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Associations Scramble to Do More with Less

For the second year in a row, research by Greenfield Services shows that Canadian associations are scrambling to build strong, effective organizations without the resources to do the job.

That means they’re living out an axiom that we forget at our peril:

Beyond a certain point, you don’t do more with less. You do less with less.

Greenfield’s 2013 Pulse Report painted a stark statistical picture of the day-to-day struggle facing too many organizations. The research showed that:

  • The majority of associations with 2,000 or more members “were trying to deliver exceptional service on budgets of $5 million or less,” and one-third of them with 10 or fewer staff. 
  • Two-thirds of associations with fewer than 250 members (67.7%) were operating with five or fewer staff, and more than four-fifths with 250 to 750 members (81.6%) had 10 or fewer staff.
  • Between 2012 and 2013, difficulties meeting members’ specific needs and insufficient staffing became even more prominent as the biggest member engagement challenges facing Canadian associations. 
  • Between 30% and 40% of respondents expressed concern about their associations’ lack of strategy, budget, or member-driven research to support broader member engagement.

It all adds up to “a necessary fiscal prudence that might still be starving organizations of the resources they would need to attract larger memberships,” the report stated.

The Cost of Saving Money

Every organization should operate as efficiently as it can. But after years of scraping by on the barest possible budgets, many Canadian associations are scraped raw. They’re so lean that they can’t afford to invest in the educational programming or member engagement strategies that will help them thrive, rather than just surviving.

And after a while, a bad habit becomes a vicious circle: substandard outreach erodes member engagement, so that retention rates drop or remain stagnant…just in time to drag down next year’s programming budget.
The cost of saving money is crystal clear in the responses to the Pulse Report survey. Two-thirds of associations see membership growth and retention as a top priority, and nearly half want to boost their revenue, visibility, and member participation. But fewer than half identified the ability to demonstrate member ROI as a top priority—indicating that they either lack the strategic focus to deliver on members’ needs, or just can’t afford to get the job done.

The ‘Insurmountable Dilemma’

For the second year in a row, a question about membership retention strategies showed that associations weren’t doing nearly enough to open year-round conversations with their members and make a strong case for them to renew.

“With traditional funding sources drying up and established membership models shifting, it’s no surprise to find Canadian associations in search of more revenue,” the Pulse Report noted. “But with the Internet creating multiple new opportunities for professional development, networking, recognition, and any of the other benefits that associations have traditionally offered, associations will only attract and retain members by offering superior levels of service and engagement.

“For many associations, this may create an insurmountable dilemma: as long as current resources are insufficient to fund quality programming, that programming will fail to draw enough member participation and revenues to support a more robust, responsive organization.”

Greenfield Services Inc. released the 2013 Pulse Report at the National Conference of the Canadian Society of Association Executives, September 18-20, 2013 in Winnipeg. Contact us today to receive your own copy by email.

A Dangerous Disconnect on Member Retention

You know it’s time for a new strategy when research points to a big, dangerous disconnect between standard practice and best practice.

That’s exactly what’s happening in one of the most important areas of association management. But despite two years of data pointing to gaps in most associations’ member retention strategies, there’s little sign of change on the horizon.

In its 2012 Pulse Report, Greenfield Services found that only 13.6% of Canadian associations scheduled seven or more member touchpoints as their renewal dates approached. In the 2013 Report, that total improved only marginally, to 15.4%:

Touchpoints for Membership Renewal, 2012–2013


If only associations could hope to get the same member retention with a more modest outreach plan. But the message from established sales and marketing strategy is clear: it takes eight to 10 touchpoints to break through the clutter of competing media and priorities with a message that requires a decision and action.

The Hope and the Reality

It isn’t that associations aren’t keenly interested in member retention. On the contrary, two-thirds of the association executives who responded to the 2013 survey cited membership growth and retention as a top priority.

After two years, the problem is clear: the vast majority of associations lack the staff, budget, and strategy to run the strong, effective member retention programs they need and want. 

They’re reaching out too infrequently. And they’re starting too late. More than three-quarters of 2013 respondents said their organizations began renewal outreach no more than three months before a membership was set to expire, compared to 71% last year.

2013 Pulse Report respondents knew they had a problem: among their most serious member engagement challenges, they listed insufficient staff, lack of a strategy or plan, and lack of member-driven research. But many of them were also dealing with tough budget realities that had forced them into a continuous cycle of trying to do more with less. (More on that in next week’s blog.)

The Plan Your Retention Plan Can Be

A retention plan only works when members are satisfied with their association experience, so year-round engagement is the cornerstone of an effective outreach plan.

But here’s the good news: once the retention program begins, associations can use a variety of tools, techniques, and media to capture members’ attention. A single touchpoint might be an email, a phone call, a text message, a direct mail letter or post card, a survey, a contest, a magazine ad, or social media messaging.

With more outreach methods available to them than ever before, we've been encouraging our clients to review their marketing plans and vary their messaging between established and emerging marketing methods, rather than relying exclusively on familiar tools like email and direct mail. The tone of member renewal campaigns can and should evolve, as well, with more emphasis on “pulling” people into voluntary, enthusiastic participation in a thriving association community, rather than “pushing” them to buy their association membership as a product. 

Greenfield Services Inc. will release the 2013 Pulse Report at the National Conference of the Canadian Society of Association Executives, September 18-20, 2013 in Winnipeg. Contact us today to receive your own copy by email.

Going to the CSAE National Conference & Showcase this year?

The 2013 edition of the CSAE National Conference & Showcase is almost here, and Greenfield Services Inc. is proud to be attending for the third year in a row!

Keep an eye out for Meagan Rockett, Director of Client Solutions who will be exhibiting at the show.  Association executives attending the showcase are invited to stop by booth #9 to pick up complimentary new resources:

  • Invest In Your Future – Tips & Best Practices for Canada’s Anti-Spam Legislation (CASL)
  • Executive Summary of the 2013 Pulse Report on Membership Marketing & Engagement Practices

Right after the showcase, she will be on a panel discussing “Blurring the Boundaries – Member Engagement and Non-Member Marketing (or is it the other way around)?” with Beckie MacDonald (Ontario Library Association), and Mike Brennan (Canadian Physiotherapy Association), with moderator Meredith Low (Meredith Low Consulting).

We will also have prize draws available at the booth – many reasons to stop by and say hello!  If you would like to set up a time to chat during the showcase, please email Meagan to schedule a time to discuss how Greenfield can assist you in achieving your marketing goals.

Safe travels to all attending, and we look forward to seeing you in Winnipeg!