Retaining Longtime Members: What We Thought We Knew

Written by Marice Fernando on November 12, 2018

Last year, we noticed a trend at our association: A segment of longtime members was not engaging with us or renewing. We thought we knew how to respond, but what we learned surprised us, and changed our interaction with this segment of our membership.

When Exponent Philanthropy acquired a more powerful database in 2016, we started tracking and analyzing member engagement. We wanted to find out:

  • How do members interact with us most?
  • Which members are least and most engaged?
  • Can we increase retention by increasing engagement?

The data showed many 10-year-plus members had lower engagement scores and were not renewing. We assumed that creating new resources for this segment or directing them to relevant resources would increase their engagement and renewal rates. To do this, we had to find out what they needed and what kinds of resources they were looking for.

We requested a longtime colleague on our staff to reach out to these members by email and invite them to have a personal phone call. He asked about their challenges, successes, and how our association could support them. Surprisingly, many conversations revealed that longtime members were not looking for additional resources and services. If they remained members, it was because they liked being part of a national community of practitioners who are similar in size, approach, and mindset. Several also expressed that they wanted to share their knowledge and experience to help members who were newer to the field.

This was an “a-ha moment” that challenged our assumptions and spurred us to adjust our approach. Instead of directing our longtime members to resources, we invited them to be experts and resources. A follow-up email to the same segment invited them to write for our blog, respond to a question in our online discussion groups, or submit a session proposal for our conference. The outcome was win-win: These seasoned members had opportunities to share their expertise and re-engage with us, and newer members could learn from more experienced peers.

Although it’s too early to evaluate if our outreach increases retention among longtime members, the effort helped us (re)connect with and learn from this valuable segment of our membership. It taught us these lessons:

Data highlights trends but does not tell the whole story.

The data brought to our attention the low engagement of longtime members, but the conversations offered insight into the reasons and potential solutions.

Member engagement can be defined in many ways.

Some members don’t want to download resources or attend programs; instead, they want to belong and serve. They want to feel connected to a community. It’s important to ask members what they want and actively listen to what they say.

Relationships come first.

Building relationships is at the heart of our association’s values. My colleague’s credibility and trust with our longtime members created the space to have these conversations. Membership should not be an annual transaction, but an ongoing, deepening relationship in which we make personal connections with our members and they make personal connections with one another.

Members are our greatest source of insight and expertise.

Every association strives to be a resource for its members, but members can also be a resource for staff and the community we serve. We can and should leverage members’ knowledge and expertise, inviting them to advise us, write for us, teach for us, and coach their peers. We can tell their stories and champion them as exemplars of effective practices and leadership.

Now we reach out to our 10-year-plus low-engaged members twice a year, highlighting opportunities to share their knowledge and expertise. Through this outreach we hope to learn from and champion our members, and increase the value of our community.