Chris Glennie summarises the key challenges faced by modern membership organisations.
Over the last ten or so years, following a 20-year career in academic and educational publishing, I have worked at, consulted for or sat on the board of half a dozen professional membership bodies. Which is my way of saying: I’ve seen a few things. I can say with a good deal of confidence that they all resemble each other in different ways, and it’s not hard to recognise, wherever you go, the particular challenges that they face.
As I am up against a very specific deadline, it would be tempting for me to meander gently down some well-worn paths in response to the question of the key challenges faced by the sector. ‘Relevance’, anyone? ‘Value for money’ perhaps? Or who will raise me ‘digital transformation?’ (what does even mean)? Each of these remains pervasive and critical, but I doubt I’d add much to the debate right here, right now.
Instead, let me throw out the following challenges equally worthy of debate but about which I hear too little:
- Are your governance arrangements fit-for-purpose? How many boards have genuine diversity – and I don’t mean gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation, but diversity in terms of professional skills, knowledge, experience, background, and perspective? Does everyone instead come from the membership, likely locked existentially into a fixed conception of what ‘their’ professional body is/does? I would wager that those who have asked this question and tackled it have seen real benefits.
- Does your body genuinely serve its membership – I mean, really? Do you even really know who your membership is? What I’m driving at is this: The professional membership body industry is essentially structured as if professional careers, underpinned by a qualification, are still linear and for life. But they aren’t either of these things. Look at my own as an example, and I’m far from unique. What members actually need throughout their careers now is access to many different offerings and forms of support from many sources, including other professional bodies or commercial competitors. Do we offer this? Do we even really try? When we frantically run our annual renewals process (and how much effort goes into that in comparison?), how much heed do we give to this reality?
- And so, in a related fashion, are you trying, perversely, to do too much? I’m struck when I see really quite small businesses doing most of the following: Running a membership subscription service, a magazine, qualifications and training, regional networking groups, annual conferences, podcasts, webinars and possibly other commercial services on top. It’s incredible, and hats off, but it’s also exhausting just to think about. No wonder everyone is frazzled and anxious and somehow feels like they are not getting enough done. Is it time to rethink what we should be doing, stop wasting members’ money and create more efficient ways of servicing their needs?
Whole, and much longer, articles could be written on each of the above. Of course, it is easier to ask questions than present solutions. However, I offer them in a spirit of opening them for debate, a debate I would welcome.