Drowning by numbers – Are we in control of our members ?

Last week the European Society of Association Executives (ESAE) organized a peer2peer event in Brussels to find an answer to the question: Is Membership Dead? Being a member, I had the privilege to be one of the speakers warming up the audience for what turned out to be an interesting and lively discussion, covering almost every possible angle for today’s membership models.

While I took side for the more traditional approach, claiming that paid membership is necessary for the ‘mandate’ of the organization and for a healthy commitment of the members, my opponent  Dusan Jakovljevic, explained with ‘verve’ how his organization EEIP grew to over 35,000 members in only 3 years, combining freemium membership with intensive social media, sponsoring by the big players, entering into dialogue with various stakeholders, empowering virtual exchange of knowledge and so forth. As expected when you turn things black and white, a lot of interesting ‘grey shades’ popped up during the debate with the participants.

What struck me the most was the trending concept amongst some of these European/International organizations of the association as a ‘platform’ providing an interactive environment for large groups of members with different profiles, cultural and geographical backgrounds. Big numbers do not match well with small resources. Therefore, these platforms leave aside a centralized command and control approach, and stimulate members to actively engage with each other, sharing data and knowledge, cultivating responsible social curation and ethical behavior while enjoying all the powerful possibilities of the platform and its social media appendices.

Although authority and authenticity of the ‘content’ are still considered to be very important, as this has been core-business for many associations for a very long time, the overload of information and the speed of consuming it and bringing it into the decision-making process overrule these traditional principles of content dissemination. Good content will curate itself and members are smart enough to assess the value of it, making life a lot easier for the content managers within the associations.

Moreover, opening up the association to other member categories, and hence creating a more complex handling of member benefits (e.g. educational programs) and of organizational goals (e.g. creating consensus driven position papers), is clearly seen as an opportunity to create a broader support for more transparency towards all stakeholders and therefore enhancing the quality of their work and especially the advocacy.

This is consistent with my firm belief  that associations are no longer safe, closed fortresses. There is no business as usual anymore. Time has come to look outwardly and seek collaboration with others, be it at the level of new member categories within the value chain or in joining forces with friendly or competing organizations. In doing so, associations are challenged to become truly social (again).

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