Understanding Affiliation

Written by Jamie Notter on July 11, 2016

So in my earlier post this week, I pushed the issue of defining engagement. Of course, the first half of the phrase “member engagement” could also use a little attention. We throw around the word “member” a lot, not acknowledging that we have a lot of baggage that goes along with it. Granted, we are membership organizations, so I suppose a little baggage is warranted. But in case you hadn’t noticed, the membership world is changing. What it means to be a “member” is changing. But I fear that our mental models around membership are chugging along like it’s the 1990s. We should think about that.

One client we’re working with created an “Affiliation and Engagement” task force. Their engagement conversation wasn’t particularly focused on membership. It started looking within membership at how members lined themselves up for participation in the association. As the conversation expanded, however, we realized that creating a model for affiliation could extend both within and outside of membership. So we came up with a generic definition of affiliation:

  • A set of organizational pathways, structures, policies, and resource allocation patterns…
  • Based on a discrete set of labels/categories/groups (a taxonomy) that represent authentic, identity-based connections for stakeholders that also have relevance to the organization…
  • That will define, shape, and limit the experience of stakeholders as they engage with the organization.

Okay, I know that’s wordy and somewhat complicated, but it’s not a marketing piece. I wanted to clarify what’s going on here. Organizations make decisions that shape how people can affiliate with them. They draw lines, put people in buckets, make distinctions. Member/non-member is a distinction, but there are more than that obviously. Then the organization spends resources and develops policies that further define the relationship with those people/buckets. And those decisions will then shape how those people and groups engage.

I think we should be more conscious about this. We often blindly assume that more people should be members. But why is pushing people into that particular pathway the best answer for improving both engagement and financial performance of the organization? Yes, members pay dues, so there is a financial plus on that side, but it’s quite possible that I’ll spend more money with you if you DON’T force me to make the decision to join. Maybe I resent “joining” just to get the stupid discount on the annual meeting. Maybe there are groups out there that would love to engage, but wouldn’t qualify as members based on current rules. What are we doing about them?

Take a look at your whole ecosystem. Look at your pathways. Actually write down your taxonomy. When you get past the simple member/non-member view, are there any glaring holes? Bottlenecks? Engagement opportunities? I think if you work harder on clarifying affiliation, you have the potential to unlock some new value.

Image credit