it's a relationship


Not your father’s Rotary club

February 27, 2014

4 rules of membership design

Every membership organization has a straightforward intention at its core. Gather together a group of folks and critical mass will provide benefit; making and sharing connections, pooling of resources and amplifying voices. But modern identity, in our highly individualized society, no longer suggests that someone would join a single organization for life.

Consider, if you were a hunter in the 1960s, you probably joined the National Rifle Association (NRA). It was the only option and more or less aligned with your views.
Today, you can instead join a Facebook group that lobbies for hunter’s rights, donate to national gun safety programs and easily find local issue-specific causes to volunteer your time. You can curate your associations to express your identity. It’s about the mix you create, not the single organization to which you anchor.

Membership organizations are a challenging business model in today’s society as the impetus of a central organization representing a single identity has lost its appeal. The inability of any organization to fulfill all of the needs of an individual’s identity is seen clearly through declining memberships of cornerstone associations, effecting organizations from the NRA to the Girl Scouts. Recently, the Washington Post even questioned if the NRA was spinning its membership numbers to mask a decline. If membership is no longer all encompassing, if itself must be networked, how should you pivot?

We suggest four moves that are worth getting right. Let’s look at an example designed with a network mindset, BMe, a membership organization celebrating Black men as assets in their communities.

Be the connector, not fixer

When you operate from a position of scarcity you assume there is a “problem” that you will focus on “fixing.” This orientation is fundamentally flawed as it yields too narrow a lens to provide long-term value and won’t position you to adapt quickly to changing circumstances.

Instead, BMe knew from the start it doesn’t exist to “fix” people, it exists to inform and engage them. With this in mind, BMe was assuming an abundance of solutions and taking on the role of connector, not fixer. BMe engaged likely members specifically about the examples of the change/efforts that ARE working. The membership isn’t about prevention of poor outcomes, it’s about building from the efforts that do embody the change required to realize it’s mission. Avoiding the trap of fixing a problem that will break again tomorrow.

Build the model to serve as a platform where individuals connect with resources and solutions and you’ll assume a position of leadership, creating a network enabling service from member to member, not organization to member. Your organization will be responsive to a range of challenges as they reveal themselves across time, ensuring you are the connector, not the fixer.

Design WITH not for

People support what they helped to build. If you can listen with authenticity, immerse yourself in their circumstances and extend empathy for their celebrations and challenges your design will stay relevant. This might sound familiar, similar to Human Centered Design, but it takes it a step further. Designing with your membership is not passively researching subjects, but partnering with your target membership.

BMe wasn’t designed for The Knight Foundation, or by Context Partners, it was designed with the men who were valued as members of the community. Rather than assemble a group of traditional phD experts in urban issues, we listened to the target community. We uncovered a critical insight that shaped the design of the community: exemplary Black men didn’t always self-identify as leaders. So instead of a traditional grant application, we encouraged them to share their stories, connect and celebrate with each other. We didn’t think of this, they told us it’s what they needed. This co-design process not only made the system stronger, it has opened a dialogue and built trust between the membership and the organization so as the community evolves, BMe will know about it in real-time.

Remember, when you’re a membership organization you’re a steward, it’s about being the glue, not the hero.

Attract the fringe

Designing to the identity of the majority is unnecessary. The majority is already a group of its own and those people already have a voice. Those at the fringe often have an identity without a strong platform from which to operate.

In launching the BMe Community this fringe identity was one of Black males who were assumed assets, not liabilities, to their community. BMe offered a unifying identity for these men and gave them tools to organize, a platform on which to tell a stories and established a circle of influence. This influence now permeates previously inaccessible networks such as local and state government, even gaining a voice on a national stage as the President puts his support in this direction. “I am reaching out to some of America’s leading foundations and corporations on a new initiative to help more young men of color facing tough odds stay on track and reach their full potential,” President Barack Obama, 2014 State of the Union Address.

The fringe is where the movement starts, catalyzing the informal identity that hasn’t yet been accepted by society is exciting and relevant work. Because of their “outsider” point of view, the fringe are more aware of what’s next and what could be and most importantly, not entrenched is what has always been.

Give more than money

The right reward structure pulls the right people in and causes the wrong ones to run for the door. Many organizations build membership through financial rewards, a sweepstakes, t-shirt giveaways, even a million dollar prize. But money is JUST a hook. Money doesn’t sustain engagement and it is the enemy of authenticity for most all communities. We have to develop understanding of each other before we transact.

BMe’s design had a transformative moment during the immersive community research. Likely members were asked, “If you were awarded one million dollars, a dinner with Barack Obama and were recognized by your community, which would be most important to you?” Over and over again the men responded, “Recognition by my community.”

As soon as you offer the transactional aspect (money) you risk, and often lose, the authenticity of the relationship. Intrinsic rewards motivate people over time. Membership organizations steward relationships, they don’t pedal services and products.

Through designing BMe we have learned many lessons and are still learning from the membership daily. These four orientations have saved us many a near-miss step, ensuring we’ve built trust and resilience into the membership platform that will serve more than our initial mission, well into the future.

It really comes down to a choice, to hold on to secure your base or to build something that will outlast your initial intention. Many organizations are struggling to understand what the future of membership is in this networked world. The answer won’t reveal itself or come from a new CEO, you must wade out waist deep into your membership and find the answers they already have.

To hear more about designing resilient communities join us at SXSW March 7, 12:30pm for our panel featuring Trabian Shorters, BMe; Donna Frisby-Greenwood, The Knight Foundation; Shaka Senghor, BMe community member; and Charlie Brown, Context Partners.

Not your father’s Rotary club

Charlie Brown

CEO & Founder


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