What to do about Declining Association Membership?


As I mentioned in my post, You Gotta Have Growth!, I just had the opportunity to do a seminar for a network of small non-profits at their annual meeting.

Based on the background I had received, I knew before I came to the meeting that many in this groups were struggling. The network was made up of committed and passionate leaders of organizations, but most were facing hard times.

But I really did not need the background. I seem to meet with non-profits and associations that are facing no growth or decline regularly. Lack of growth seems to be a virus that has infected the non-profit sector.

Tom Hood provided some compelling statistics that highlight this trend in his chapter in ASAE and The Center’s book, Membership Essentials.

“According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average annual growth rate for associations was 3.8 percent – barely above the 3.2 percent real growth in the U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for the 10-year period between 1992 and 2002.”

He also noted that “The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Survey on the Future of the Completive Association found that 62 percent of associations actually performed below the average GDP rate, with a total growth rate below 20 percent for the same 10-year period. Yet the for-profit commercial sector grew by more than 52 percent during the same time frame.”

Tom concluded by saying, “While a few fast-growing nonprofit organizations are exceptions to this rule, most are struggling to maintain flat or slightly declining memberships.”[1]

In fact just this week, I read an ASAE post by Mike Van Alstine the Growth Coordinator for The National Exchange Club (NEC). He shared, “For the past 20 years the NEC has been on a consistent downward trend in membership of significant size, on average 1,000 members a year. So, if you follow that back to 1987, our membership was a little over 48K.” NEC membership now stands at 26,000 members.

Fortunately, for NEC, Mike reported that he had arrested this decline in membership (more on what he did later). But I have no doubt that it was a painful ride down to that point.

So what did I share with this network of discouraged non-profit leaders. I spoke on the topic of “Marketing Principles to Grow Your Non-Profit” and covered four topics.

1. Are marketing and growth bad?
2. Why do I need to grow my non-profit?
3. What is preventing my non-profit from growing?
4. How then do I grow my non-profit?

In the next couple of posts, I will go over what I shared and some of the feedback that I received.


[1] Membership Essentials, ASAE and The Center for Association Leadership, 2008, page 121.

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