Whether the Mission of an association drives membership, or Member benefits drive membership seems to be a hot topic of discussion these days. A national decline in association membership and the idea that membership does not appeal to the younger generation is at the forefront of the debate. Some argue that mission driven associations are a dying breed, focused on the past and how things ‘used to be done.’ It is their opinion that the missions that drove membership in the past are not relevant to the present pool of potential members. But does it follow that the mission of the organization is responsible for the decline in association membership?
Associations are formed when a group of individuals band together for a common purpose. The National Rifle Association (NRA) founded in 1871, is one of the country’s oldest associations. Its primary mission, still cited on its website today, is to “protect and defend the Constitution of the United States…especially the right to keep and bear arms.” Even though the NRA desired to advance rifle marksmanship, its primary role has always focused on retaining civil liberties.
The mission of the National Association of the Deaf, founded in 1881, is “to preserve, protect and promote the civil, human and linguistic rights of deaf and hard of hearing people in the United States of America.”
In 1919, the National Farm Bureau Federation was established. Consisting of farmers from 30 states, their goal was to make their voices heard on a national level. They joined with other agricultural associations in order to influence state and national agricultural policies.
These organizations were all formed on the basis of fundamental concerns regarding the future. Members felt that in uniting they could more effectively protect their interests and meet the needs of their constituency. This is still the common bond of most associations today.
Perhaps the decline in membership reveals a decline in the confidence that associations can actually accomplish the mission. According to most generational articles I read today, the consensus is that the current generation volunteers for projects and causes rather than through the traditional association memberships. They want to make a difference on a personal level.
Theda Skocpol, in an article entitled Associations Without Members, gives a plausible explanation for the change in attitude:
“A variety of factors have contributed, including racial and gender change; shifts in the political opportunity structure; new techniques and models for building organizations; and recent transformations in US class relations. Taken together, I suggest, these account for the civic America’s abrupt and momentous transition from membership to advocacy…today’s professionals are more likely to see themselves as expert individuals who can best contribute to national well-being by working with other specialists to tackle complex technical or social problems.”
What does this mean for the future of the traditional association – or the National Watermelon Association?
Many suggest that prospective members are looking at return on their investment when they evaluate the pros and cons of membership in associations. Membership benefits that serve the broader community, industry, or profession are of less value to this generation than the personal benefits of membership.
Associations that have seen an increase in membership and engagement have been those who have broadened their mission to make an impact on the social issues that concern their members or have provided their members with specific personal opportunities.
The AARP has seen their membership consistently grow over the past three decades by providing their members with commercial discounts and a presence in Washington that monitors state and federal legislation that affects its members.
I have a hard time believing that the generation that we target for membership is so opportunistic. I am convinced that we simply have to do a better job at communicating the value of membership. There are no benefits to industry, profession, or nation without united effort toward a specific goal. I agree with Theda Skocpol’s conclusion and share it as my own conclusion.
“Since the 1960’s, many good things have happened in America. New voices are now heard, and there have been invaluable gains in equality and liberty. But vital links in the nation’s associational life have frayed, and we may need to find creative ways to repair those links if America is to avoid becoming a country of detached spectators. There is no going back to the civic world we have lost. But we Americans can and should look for ways to recreate the best of our civic past in the new forms suited to a renewed democratic future.”
If you have any comments, please feel free to share them.
Skocpol, Theda. “Associations Without Members.” The American Prospect. N.p., 19 Dec. 2001. Web. 29 May 2015. <http://prospect.org/article/associations-without-members>.