Solutions to a Declining Membership

Back in April, I wrote a post titled, “What are the Biggest Impediments to Membership Growth?”

However, I did not talk through potential solutions to these impediments. So here we go with some thoughts on what to do about a declining membership.

I have been doing membership consulting for over twenty five years. During this time, I have noticed that organizations tend to react to membership declines with two types of responses.

The first response is to demand action now. An organization might say, “Our membership numbers are down. We need to send out emails tomorrow to get the numbers up for the month!”

The second reaction that I see is avoidance. “Our membership numbers are down. But I cannot get the staff, chapters, or board to do anything about it.”

Neither of these reactions tends to bring long term solutions to a membership problem. What I have found works best is to help an organization step back and see the big picture and then develop a systemic solution to fixing the problem.

A classic treatise that speaks to these organizational tendencies is a book by Peter Senge titled, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of The Learning Organization. In the book he applies the concept of systems thinking to help organizations respond effectively to the challenges that they face.

Systems thinking highlight the inadequacies from the response that says “do something now” or simply work harder to solve the problem. This organizational response generally results in just kicking the can down the road. System thinkers call this “just push harder” reaction “compensating feedback”. This is “when well intentioned interventions call forth responses from the system that offset the benefits of the intervention. We all know what it feels like to be facing compensating feedback – the harder you push, the harder the system pushes back; the more effort you expend trying to improve matters, the more effort seems to be required.”1

In fact, Senge maintains, “pushing harder and harder on familiar solutions, while fundamental problems persist or worsen, is a reliable indicator of nonsystemic thinking – what we often call the ‘what we need here is a bigger hammer’ syndrome.”2

Systems thinking also speak to the avoidance or victim response to organizational challenges by helping to uncover high leverage solutions to a problem.

A basic premise of The Fifth Discipline is that organizations, economies, and people naturally grow as long as the things preventing that growth are removed. Senge says, “Don’t push growth; remove the factors limiting growth.”

“Systems thinking shows that small, well-focused actions can sometimes produce significant, enduring improvements, if they’re in the right place. Systems thinkers refer to this principle as ‘leverage’. Tackling a difficult problem is often a matter of seeing where the high leverage lies, a change which – with a minimum of effort – would lead to lasting and significant improvement. The only problem is that high-leverage changes are usually highly nonobvious to most participants in the system.” 3

So from a practical perspective instead of treating just the symptoms of a membership problem or being in denial what should one do? How do you bring a systems thinking solution to the problem?

A tool that I recommend to help diagnose a membership challenge from a systems thinking perspective is using a concept called the membership lifecycle.

The lifecycle breaks down each stage of the membership relationship. What I find is the most membership problems exist in one of the five lifecycle stages of awareness, recruitment, engagement, renewal, or reinstatement. Identifying the root membership problem can lead to a highly leveraged or efficient solution.

You can download a free whitepaper that outlines this concept using this link.

There is hope for a declining membership. Don’t give up. Step back and identify the key impediment to growth and work on fixing that nonobvious problem first.

1. The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization, by Peter M. Senge, p 58.
2. Ibid. p. 61
3. Ibid. p 63-64


Terry Coatta said...

I've been heavily involved with a couple of associations over the past decade or so, and the 5 stages of membership match my experience fairly well.

The place where problems come up most frequently in my experience are somwhere between engagement and renewal. Often when members don't renew, a common reason seems to be that they didn't feel like they were getting value for their money.

I think that various free platforms out there exacerbate this problem (LinkedIn, Facebook, because they all provide some degree of networking/connection between people, which is often what members are looking for.

Given that, how do associations compete? They need to effectively use the advantages they already possess. And the biggest advantage is their member base -- a collection of people with knowledge and skills in a particular domain.

Associations often think that engagement means "engagement between the association and the member", but in fact, I think a more powerful way to think of this is "fostering engagement between members". So associations need to look for ways to help members discover and connect with one another.

Tony Rossell said...

Terry -- Thanks for your comments. I think that you have hit a couple of nails on the head. My post last year, "The Correlation of Social Media Usage and Membership Growth", addresses some of what you are seeing.

I think that the value issue is perhaps the number one strategic discussion for associations to have right now. Thanks again for your thoughts. Tony