Does your organization exist to serve its members, or to serve the industry at large? Association consultant Ed Rigsbee considers the question from both sides.
Associations are tasked with two roles as the face of a given industry. First, they’re expected to serve their members, who pay annual dues to support their organizations. But additionally, they act as the primary voice of the industry, setting regulations and creating public messaging that aims to raise all boats.
Which role takes precedence, and how do you strike a balance? Ed Rigsbee, principal of Rigsbee Research and author of The ROI of Membership, said that this discussion depends on the shape of the organization and the industry that surrounds it.
“Is it a trade association or a professional society? Is it an association or society that’s in a space that’s heavily regulated?” he asked. “In some associations or societies where there’s not much regulation, serving the industry is kind of a misnomer.”
But associations that have a lot of public-facing work meet a real challenge: If the association loses its focus on members in an effort to care for the community at large, members won’t see the value in paying their dues. Here are some thoughts from Rigsbee on balancing the relationship between serving members and serving the broader industry:
- Consider the way you structure advocacy updates. Advocacy and industry assistance may go hand in hand, but just because it benefits everyone doesn’t mean that members don’t get something out of it. Rigsbee suggests keeping the juiciest details on legislative updates as a strict member benefit, even if the legislation has a benefit for nonmembers too. “As long as they’re only sending those legislative updates and only making them more valuable for their members, they’re really doing a good job of serving both the industry and their members,” he said.
- Understand the differences between types of members. People who join your association at the start of their careers are going to want something different than what people later in their careers might want. And those greener members might not be in it for the mission—at least, not at first. “Most people join the trade association not just for their industry, but to grow their business, to grow their career, to grow their finances—because this is where the knowledge is, this is where the players are,” Rigsbee said of younger members. But those who have been with the organization for longer periods? “Now they’re in a place in their life where they want to transition from being just merely successful to being significant,” he said. The result is that creating broader initiatives means more to those classes of members—and that can impact how they value public-facing work as a part of their membership.
- Embrace the role that certification can play in your industry. Outside of advocacy, associations can directly impact the industry by building standards-based approaches to certification. Speaking from his experience in the roofing industry, Rigbsee highlighted the challenges the field has faced with unlicensed roofers. “They don’t really have a business; they have a pickup truck, and they have a few tools,” he said. By regulating the industry to encourage basic standards and certifications for roofing, it helped the industry maintain a reputation of quality—which has a positive effect on legitimate roofers and those getting their services. “It helps the residents, it helps the industry, but it really helps the members to thrive,” he said.
- Take care in not leaning too hard on advocacy. Associations may want to move the needle on important legislation, but if their members are more concerned with other benefits, such as professional development, it might be hard to convince those parties to join or renew if there aren’t enough direct member benefits to provide value. Rigsbee pointed to the work of the Associated General Contractors of Georgia, which offers workers’ compensation insurance for its members, as an example of direct value. “We’ve got to do something to create value for our members so they’re going to be members, so now we can have the money and the numbers of people to do the advocacy work we want to do,” he said.
Ultimately, when it comes to advocacy and mission, Rigsbee said that membership matters most—because it makes advocacy more powerful in the long run.
“I think about it from the perspective of, if I go to the state house and I have 100 members, they might listen to me,” he says. “If I go to the state house and I’ve got 10,000 members—that’s 10,000 constituents, 10,000 voters—they’re going to listen to me, because I represent a big voting bloc.”
But without that voting bloc, your influence just isn’t as bright.
“If you’re too focused on the advocacy work, then you’re not gonna have the members,” he says.
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