Energized and Engaged

members cheering

The education landscape continues to morph and membership organizations are scrambling to keep up. Research indicates associations with a solid membership base withstood the last decade’s recession statistically better than non-member organizations, but still lost members as a result. How do associations rebuild and retain membership moving forward? What do professionals want and need, and how can they best be served?

The answer is member-driven engagement. While successful associations continue to refine tried-and-true membership practices, today’s professionals seek organizations that make it easy to actively contribute. A shift needs to take place so members can:

  • Organize themselves
  • Take the lead in association tasks
  • Network to build agency and capacity
  • Participate in new experiences
  • Acquire new skills
  • Mentor other members
  • Represent the organization locally where they live and work
  • Advocate for policy and legislation at federal, state, provincial and local levels
  • Serve as the practitioner voice in association visioning and planning
  • Give feedback on programs, products and services
  • Provide input into new initiatives
  • Pilot grassroots efforts
  • Speak at association events
  • Write for organization publications
  • Run for elected offices, and
  • Serve on committees

In short, members want to make a difference. To make this happen, associations have to be highly adaptive and responsive in engaging members in the work of the organization.

Membership associations built their reputations serving as reliable purveyors of training and content, providing exclusive access with the incentive to renew annually. Since the advent of content and networking on the World Wide Web, however, this transactional model is providing increasingly diminished returns.

Either associations evolve or become victims of their past success. Professionals today seek work-life balance not by compartmentalizing each side of the equation, but by naturally integrating their personal and professional interests across their career. They forge networks of organic connections, and any organization they join helps them grow their personal brand and expand their professional learning ecosystem. Associations will either deliver or fade into irrelevance.

While the business functions of building and maintaining a membership base (branding, events, products, services, marketing, public relations) remain core components of effective association management, thriving professional organizations augment these core processes with rich, responsive, meaningful member engagement. This requires the reallocating of institutional resources to maintain critical business functions while growing a layer of engagement that wraps around the entire organization. This welcoming layer invites members and potential members to easily plug in to the association at their entry point of choice, and the resulting interaction helps transform the organization.

A key shift in making this transformation is the balance between board governance and grassroots involvement. While the board leads and protects the fiduciary interests of the organization, members infuse the association with fresh eyes, willing hands and new energy. A healthy flow of ideas and initiative top-down and bottom-up (and from every other direction) infuses an association’s vision with the kind of responsiveness that ensures relevance. Ultimately, highly engaged members seek to serve on the board.

A second key shift is the balance of employees and members in accomplishing the work of the organization. Whereas the traditional model required well-staffed internal teams to move the organization forward, today’s successful associations welcome the involvement of members in all facets of the work, collaborating with staff to help the association evolve in ways that matter to practitioners. This allows organizational accountability and continuity while providing fresh insight and investment in the life of the association.

It’s a new era for professional associations, and though these strategies may feel counterintuitive, they build a thriving base that invigorates an organization with energized, engaged members committed to its future.


Walter McKenzie is Senior Director for Constituent Services at ASCD, leading its affiliate, connected community, professional interest community, student chapter and emerging leader programs.

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