educators and the students they serve.
“Associations can survive and thrive if they listen intently to the members,” she said. “Members want to be sure they’re investing their time and money wisely.”