Empower Your Members to Become your Engagement Partners

Do you know what engages members or customers more than anything else? Other members or customers. Community managers and organizations run on a community-based model know this all too well. It is the community itself, rather than their products that have the highest member value and, hence, engage. 

“Engaging Members with Members” is the topic of this article from the Cooperative Grocer’s Network. We are not talking about the “member-get-a-member” campaigns here, where the goal is sales of commodity products and membership benefits.  The fact that I can get a free month at my gym if I recruit a new member gives me zero motivation to do so. (However, it won’t hurt if you happen to be looking for a gym in Old Town Alexandria and ask me about it).

What the article discusses is enlisting members as engagement partners by tapping their networks of relationships and skills in relationship-building. As Bonnie Hudspeth, former project manager of the Monadnock Food Co-op (Keene, N.H.), is quoted saying: 

 The idea is that an active member can reach out to their network—whether it’s a peer network, friendship network, or volunteer network in the community—and really engage them and invite them to be members. It’s really leveraging the relationships that members have already established.

A simple and effective mechanism for start-ups in that sector has been the humble potluck dinner, “inviting your member-owners to the table and empowering them to invite their networks to join.”

Okay so you have way too many members to ask some of them throw potluck dinners for others. That’s not the main point, however. Here some very cool principles in the food co-ops’ mode of engagement that can transfer or give you some food for thought. 


“There’s always a question at this point in my workshop,” the article quotes an organizer saying: ‘Wait—we want them to join, and we’re making them cook?” The invitation to participate in the co-creation and co-ownership of the meal embodies the message, “We’re starting a co-op, and we can’t do it without you.’ “

Aha! But participating by working and co-creating is the point.  When I asked a university’s alumni, executives in technology companies, about their business challenges and vision for the university’s role in their industries, their eyes lit up. They were engaged. “No one ever asked us about our opinion or help in problem-solving,” many said. “They just ask for money.”  The more I “put them to work,” the more they were hooked. Some ended up participating in joint, problem-solving and solutions development teams with senior university officials or partnering with the university in joint ventures where they did even more work. 

So put your most motivated members to hard labor.  But do so on a real need. Surely you have challenges to address at various levels, topics you want to get feedback on, discussions you want to stimulate, meaningful projects you want to carry out, activities or causes you want to engage local communities around and myriads of other things I cannot even imagine in my humble little home office.  Or you may have questions about an idea you want to test or role you are considering undertaking.  Cushy, pre-designed volunteer positions or lavish awards may give some members a temporary buzz but they will not convert them into engagement partners. Why not engage select members with expertise and/or vested interest in a solution you need by motivating them to tap their networks and help you get to results?

 Leveraging members’ greatest value

Most mature organizations view the value of their members or customers in terms of short-term sales.  Nothing could be more detrimental to long-term survival and competitiveness, trapping you forever in commodity hell. Customers as your champions, proselytizers, conduits to important strategic relationships, content and value co-creators; co-venture, engagement, management, product and business development partners, etc. far exceed the value of membership dues or product sales and grows over time.


For members to become effective partners however, they have to be empowered—given authority to act on the association’s behalf; and tools and roles that resonate with what most motivates and matters to them. And they have to be organized, along with the association, on the basis of collaborative systems. 

AOPA (Aircrafts Owners and Pilots Association) has successfully engaged a veritable army of 2400 volunteers –the Airport Support Network- to become watchdogs, advocates and relationship builders at the nation’s 5200 public use airports, of which only 400 are being used for commercial aviation. The rest, AOPA members believe, should be open to use by independent pilots and aircraft owners.  The volunteers are motivated by making a difference to something they are passionate about: increased airport access and personal freedom. They are empowered to use their local networks, provide constant feedback that the association makes use of, make presentations to various groups, build relationships and alert the association to potential threats and opportunities.

 For VIN (the Veterinary Information Network), the most powerful engagement mechanism is its own members constantly engaging each other in asking or answering questions, collaborating, co-developing solutions or adding new results to archived cases. Community managers, consulting experts, content developers, mentors for new members and others are identified, recruited and developed from among specialist members.

“Empowering members to engage other members” is working for North Carolina’s State Employees Credit Union (SECU), a financial services cooperative. “SECU,” we are told, “has 1.8 million members and is gaining about 85,000 more per year—not by advertising, but through word-of-mouth alone. If nothing else, SECU’s members are actively engaged in new member recruitment.”

SECU’s recruitment and engagement tools do not include pushing sales. They are based on listening “to its 1.8 million members with the help of a team of over 3,000 volunteers. Each of the 244 SECU branches has a 12-member Volunteer Advisory Board that meets quarterly. Its duty is to discuss and report what is happening on the ground with members in its community.”  This continuous stream of market knowledge is widely shared and feeds directly into product development resulting in programs, benefits and services that resonate with members’ evolving needs. A SECU executive notes: “It’s like having a giant focus group. We would not be where we are if we didn’t listen to our members.”

Intimate, one-on-one conversations

 “The one-on-one conversation is the most effective thing you can do,” the article advises, “so you have to find ways to engage people face to face.”

Well maybe you don’t have time to pick up the phone and personally chat with 35,000 members. But what if you get to have probing conversations with 5 or 10 members in the course of a week or month. Wouldn’t you have gained a depth of understanding of the way a few of your members think so that you could extrapolate and apply insights to your relationship with other members? And what if your staff and members had key roles in digging under members’ stated needs to uncover what truly mattered and the way they saw the world?  The point is that no true engagement can take place from generic data and mass approaches. And the task of one-on-one relationships and in-depth understanding cannot be limited to one department in your association.   

 Member value such as personal networks, market insight, motivations, knowledge and skills represent squandered value for most associations; money left at the table. Think of the scope of market knowledge and help in relationship-building that chapters alone could offer associations if their role was re-defined in terms of purpose-driven engagement and market development partnerships rather than compliance to the association’s policies and short-term sales and attendance quota.  


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