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.