If your membership changes, your organisation needs to listen

Posted on 12 Apr 2023

By Adele Stowe-Lindner, general manager, Institute of Community Directors Australia

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You'll need to understand your organisation's community to make sense of membership.

In kids’ sport, we often tell our smaller competitors that a short-term loss can be a long-term win if it teaches us to reflect and learn.

ICDA general manager Adele Stowe-Lindner

Organisations that are grappling with dwindling membership numbers can learn from this too. When you hear that members do not feel the organisation is worth their time, effort or fees, there might be some quick and easy fixes you can apply to prevent others from following that same path. Sometimes people feel disenfranchised or frustrated because they want something that they feel your organisation does not offer, when in fact it does. In this case, it is important for the board to reflect on how regularly the organisation communicates with the membership, what information you share, and how you share that information.

Over the (hopefully) long life of an organisation, the nature and size of the membership can change considerably. Newer organisations often attract different members from more established ones, so the lifecycle of one organisation can engage different types of stakeholders over a long period of time. For example, those excited by the agile energy of a small start-up organisation may be put off by the standardisation of its culture when it becomes larger and more mainstream. Developing a good understanding of your community can help you to grow or to maintain your numbers as things outside your control change around you.

Sudden increases in membership can cause problems too! Not everyone wants bigger numbers – some may have enjoyed your organisation when it was more intimate. Keeping your regulars while being open to new business is a problem for all sectors. How will you listen to and empathise with those people? The law of unintended consequences means that when we make a decision about one issue, there are likely to be knock-on effects we did not predict, which can cause other problems or benefits. A sudden increase in members can highlight a change that has happened in your organisation, and give rise to interesting reflections about how your organisation might adapt to keep both newer members and longer-serving ones.

Assuming you want new members to stay, communicating well and listening well are as important as ever. When you hear that newer members are looking for specific things that you don’t yet offer, how can you integrate new ideas to remain relevant, while not changing beyond recognition? Reviewing your fee structure, being open to new ideas and opportunities, trying out pilot programs and trials, and considering the new skills that might be on offer from new members can all help your organisation to thrive even through growing pains.

More information

Membership case studies
Choir members not singing from the same song sheet | Pray this never happens to your organisation | Mining association digs itself into trouble

Help sheets
Safeguard your membership | Dealing with AGM disputes | Agony Uncle: ‘Is this director really a member?’

Membership criteria
Constitutions | 10 ways to write a ‘perfect’ constitution | Legal requirements of AGMs

More of Adele's leadership insights

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