I had a fascinating conversation the other day with the director of a UK nonprofit organisation that has about a thousand individuals and organisations paying annual fees for online services, newsletters, events and all the other stuff that goes with association membership.
As a pretty entrepreneurial outfit the organisation also has dozens of projects on the go with scores of public, private and nonprofit partners. Then there's the host of other people who just want to keep in touch, all making a great cloud of contacts and relationships that are more or less active at any time.
It costs the organisation a lot to maintain these relationships. It costs the members quite a bit in annual fees. We talked about the ways that things could be improved - but the core question we ended up with was: "What's the nature of association membership? What's the point of it these days?"
It used to be that you joined associations because it was a way of meeting like-minded people and getting help, facilities, information and other things difficult or costly to organise for yourself. These days it is much easier to find people and resources online, and to mix and match these assets into project teams, communities of practice, and informal networks.
In addition, the best ideas often come from crossing professional and interest boundaries. That means you have to pay quite a lot of membership fees if you feel conventional associations are the way to get these contacts. Or you join social networking sites like ecademy and LinkedIn as well as building your own networks, perhaps using new applications like the People Aggregator.
There's nothing particularly new in these observations ... except I suspect not many nonprofit associations see what may be coming over the horizon. And even if you do sniff something new and threatening in the air, what do you do about it? Most of your members are probably just about coping with basic email and web. You'll be lucky if your staff and Board are up to speed on the changes that new technologies are bringing. Their mindset may well be: why change now when only the minority are doing it differently?
I recommend looking at a blog and forthcoming book appropriate entitled "We Have Always Done it That Way? which offers 101 ideas for associations in the future. It won't offer off-the-shelf solutions to my questioning director friend, because it is based on US experience and does assume fairly high tech competence among association members. The non-tech ideas require some translation into the UK culture, and our legal and funding regimes. I think those translations will be made, and have recently bumped into a few people from the social software and knowledge management fields lucky enough to have nonprofit clients waking up to the challenge.
Meanwhile I'm happy to spend a fair bit on membership of the distinctly upmarket Institute of Directors (as well as other lower-cost nonprofits) even if I don't agree with their political line most of the time. Why? Well, there's the free meeting facilities in different cities, excellent seminars, legal and other services, and the generally excellent level of service. I feel looked after.... and you get half a case of fine wines if you recruit a new member. Anyone want to sign up and split that?