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Should Organizations Worry About a Decline in Membership? 3 Experts Weigh In

Author: Tatiana Morand
December 11, 2020
🕑 9 min read

Last month we released the 2020 Membership Growth Report: Benchmarks and Insights for Growing Revenue and Constituents to find out how membership organizations grew (or didn’t grow) their membership and revenue throughout 2019.

We learned what tactics organizations are using — what works for them and what doesn’t.

We also learned that a whopping 68% of organizations surveyed had difficulty growing their membership.

In fact, 25% didn’t grow at all and 11% even shrank!

So what does this mean? Are membership organizations really on the decline?

To help answer this question, we turned to experts in the membership field and asked their thoughts on the challenges of growing membership. More importantly, we asked what organizations can do to overcome these challenges and continue to thrive through the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.

If you haven’t already read the 2020 Membership Growth Report, you can download it here before you dive into our experts’ commentary.

Read More: 35 Membership Stats You Must Know in 2020

And without further ado, here are the experts we consulted:

Amanda Kaiser

Amanda KaiserAmanda Kaiser owns Kaiser Insights LLC, a qualitative member research firm. To date, Amanda has conducted over 400 in-depth member interviews for large and small, trade and professional associations. Through these conversations, she comes to understand members’ goals, challenges, and worries, then translates these insights into strategies that exponentially improve member engagement. Channeling these member insights, Amanda writes a weekly blog focused on associations at

Joy Duling

Joy DulingSince 2005, Joy Duling and her team have been supporting associations and other member-based organizations as they launch, run and grow their programs. In addition to her consulting role, Joy has served as Executive Director for a community-based nonprofit, growing the organization from scratch to annual revenues of $1.3 million exclusively from membership contributions in just 3 years. Joy’s clients describe her as a vital resource and a secret weapon, helping them map an ideal path to achieve their growth goals.

Sarah Sladek

Sarah SladekSarah Sladek is the CEO of XYZ University, the only company in North America that specializes in helping organizations engage younger generations. She has presented on the generational topic to audiences worldwide, and is the author of several books, including Knowing Y: Engage the Next Generation Now (2014), The End of Membership As We Know It (2011), and Talent Generation, which will hit shelves in the summer of 2017.

Why do you think so many membership organizations are struggling to grow their membership?

Amanda Kaiser:

Before COVID, we saw most that membership organizations’ engagement metrics were already declining. It was harder to get people to join, renew, volunteer, and even read our emails than it was ten years ago. What changed? People are busier now. It’s not uncommon to hear someone say they now do the job of 2 or 3 people.

Right now, with COVID, many professionals are more time-staved than ever because some professionals have added teacher, gym coach, school counselor, and cafeteria gourmet to their roster of responsibilities. Simultaneously, as we all have less time, there is more fighting for our attention, more content, more courses, more are solutions available than ever before. Associations are losing their share of mind because there are so many other demands and distractions.

Finally, some associations have a growing gap between the organization and the members. Because the organization is out of sync with members, the solutions they provide might not be exactly what members need any longer.

Joy Duling:

One of the major headlines in the report is that 68% of organizations had difficulty growing membership and this is indeed striking. However, when you look at the chart on page 6, you can also read that as 90% of organizations either had some growth or stayed the same. There’s long been a perception about the membership industry that it’s “dying” out and I simply haven’t found that to be true. While there is certainly ample room for growth, I definitely don’t think this is a doom and gloom story.

When organizations say that they’ve experienced slow growth or no growth in 2020, I think there are a couple of reasons for that. First, for many people, 2020 has been either a year of financial set-backs or a year of “wait-and-see” because financial set-backs could potentially be looming. That’s just the reality of the world that we’ve all been living in.

However, I also think that, given what organizations perceive that members may be experiencing, I think that many of them have taken their foot off the gas, not pushing for membership growth as aggressively as they might have done in the past. The result of these two dynamics happening simultaneously is a definite slow-down in new joins and renewals.

Sarah Sladek:

I’ve been researching membership engagement trends for 20 years now and the simple fact is, membership decline occurs when associations aren’t responsive to the needs, interests, and expectations of their members. When membership decline first made headlines, there was this widespread belief that people aren’t “joiners” anymore.

The reality is, we’ve experienced numerous social disruptions in recent decades, and these disruptions have directly influenced shifts in buying behaviors, communication preferences, and values. How members engage in associations and what they want from their membership experiences has changed — and will continue to do so. Change is a constant now.

Unfortunately, many associations have held steadfast to tradition, resisted change, and backburnered innovation. They forgot they were membership associations and stopped putting their members’ needs and interests first.

Read More: Why Associations Need to Innovate to Survive

What advice do you have for membership organizations who are worried about engaging and retaining members throughout COVID-19?

Amanda Kaiser:

Over time it is not uncommon for an organization to get slightly out of sync with their members or customers. The secret is to close that gap by talking with members. Talk to them about their worries, challenges, and goals. After talking to enough members, you will start to hear pronounced patterns. For example, you might find that many members struggle with influencing others, customers, management, business leads, or people in other departments. Once you have a challenge worthy of a solution, try many small experiments to see what members like best. When even a small group of members raves about one of the experiments, likely this is a solution that can be developed further. The resulting solutions become the member organization’s new benefits, products, or services.

