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Professional association memberships – financial concerns

Part one of this series is here.

“I appreciate the bigger ethic of these organizations promoting my profession, but they also don’t help pay my rent so I have to take it with a grain of salt.” – Kim Baker


lib-prof-orgsPerhaps it’s appropriate that the issue rising to the top is finances—the same issue that originally got me to ask these questions, albeit from the association, rather than individual, side. So many people said professional organization memberships cost too much, and of those who added more commentary, several stated that they don’t see a direct return on that investment in their paychecks or day-to-day job performance. Several people talked about changing associations as their job priorities changed, or else dropping the less-relevant organizations as every association’s fees keep going up, without similar increases in librarian salaries over time. A number of people’s employers pay for memberships, or used to, and of those people, many made it clear that their membership is/was contingent on those funds. Some people pay their state/local organization because they like having events nearby. Quite a few pay their memberships primarily to attend conferences—meaning, if they don’t want to go one year (or most years), they don’t join. One person said she couldn’t get any reimbursement for conference attendance unless she was a member of the sponsoring association(s)—actually, although my organization doesn’t do full reimbursement, we have a similar policy.

The conference part is interesting, and I think it matches up fairly well with the intuition — and data — of the Alaska Library Association (AkLA) Membership Committee. And it isn’t great news. As Eloise, a commenter on my previous post, put it, “I can get excited about attending a conference every 2 or 3 years. I don’t WANT to go to every single one, even if my library paid for it (which, in this economic climate, they don’t).” And there are a number of conferences relevant to our field that aren’t attached to associations, per se, including some that are held online-only. Furthermore, some of them are reportedly quite good. This makes me think that even the “join every few years to attend conference” members’ resolve will weaken [even more] over time.

In terms of suggestions for organizations, two people made the same point about conference fees, and because I think it’s really obvious and important and totally not standard practice, I’m going to quote them both:

“If an association is trying to recruit more members and their non-member conference admission is less than member admission + membership, I’d suggest some rethinking of the conference pricing” – Genesis Hansen

“this year I noticed that if you’re a member of the org and you pay the member rate for the conference your yearly total is more than if you’re not a member. It’s cheaper to not be a member!” – PC Sweeney

I acknowledge that there are reasons to ignore this logic and go ahead and charge non-members less than member-rate-plus-membership-price for conference admission, but an association should understand that it’s giving up potential memberships in exchange for (they hope) higher conference attendance, and they should examine their numbers closely, to see if that’s justified.

The other suggestion I would make is to consider not raising dues all the time. Again, this is a numbers game, and I very much hope the analysis is being done, for every professional association, to compare membership numbers over time, versus cost over time. (Ha, actually, membership is down, and costs are up, so we know what that analysis would tell us, if that’s all we look at. But I know ALA has data about how much membership drops after each increase; probably other associations can dredge up these numbers as well, right? Certainly, AkLA knows how many people pay for each level of our graduated-by-annual-salary dues structure, and we could probably do some analysis to see whether that system is working for us.) Besides just looking at the numbers, it might be worth getting in touch with people (in some clever way), to find out what their pain point is—how much a membership has to cost before they really have to think about whether or not to join. I throw $25 or $35 at the ACLU, EFF, and a couple of other organizations and think nothing of it, not even really worrying about what my dues are doing for me. More relevant: I get absolutely nothing out of … a library association that I’d rather not name, when I put it so baldly. They once did something awesome for me, but, on an ongoing basis, they give me zero value. And when my dues were in the $100 per year range, I definitely let my membership lapse, a few times. Now that they’re back down to $50, I pay it, out of a combination of gratitude and an upcoming theme, “the greater good.” Surely, I’m not the only one with a pain point, and I think it might be worth considering the idea of offering cheaper memberships, with the hope of gaining more members.

The whole series:

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