Is There a Membership Gene?

The future of membership is often debated in associations, non-profits and local communities. Is membership a concept that’s time has passed and we are looking to a societal future of “bowling alone”? Or is membership and association with others something that is at our core as humans?

I tend to think that although how we associate will certainly change, there seems to be a consistent recognition across the ages of this human characteristic of coming together around common interests. From Aristotle to Alexis de Tocqueville to Dr. Suess, there seems to be recognition that we need each other.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) wrote, “For men journey together with a view to some particular advantage, and to provide something that they need for the purposes of life; and it is for the sake of advantage that the political community too seems both to have come together originally and to endure.”1.

In addition, Alexis de Tocqueville saw the particular expression of this membership tendency in America. He wrote, “In no country in the world has the principle of association been more successfully used, or more unsparingly applied to a multitude of different objects, than in America. Besides the permanent associations which are established by law under the names of townships, cities, and counties, a vast number of others are formed and maintained by the agency of private individuals . . . in the United States associations are established to promote public order, commerce, industry, morality, and religion; for there is no end which the human will, seconded by the collective exertions of individuals, despairs of attaining.”2.

Finally, in a lesson that Simon Sinek draws from no one less than Dr. Suess, he writes, “Dr. Suess explained it best. [There is a] very basic human need – the need to belong. Our need to belong is not rational, but it is a constant that exists across all people in all cultures. It is a feeling we get when those around us share our values and beliefs. When we feel like we belong we feel connected and we feel safe. As humans we crave the feeling and we seek it out.”3.

As membership professionals, our key to success is better understanding how to meet this “need to belong” and harness this desire for “collective exertions” for some “particular advantage”.

1. Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle book viii 9
2. Democracy in America, Volume 1 by Alexis de Tocqueville, chapter 6 “Political Associations in the United States”
3. Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, Simon Sinek,Penguin Group, 2009, page 53.

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