Associations: Successful Techniques to Reach, Recruit and Retain Members

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ASSOCIATIONS Successful Techniques to Reach, Recruit and Retain Members

Turbulent economic conditions, lifestyle changes and an ever-increasing pace of living and working are all having their effects on the ability of associations to recruit and retain members, according to a recent survey of public relations practitioners and membership marketers in the association field.

Not that associations aren't growing. According to the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE), in Washington, D.C., the number of national organizations has shown a net increase of 1,000 each year for the past 10 years. Currently there are about 21,000 associations at the national level, ASAE estimates, and anywhere from 200,000 to 800,000 at the state, regional and local levels. "One indicator of the vitality of associations," says Chris Condeelis, ASAE's department manager, research and information, "is that ASAE itself has been growing continuously for the past six years and recently passed the 20,000 mark in membership."

Struggling for growth

But that growth hasn't been easy. "Most associations are having a real struggle these days," says Bruce Butterfield, APR, vice president, public affairs, for the Manufactured Housing Institute, located in Arlington, Virginia, and a past chairman of the Association Section of PRSA. Trade associations in particular are finding their membership potential shrinking as companies merge, consolidate or just go out of business, he says. And when U.S. companies are acquired by foreign interests, the new owners sometimes don't appreciate the value and benefits of trade association membership, adds Debra Sher, membership director for ASAE.

Trade associations in some industries have been particularly hard hit. The collapse of the savings and loan industry resulted in "lots of nonrenewals" by members of the Financial Institutions Marketing Association (FIMA), in Chicago, Illinois, says Thomas J. Hefter, APR, president. FIMA's membership grew from 1,621 in 1981 to a peak of 2,023 in 1987. But then the S&L crisis struck, and FIMA's membership dropped to 1,964 at the end of 1988 and to 1,811 at the end of 1989. "I'm not sure if we'll ever grow back all the way (to pre-1988 levels)," Hefter says.

In the highly volatile electronics industry, start-ups as well as mergers pose a problem for the American Electronics Association, based in Santa Clara, California, and Washington, D.C. "Members appear, members disappear," says John Hatch, vice president, public relations, for the 3,300-member group. That makes it difficult to identify and track potential members, he says.

On the other hand, business is picking up in the solid waste management industry. "The industry is growing due to public concerns over the environment and the need for more space to dispose of solid waste," says Mike Sheward, APR, manager of public affairs for the National Solid Waste Management Association, in Washington, D.C. Founded in the early 1970s, the association is growing along with the industry and now has 2,500 members ranging from giant companies to what Sheward calls "one-and-two truck mom-and-pop operations." Sheward says he sees continued growth for the industry, and the association, due to public concern and heightened environmental standards.

Membership policies changing

Financial constraints are a problem for many associations. "Money is real tight," says Evan Leepson, marketing director for the American College of Radiology, in Reston, Virginia. "You can't go after vague benefits. You have to be very specific and spell out what (members) are going to get."

At some professional societies, he notes, members' employers no longer pay or reimburse association dues. For example, as a cost-cutting measure, last fall the trade association I work for revised a previously generous policy on membership in trade and professional organizations. …