Rethinking Engagement (With Apologies to Jane Austen)

Blog_1.pngWith apologies to Jane Austen, we have found that it is a truth, universally acknowledged, that an association member, in possession of a membership, must be in want of “engagement.”

But, what is “engagement,” anyway?

In most associations, to become more engaged—and thus find more value—a member must attend more events, buy more books (or caps, or mugs, or commemorative pins), recruit other members, contribute content, donate to the foundation, etc. The ultimate prize is to either volunteer precious time and energy to help the association govern itself, or pay a lot of money to sponsor things the association would be doing anyway.

From the member’s perspective, none of this seems that engaging, does it?

That’s because, for the most part, “engagement,” as it is defined by associations today, is all about what the member can do for the association, not what the association can do for the member. It has little to do with what actually engages members or touches their daily lives in this highly competitive, interactive world. Instead, it’s a one-way street that a member must dutifully walk to find “value”—as the association defines it.

Is it any wonder that only a small percentage of members ever actually become “engaged?”



The path to engagement, in most associations, was laid out by members who joined a generation ago. Baby boomers, who “worked their way up” through the committee structure, to “leadership.” Whose employers paid them to join, volunteer, and attend the conferences, networking events, and golf outings so beloved by most association governance groups.

It doesn’t work like that any more. We all know that. We’ve known it for a long time. Yet, associations keep coming back to the question: How can we get more members more engaged? Unfortunately, what they are really asking is: How can we force members onto this limited, outdated engagement track and force them to see the value in it?

Don’t get me wrong. Networking, sponsorship, volunteering, etc., are all extremely valuable aspects of association membership, for those who choose to take advantage of them. However, most don’t, and never will—no matter how many times we communicate or how perfectly targeted our messaging.

It’s time to rethink what engagement means—to both the association and the member. It’s time to stop defining it in terms of a final, association-centered destination (Board Member/Gold Level Sponsor), and see engagement as a continuous process that begins even before a prospective member joins.

It’s time to let members define what it means to be “engaged.” To open engagement to all members by offering multiple options that respect their daily realities—short-term, virtual, interactive, occasional, and low-cost. Take engagement to the members, rather than forcing them to come to the association. Most important, it’s time to connect engagement directly to results, for the member and for the association, in the form of member-designed and -driven products, services, solutions, and reasons to interact.

It is also a universal truth that that an “engaged” member is a “renewing” member. And renewing members mean a growing and vibrant association. Don’t let “pride” in your current model “prejudice” your organization against a new definition of engagement that puts the member in the driver’s seat.

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