Sunday, April 4, 2010
What is a "Membership Model" Anyway?
What has it meant in practicality? One of our early efforts in this area was a poll that we conducted online in November to collect potential case studies. We're only now following up with interviewees, but we have also developed some draft white papers regarding what those models could or should be. Not surprisingly, many of them don't look like most associations do today; I think of it as a corollary to Kevin Holland's key question "Why we all do the same stuff?" We are all shaped by the same forces and we react in similar ways, as individuals and organizations. I liken it to the same primeval factors that account for, say, why hills look pretty much the same all around the world—plate tectonics, volcanic activity, erosion, man's presence—all work the same, so why should they look any different?
One could argue that people have free will, and we're free to cast out to find and implement truly innovative membership models, but something always seems to holds us back. The actual report we're developing is much more interesting and constructive, but anyway I'd choose to slice it, our empirical review of membership organization structures in terms of their economics, the kind/degree of bundles of services, the number of tiers, the conscious structural relationships between members & customers, all might be described as falling within 'plus or minus 20%' of each other. You rarely see radical mutations, or structures that appear to be truly unique adaptations to the industry or profession that they serve.
Perhaps it's because we are (as staff and volunteers) risk-averse and we're more willing to act to fill holes in our existing slate of programs that we are to tinker with the fundamentals of what we've done that's gotten us through the first 25 or 50 years of our existence, but I know most of the innovative structures we describe in this project will be very different than what most of us have today. For inspiration we'll be looking to churches, retailers, online communities—a mix of traditional and new entities who have found ways to succeed relative to their mission, which hasn't necessarily equated to being profitable.
I think back to how we initially introduced this project to our peers in the association community: "Given the unprecedented economic downturn and ever-expanding technology landscape that is widening the range of choices that individuals and organizations have, we are seeking to identify associations who have or are in the midst of revitalizing, revamping, or resetting their business/association and membership models to steer a new course in advancing their mission." We have had some fascinating discussions, but to describe true innovation, we will be relying more on our imaginations than on current practice.