Membership Rolls Dropping. What Does 'Support' Look Like?

My latest article on my blog at the Washington Times Communities, Public Square Today, is now live:

Membership Rolls Dropping. What Does ‘Support’ Look Like?

Yesterday on the DC Metro, I found myself seated behind someone who was reviewing the minutes from a board meeting. I don’t normally read over shoulders but this was just about being shoved in my face. The font was large and clear and had lots of bold. I recommend that people think twice about what sensitive documents they peruse in public — I am not proud to say I could not stop myself from glancing along.

Be Careful, Stick Figure by Flickr user chad_k
'Be Careful, Stick Figure' by Flickr user chad_k

The heading proclaimed these as the minutes from the meeting of a very high profile national advocacy organization. This is an organization that has been around for decades and has been very effective in changing national views on a range of issues. (I am not saying what group this is.)

The page my travelling companion was reading recapped a contentious discussion about membership. Turns out that this organization has fewer than 60,000 members. That caught me up short. It seemed wildly out of step with the organization’s powerful profile.

It also opens up a window into the crisis of confidence that large nonprofit institutions are  facing throughout society. Everywhere you turn, you see formerly-major institutions losing relevancy and crumbling. They are good organizations that do good work. But they are running into brick walls all over the place. The United Way, the League of Women Voters, many public broadcasting stations, and more. Community benefit organizations are facing more difficulty in fundraising, and increasing skepticism. And memberships are falling off the cliff.

Shrinking memberships is a real problem for these organizations, as dues are one of their important revenue sources. Here’s one thing that I believe is going on: The perceived value of my membership has increased. That is, it takes a lot more to get me to “join” an organization now than it used to.

There are many reasons for this. An argument could be made that declining membership rolls are reflective of a sector that is ripe for a shakeup. That may be part of it. But there is a broader force as well.

There are now more ways to show one’s support of a cause, campaign, or organization than there used to be. From easy “liking” and “fanning” on Facebook to retweets, online petitions, and blog comments, the spectrum of options available to prospective members has widened and deepened. Actual, dues-paying membership is ‘way over there at the edge.

Effective organizations are taking account of this and are finding new ways to find revenue (creating for-profit non-profit hybrids), and using new metrics besides just  “members.” For mission-based organizations, focusing on “members” will undercount your actual influence and distort your operations, taking you off mission. More important is having a good understanding about how people move from one form of support to another, what levers you can push to encourage that, and what the utility is of each form of support.

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