In my post earlier this week, I pushed the issue of defining engagement. But the first half of the phrase “member engagement” could also use a little attention.

We throw around the word “member” a lot, not acknowledging we have a lot of baggage that goes 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 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 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 who have relevance to the organization …
  • That will define, shape and limit the experience of stakeholders as they engage with the organization.

OK, 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. Then, the organization spends resources and develops policies that further define the relationship with those people/buckets. And those decisions will shape how those people and groups engage.

We should be more conscious about this.

We often blindly assume more people should be members. But why is pushing people into that particular pathway the best answer for improving both organization engagement and financial performance? Yes, members pay dues, so there is a financial plus, but it’s quite possible 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 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? If you work harder on clarifying affiliation, you have the potential to unlock new value.

Jamie is an author and culture consultant at Human Workplaces who uses culture analytics and customized consulting to drive growth, innovation, and engagement for organizations around the world. He brings 25 years of experience in conflict resolution, generational differences and culture change to his work with leaders leveraging the power of culture. The author of two books — "When Millennials Take Over" and "Humanize" — Jamie has a Master’s in conflict resolution from George Mason and a certificate in OD from Georgetown, where he serves as adjunct faculty.

Jamie is an author and culture consultant at Human Workplaces who uses culture analytics and customized consulting to drive growth, innovation, and engagement for organizations around the world. He brings 25 years of experience in conflict resolution, generational differences and culture change to his work with leaders leveraging the power of culture. The author of two books — "When Millennials Take Over" and "Humanize" — Jamie has a Master’s in conflict resolution from George Mason and a certificate in OD from Georgetown, where he serves as adjunct faculty.

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