Are You Indispensable to Your Members?

When I go to association conferences, read the ASAE listserv, and visit association blogs, I continually hear people talk about delivering “value” to members and keeping members by providing value. provides a lot of definitions of value. One for example is:

Value -- Relative worth, merit, or importance: the value of a college education; the value of a queen in chess.

One of my colleagues -- who by the way helped inspire my recent post on “Membership Interdependence” through vision, reward and recognition -- uses a much better word to highlight what associations are seeking to achieve with membership. He uses the word “indispensable”.

Indispensable -- Absolutely necessary, essential, or requisite: an indispensable member of the staff.

In a brainstorming session today when we asked a client to define the value they provide members, we did not get too far beyond information and networking. But when we asked what members found indispensable, the ideas began to flow. Surveys show that members with the association’s designation make more money (reward), there is real industry honor accorded to those who carry the membership designation (recognition), and the association is effectively improving the image of the industry through forceful enforcement of ethical standards (vision).

What do you think about becoming indispensible instead of providing value?


Kevin said...

Tony, perhaps the reason they were having a hard time identifying "value" is that the things they identified as making them "indispensable" aren't particularly .... well, valuable.

That sounds harsher than I mean it to. What I mean is, two of the three examples you mention are tied to the association's "designation" (am I assume to mean that this is a certification of some sort?). One of them -- people with our certification make more money than those who don't -- is a tangible, marketable value (assuming they have real data to back it up). The other, "real industry honor", is not. In any event, they are about the certification, not membership.

The third thing, "effectively improving the industry image," is unfortunately not something that many people are willing to pay for. It's like advocacy; members of a profession or industry expect the association to "advocate" but do not feel particularly compelled to pay for it. You might be able to guilt some people into paying up in a one-on-one situation, but in most associations with sizable market bases, one-on-one marketing is of limited value.

I'm not arguing with the notion that associations should be indispensable to their members' success -- far from it. I believe associations need to figure out how they are indispensable (if they are) and how to use it to their advantage. I just fear that some of these things fall into the standard "association-speak" and I believe that we all must be be very clear-eyed about what it is we offer and what it is our members really value. It is seductively easy to fall into the trap of thinking that certain "association things" are indispensable just because we associations are the only ones that do them. (It may very well be that no one else does them because your market doesn't particularly value them.)

Just a thought. Thanks as always for your provocative posts!

Tony Rossell said...

Kevin -- Exellent comments. I think that looking at value using the lens of indispensability helped shift paradigms for me and in our conversation with our client. Tony

Vinay said...

The way I see it, becoming indispensable is certainly nice and it's tied to value.

There is a third factor that is also very important here to consider to achieving increased retention.

I would add that as we become more and more active members, we end up naturally forming many friendships and those friendships add richness to our lives. Therefore that emotional connection, emotional bond that forms is also very powerful and important to retention. Therefore, we must work hard to engage our members, get them involved in various forums.

While this emotional connection is difficult to measure, it is no less powerful then the concept of value and this too contributes to that indispensability.

Tony Rossell said...

Vinay -- Thanks for sharing. I have appreciated your comments and those of others on my posts related to engagement, interdependence, renewal, and indispensability. There has been a real richness in this feedback. It goes to show that the relational bond with a member has a lot to it. Thanks for the feedback. Tony