Joy Duling:

I actually believe that this is the time for membership organizations to step up and shine. When the going gets tough, people need their peer communities and industry leadership more than ever. Now is the time to think outside of the box in order to meet members where they are and to create value in ways that you possibly haven’t tried in the past. The organizations that come through 2020 stronger are those that were nimble enough to pivot to meet emerging member needs. Being able to do so builds a lot of engagement and loyalty.

Read More: Top 10 Most Downloaded WordPress Membership Plugins (of all time)

Sarah Sladek:

Membership should be growing right now. Yes, growing! In times of crisis, people seek solutions, community, and information. In times of crisis, associations are a shelter in the storm. If membership isn’t growing right now, contact a membership strategist and get the guidance you need to immediately resolve the issue.

Read More: The Ultimate Guide to Creating A Membership Site

What do you think membership organizations need to do in 2021 to stay relevant to their existing and potential members?

Amanda Kaiser:

To stay relevant in 2021, membership organizations need to embrace virtual like never before. For example, virtual events will eventually offer more members access to learning and connection, two benefits that many member organizations provide. It might not look like it now because virtual events are in their infancy. But even now, we can see some glimmers of what is in store.

Here is an example:

As a long-time speaker, I marvel at the power of online. When I’m speaking in person, I can’t ask a question and have every single audience member answer it. But online, I can ask a question, and every participant can answer, I can see their answers and respond, and every participant can learn from and talk to every other participant in the chat. What was once a one-way lecture can now inspire a delightful community of co-creation.

Member organizations are busting through all sorts of myths about what a membership organization is and does and what members want. Many members have told me they are thrilled at the move to online events and conferences because they now have the opportunity to attend and participate. Virtual events might not be a placeholder; they might deliver a sizable portion of value to members.

The best resource I can suggest to learn more about this is the Association Industry Innovation Research Study which I fielded, sponsored by the National Business Aviation Association.

Right now one of the best drivers for member engagement is change and innovation. Not only product and benefit innovation, but also service even customer service innovation. This report is all about how the most innovative associations innovate (which is different from the highly published ways that for-profits innovate). Thanks to the NBAA, the report is available for free.

Joy Duling:

The #1 thing that any organization can do to stay relevant is to become crystal clear about the problems that their members are trying to solve and to frame offerings around those specific problems. Too often, when I look at an organization’s list of benefits, the “so what” is painfully missing.

  • You say you offer weekly Zooms? “So what?” What problem does that actually solve?
  • You say you offer a membership directory? “So what?” What problem does that actually solve?
  • You say you offer industry advocacy at the federal and state level? “So what?” What problem does that actually solve?

Of course, it’s not enough to just solve problems. The problems have to be the same burning ones that members are trying to solve. Sometimes those problems change over time, but an organization’s offerings haven’t. By aligning your “so what” with the problems that members know they have, you are guaranteed to be relevant.

I’d also add that there’s long been a perception about the membership industry that it’s “dying” out and I simply haven’t found that to be true. While there is certainly ample room for growth, I definitely don’t think this is a doom and gloom story!

Sarah Sladek:

First and foremost, know what members need, want, and expect. To stay relevant and valuable, associations must understand their community’s needs and what behaviors and deliverables will drive future success. This requires surveying members and opening up channels for on-going feedback and dialogue. I’d also urge associations to deploy a diversified membership strategy which relies on the introduction of new revenue streams, outreach to engage new audiences, and being intentional about bringing new voices and skillsets into the association’s decision-making roles.

COVID has taught us all the values of community and accessibility and it’s made our world much smaller. Going forward, it will be critical that associations serve the needs and interests of the entire community — not just a tiny fraction of it — and offer opportunities for people of all career stages and geographies to get involved and benefit from the association’s deliverables and reach.

What’s Next?

Our experts all agree that there’s definitely still hope for membership growth. In fact, now’s a better time than any to step on the gas and take advantage of the world we’re living in. Organizations who will thrive are ones that adapt, innovate and are in constant communication with their members about what they want and need.

To close off our expert roundup, Joy Duling has shared three podcast episodes with perfect examples of organizations who are growing because they are intentional about listening to members, not being afraid to pivot, and finding creative ways to be relevant. And as an added bonus, they are all using WildApricot!

1.Helpful in Rome

The American Women’s Association of Rome actually grew in 2019 and they credit their transition to WildApricot for helping them modernize and be prepared for the changes that hit this year.

2.Helpful in Shared Purpose

In this episode, the President of the North Country Arts Council shares how she intently listens to what members need. She does a terrific job of framing up how important it is not to just talk about yourself as an organization, but rather to really listen to what members are trying to accomplish and see how your organization can support them in that.

3.Helpful by Hiking

The National Foundation for Danish America is another organization that has experienced growth because they are exceptional at listening to their audience and coming up with creative ways to be helpful. Their President actually hiked 500 miles across the Colorado Trail to raise money for Danish American organizations that his foundation supports.

We hope this expert advice has inspired you to think more intentionally about your membership growth as you continue your planning for 2021.

Once again, if you would like to learn more about trends in membership and revenue growth among organizations like yours and haven’t yet read our 2020 Membership Growth Report, you can download it here.

Best of luck with your membership!

The Membership Growth Report:

Benchmarks & Insights for Growing Revenue and Constituents

Get the report now!