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  • Writer's pictureMartin Sirk

It’s Not You, it’s Me… No, It’s Us!

Updated: 4 days ago

In this article initially published by our partners at Boardroom Magazine, International Advisor to Global Association Hubs Martin Sirk argues that “individual motivation” is the wrong framework to understand recruitment and retention.

Why do individuals (and the always small number of individuals making decisions on behalf of organisations) decide to join Associations? Why do they stay, and more importantly, why do they leave? The generally accepted analysis focuses on the range of services offered by the Association, the cost of access, and the degree to which these services can be tailored to the individual needs and priorities of the member. The framework is primarily top-down, transactional, and atomised: individual members, “me”, judge their relationship with the association, “you”, based on the ROI of their overall cost of access to your services.

But is this really a true picture of what’s going on? Obviously, any Association with inadequate or declining ROI and no attempt to personalise its services is going to fail, but a strong transactional offering should be viewed as entry-level “table stakes” in the recruitment and retention game, not an adequate strategy for long-term success. To really understand the attractive principles of member magnetism, a “communal motivation” framework is required. 

Emotional engagement & institutional unlovability

How often do we hear that members “love” their Associations? Emotional engagement is an extremely common phenomenon across the whole vast range of Associations, expressed in surveys and social media posts, and observed in behaviour whenever members gather together. But I would argue, it isn’t actually the abstract institutional entity that is “loved”, it is other members, and the sense of belonging to a community of similarly-minded people, usually in practice a small sub-set of the association’s membership. In fact, loving an Association is probably grounds for failing a mental competency test!

Group dynamics and networking effects live at the heart of every Association’s recruitment and retention performance, but few systematically incorporate these concepts into their R&R programmes and practices, not least because there are no academic networking theories nor anthropological models of the association to which we can turn for guidance. But this is no excuse for inaction: there are many intuitive, practical steps we can take to recognise, shape and exploit communal motivation. 

Thinking in "circles"

One of the reasons most of us use Association-to-individual-member models is because it’s “easy”. Unique, overlapping, dynamic-over-time circles of interest and trust are far more complex to understand and to design programmes for, even if this is a far more accurate portrayal of reality! Luckily, in every association, there will inevitably be some archetypes (Expert, Innovator, Connector, Ambassador, Mentor, etc.) whose roles within this networking complexity are disproportionately important, both for recruitment and retention. Focusing attention on their happiness and success is a great way to cut through the complexity. Ensure that your most expert and innovative members are fiercely loyal and as active as possible (using as many different incentives as you can come up with – use whatever works!), because they are like planets that generate a huge gravitational attraction for members and prospects alike. And beware when they are not visible and engaged; where they go, others will follow.

Identify your natural connectors, the extrovert around whom crowds gather in the conference bar, the youngster with her blog, and use their voices to amplify your messaging; put your natural facilitators to work, offer training and frequent opportunities to exercise and expand their group- and relationship-nurturing skills. Integrators are the bridges between your Association’s different tribes, the people who straddle different circles of interest and cultures, and help to break down undesirable barriers: they can be some of your biggest problem-solvers. Ambassadors build bridges from your Association to other organisations that share your values or mission and can be some of your most powerful recruitment cheerleaders.

Recognise and celebrate your mentors, and make an early start to the process of identifying and encouraging future mentors. Their role in “onboarding” new members or first-time conference attendees is critical, setting the scene for successful emotional engagement and helping avoid the always dangerous new member early-resignation problem.

It's us, too!

Communal motivation is a concept that can also be beneficially applied within the Association’s staff. Recruitment and retention targets shouldn’t be incentivised for individuals working in sales, marketing or member development, they should ideally be the responsibility of everyone in every division and regional office, from Events to Finance, from Education to Board Governance, and from CEO to office junior. 

The most powerful incentives are those that everyone can contribute towards and feel they have a stake in, and if engagement and retention are not front-of-mind for every member of the team in all their activities, then that Association will be certain one day to face a retention crisis! 


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