Just What Am I Joining?

I honestly can't remember the last time I saw real anger expressed in a blog dialogue in the association community, but that's what we have right now in the midst of a multi-blog exchange that all started with Joe Flowers' post about why he is not going to renew his ASAE membership in 2011. Start with his post, and read ALL of the comments. I'll give you a minute, because it's a lot. My good friends Shelly Alcorn and Tom Morrison get into it a bit.

There are also comments on the SocialFish post about it, and now Scott Briscoe from ASAE posted about it on Acronym, and among the first three comments there is already a bit of a heated exchange between Mark Golden and Maggie McGary.

There is a fair amount of polarization in the conversation overall. There's a lot of "you're either with the association and what it does for the profession, or you're a myopic, free-riding good for nothing," just as there is a big dose of "you either understand how social media has changed the association model or you're a we've-always-done-it-that-way dinosaur that isn't turning to fossil fuel fast enough." I'm exaggerating a little, but not much.

To be fair, though, there is a lot of really thoughtful exchange in those comments too, so don't throw the baby out with the bath water. There's some really good learning in there. But the polarization bugs me, because it seems to take us farther away from the learning.

This isn't about whether virtual is replacing face to face when it comes to relationship building and professional development. You need both. Period. Associations provide both, and with their centralized resources they are often in a better position than others to offer the face to face experiences. But that doesn't say anything about membership and joining and belonging. I try not to remind my boss about how much money my organization spends for me to travel to and pay registration fees for ASAE events, but it completely dwarfs my dues payment. I think for a single conference my checked bag fees might be more than my dues (hey, does that make me a "member" of United? Sweet!).

And it's not a conflict between "good of the order" and "what's in it for me." That's another one where you need both. If you were to provide zero benefit to me but take my money, that would be more like a tax than a dues payment. And isn't it our goal as associations to provide free rides? We're working for the good of the order right? I never thought "the order" was restricted to the people who contributed money. So I don't feel like the dues question–should I join/renew or not–is really about just personal benefit or just community benefit.

In fact, as my comment to Joe's post points out, the real question that remains unanswered for me, is, just what am I joining in an association these days? What is the difference between being in and being out? As many have pointed out, this isn't an ASAE-only question. I face the same thing with association clients I manage. People can come to our events and pay non member rates and get all of the networking and education benefits, not to mention what everyone can access for free online. So what are they really a part of by paying dues?

The answers will not only vary by association, they will vary by member. Some will pay dues simply to MAKE themselves take advantage of the opportunities for engagement. Some will pay dues because they know it helps with the lobbying. Some will pay dues because they want to engage at a volunteer level, and that's the price of admission. Some will pay dues because they get a warm fuzzy about helping the industry. Some will pay dues because they think the public recognition of being "in" will help them get a job or consulting gigs or otherwise advance their career. Some will pay dues because they flat out love ASAE, and they don't particularly know how or why ASAE became the context for so much of what is right with their lives, but it did, and they will continue to pay $100 or $200 or $300 per year without batting an eye because you can't put a price tag on love. 

I think what is maybe new here, or at least evolving, is that the membership part–the being in versus being out–is becoming more and more detached from the more concrete benefits and features. Maybe I'm oversimplifying, but in the old days, you got "in" the professional association to get access to all the stuff. It was the only place to network or get education or get the journal content, so you paid the price. You also got the relationships and the love and the other stuff and it all felt more "bundled" in with the dues (even if you paid a la carte for much of it). But now that equation is much different. What makes those things happen cuts across the association, the social media outlets, OTHER organizations, etc. It's messier (like most ecosystems, actually). All that I love about the association community is not owned by ASAE, yet they are the only ones I pay dues to. It makes sense to me to question that notion these days. 

