Membership organizations must change to grow

dv1492004Despite the recession, conferences and industry membership organizations continue to host annual, regional, and local events. Zintro asked membership organizations how they are faring in a slow economy and what they are doing to increase membership and attendance.

John Reed is an expert in the culinary arts. He is also an active member and president elect of a ACF Windy City Professional Culinarians Inc., a chapter of the American Culinary Federation. “I am well aware of the challenges of being part of a professional organization in today’s marketplace. Local chapters are managed by volunteers with an elected board of non-paid members who participate because we see the value of being part of a professional organization of like-minded individuals,” he says. “Organizations such as ours provide a competitive advantage in the marketplace with certification, continual education, and networking opportunities. These are the keys to advancement in our present employment market.”

Reed says that his organization’s main challenge is to have validation for members who pay annual dues and fees. “Our chapter’s membership has remained flat over the last few years, but the members who have participated and used the resources provided through educational and networking have seen a positive return on their dues,” he says. “We are working with our local culinary schools and educators to promote our organization, not by direct recruiting but through support and recognition of achievements by the chapter. It is about education and exposure to the benefits of being part of an energized and engaged membership that makes a difference. Connecting potential employers with students is huge. Students who get involved learn organizational, team building, and problem solving skills. If our organization can facilitate this, then we believe our ranks will grow from the ground up.”

Reed is trying to move his chapter toward more virtual interaction where the traditional meeting format is abandoned for online activities and exchange of information. “This fits well with our modern lifestyle of real-time information in a digital online format. The information needs to be relevant and available to everyone not just the membership,” he says.

Robert Heiblim works in the consumer electronics market and is an active member of several membership organizations surrounding and supporting the industry. “What I observe is that the effects of the current economic environment are mixed depending on the organization and the benefits it provides to members,” he says. “For example, I am active in the Consumer Electronics Association and it remains vibrant, attracting new members. The bulk of these members come from the tangible benefits the organization offers, which are varied enough to appeal to a wide range of professionals. They represent runs the gamut of shareholders in the industry from retailers to equipment makers, designer and marketers.” The opportunity to network to develop business is probably the top value, so are discounts on trade shows, research, and state and federal lobbying, notes Heiblim.

Heiblim is also a member of smaller trade organizations that he says are suffering from lack of a clear mission and benefits that are limited to certain member types. “This makes clear to me that value is the driver. While collegiality is always a nice benefit, it cannot be the only one to retain members over the long run,” he says.

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By Maureen Aylward

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