One association’s unwavering commitment to achieve a membership goal sustained it through a crisis, allowed it to reach its goal, and gave it a blueprint for future success.
The Association of Proposal Management Professionals was firing on all pistons headed toward a lofty goal of reaching a 10,000-member milestone when the pandemic struck. Instead of suspending membership dues, Rick Harris, APMP’s CEO, decided on a counterintuitive approach. He doubled down on the membership goal and kept moving forward, conducting business as usual.
APMP amped up promotional and outreach efforts, and members responded. “When things are so disturbing and upsetting, there’s a comfort in normality,” Harris said. “We took the approach: We’re all in this together and we’re all moving forward as a team, an association, and an industry.”
Harris recalled using a similar strategy after 9/11 when he was at the helm of a much larger association. During that crisis, some associations relaxed on membership, but Harris had a hunch that wasn’t the right approach. It was important to “work through the pain,” show continued engagement, and deliver value, he said. APMP encouraged members who were experiencing hardship to call if they needed help. Fewer than 10 people called.
Since COVID-19 arrived, APMP has increased its standard one webinar a month to as many as four per month. Harris’ team knew that members needed the influx of information on navigating the pandemic and combined that stepped-up content delivery with an ongoing membership push to 10K.
Their steadfast dedication paid off: They reached the milestone at the end of May. It was an impressive achievement—even more so because they did it in the midst of a pandemic. “Reaching the milestone was one of the most gratifying things that has happened to me in 32-plus years as an association executive,” Harris said.
A 10-Year Effort
APMP set the goal 10 years ago, and in nine of the 10 years it has experienced a 10 percent or higher growth in membership. Harris attributes this to leadership and staff buy-in—from top to bottom—and an absolute commitment to reaching the goal.
APMP branded everything with the 10K initiative. Every new staff member was asked to commit to the drive to reach 10,000 members, and the goal was formalized in the strategic plan. In making decisions about programs and other expenditures, the staff committed to looking at three things before investing even one dollar: Will the investment grow membership? Does it escalate the professional development of current members? How soon will we see a return on investment on the first two points?
Over time, the increase in membership began to fuel APMP’s financial growth. With more money, they could create more programming for members, which improved member retention: It was a circular process that board members understood, and it helped solidify their support.
The Secret Sauce
Harris credits the book The Art of Membership by Sheri Jacobs as the guiding principle for reaching APMP’s membership goal. His main takeaway? “Keep membership front and center, and make it the center of your universe. Everything is ancillary after that.” For any association, particularly a small one, to grow, he said, “membership is your secret sauce.”
The upshot? Harris and his team will adjust their tactics based on what they have learned in the past several months and use that information to inform how they move forward. Harris said they learned their members want them close in a crisis, and they appreciated the additional content and support, so APMP will continue to be a beacon in the storm—and beyond.
Someone recently asked Harris what’s next. “Easy,” he said, “20K.”
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