I keep coming back to love. Whether or not you collect dues from people, when you tap into love, you've got something that will likely generate resources for the enterprise over the long term. You won't be able to own or control the love part of the relationship (that's true in the rest of your life too, by the way). Don't hope that people will ONLY love your association. But If I'm ASAE, I'm going to read Joe's post again. I'm not sure I would try to change Joe's mind about the educational value or attack him for being a free-rider. I would look at it more abstractly. Where Joe represents a class of people who are early in their career, but already seem to be making a deep connection to the association profession. How do I stay a part of that connection, even if I can't get dues from these people and they seem to draw much of their value from free social media networks? How do I help grow the connection to the profession and stay a part of the professional lives of all the "Joes" out there? I have to think there would be a long-term payoff if I figured some of that out.


  1. 06.01.2011 at 6:30 am

    Wonderful post Jamie, one that tells the story of what so many organization are currently experiencing in such an eminently readable way.
    Whether we call it love or connection, we need our organizations to be conduits for people who care and the things they care about that can advance our professions or industries. Paying dues then (for me) feels like a worthwhile donation to a cause I believe in, not a down payment on benefits I am about to receive.
    I offered my own take on this topic in my most recent blog post here:http://bit.ly/gXxHq0

  2. 06.01.2011 at 9:08 am

    Hi, Jamie. Excellent observations on this blog dialogue (I participated somewhat myself).
    You identify the polarization and I agree; too often in all aspects of our life, people get defensive. When we question, we challenge. When we challenge, we make people uncomfortable. When people are uncomfortable, they lash out.
    To question is not to say it’s wrong; it’s merely exploring what might be different. Sometimes different is better but sometimes it’s not. But, we don’t know if we don’t explore.
    There was a short exchange on the ASAE Executive Management list the other day about the current dues model (should associations have dues or not?) There were several “knee jerk” reactions about the “need for dues” and comments like “what if everything were free?” and “who will pay for things?”
    Unfortunately, there will always be people who cling to “that’s the way we’ve always done it.”
    The best plans incorporate a complex (meaning multi-part) response to the ever-changing environment around us. To find the best combination takes trial and error, and the willingness to risk. Sometimes we try something and it doesn’t work, but at least we learn something in the process, like “I’ll never try *that* again!”
    If we cannot have these conversations about the association community without everyone being open to possibilities, we will always be stuck on the polar ends of questions instead of sharing insights and suggestions on what could be better.
    Our imaginations are powerful tools and we should apply them more often in looking at our organizations and their structure, systems, and services.

  3. 06.01.2011 at 9:21 am

    Weirdly, through this whole thing, my allegiance to ASAE has grown stronger…go figure. I don’t know if it’s because it’s made me think about why I chose to renew my membership (after many months of debating it) and weighing what being a member represents or what. To me, it’s not a money thing–my employer pays my ASAE dues, so the $200 or whatever it is is a non-issue. It’s about the choice of whether or not I want to be associated with ASAE…whether it’s an organization I feel proud to be affiliated with or don’t want to have anything to do with. Even though I hate the listservs and I cannot, for the life of me, understand why the private community they launched sucks so badly, overall I like it well enough to offer my time on an ongoing basis, speaking at ASAE events, volunteering in various capacities, and even recommending it to people I meet in some of the other communities I’m active in.
    I think you’re totally right about the love thing–I may have a love/hate relationship with ASAE in some ways, but overall the warm-fuzzy feeling of being part of the association community must, on some level, tie back to ASAE because not only am I still a member despite my complaints, I find myself, at the start of a new year, considering going for my CAE and/or getting more involved with volunteering for ASAE.

  4. Scott
    07.01.2011 at 10:09 am

    The last half of your last paragraph contains the ultimate questions for associations in this context. Do we learn from such valuable insight from a very recent former member? Or do we continue on the same path? In politics there is the ultimate poll question. ‘Are we headed in the right direction? Or are we headed down the wrong track?
    Maybe association leadership ought to ask that very simple, yet revealing question to members.

  5. 11.02.2011 at 6:23 pm

    Hi Jamie,
    It all boils down to the member education and constant contact. Unfortunately once the member signs up, he is ‘pinged’ until the next renewal comes up. Thats the sad part.
    Syd Irfan
    Lead Consultant
    Association Manager™