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Professional association memberships – engagement

If you’re just joining in, here’s an intro and the previous theme.

“I prefer to pay dues for organizations that I’m actively participating in (presenting or attending conferences, committee work). If a year goes by and I haven’t done anything with the organization, I drop the membership.” – Karen Keys



A number of current and recent students replied to the association membership question, and a clear theme emerged: if we (AkLA, ALA, whoever) want to keep them, we need to get them engaged right away. As people’s cheap student/intro rates disappear, they take stock and often drop the organizations they don’t have as much investment in, whether that investment comes from committee appointments, from leadership positions, or from strong opinions. — A number of people stay in ALA to fix it. I don’t know whether this is troubling or inspiring. Obviously, I’m in that boat, to some extent, but I find myself wondering if this whole “fix it from the inside” idea is related to the “burnout” theme in our profession.

I really believe that student fees and reduced fees for new members are an awesome idea, but they’re most useful if your organization is transparent enough that people can figure out how to be involved. If you can get new people involved while they’re paying the reduced rate, they’re more likely to stay. If your organization isn’t welcoming, they’ll leave. (An aside to ALA: we need to stop increasing student dues. It’s a jerk move. We don’t invite them in to make money off of them… at least not right away. If we price ourselves out of students’ reach, we’re totally done. And, really, if we don’t work a little harder at getting people involved right off the bat, we might be done anyway.)

To that end, new members’ groups seem like a great idea, though they weren’t cited specifically, very often. Perhaps making the existing new members’ groups more prominent/impossible to miss would help. This makes intuitive sense to me: I am only a member of ALA today because of the New Members Roundtable, and I only found NMRT because my conference roommate, Katie Boyd, invited me along to it. Although I hadn’t yet started library school, I showed up for free food (and info), and they put me on a committee immediately—that’s not saying anything good about me, but about the organization and its low barriers to entry. If only it were so easy with every association!

Similarly, the board seat set aside just for a new member in ASCLA and in LLAMA? That’s a great idea, not just for retention, but to help build those associations in the right direction. (Repeating theme, here: if an organization can’t make itself appeal to the younger and the newer among us, it’s doomed.)

I looked very hard at this whole set of ideas, because, out of all of the discussion areas, this is the one where I’m most prone to confirmation bias: I put a lot of time into making a New Members Roundtable for AkLA, and even though it’s not nearly the force for good and for change and for member investment that I want it to be, yet, I’m proud of it. But there were a lot of comments having to do with new member engagement, so I’m fairly confident that it’s valid. I’m also feeling even more strongly that AkLA needs to find a way to change its New Members Roundtable from a group-that-throws-an-annual-social into something that gets people really invested in the association. ALA NMRT does it through committees, but I think, for AkLA, we will have to find another way.

New members aside, some people just wanted to take advantage of leadership opportunities they couldn’t get through their jobs—basically, using professional associations as training to move up in the ranks—and while I [perhaps unfairly] don’t classify this as “engagement,” it still requires making the path to leadership visible, including to longer-term members.

And, of course, the flip side of this whole engagement theme is that people are busy. That was often cited as a reason for not joining associations. Again, I’m not sure how to get people invested without taking up their time (with committees, or even more passive “perks” like newsletters). As Richard Huffine said, “My theory is you get out what you put into something.” I think he’s right. But I’m honestly not sure what to do with that, other than keep advocating for transparency and simplicity in all of the organizations I care about. If people want to be engaged, make it easy for them! It won’t solve the membership crisis, but it’ll sure help.

The whole series:

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  1. You get people invested by taking up their time. By being a place it is easy for people to spend the time they wanted to spend anyway.

    • You might be right; engagement and time-spending might be inseparable. Which just means that “too-busy” people will never be fully engaged, and we just kind of have to live with that.

      • Or too busy people will be fully engaged with you, because you’re more compelling than elsewhere. (All “too busy” means is “spending lots of time. On something else more important”…)

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