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The New WIFM - What's in it for Members?

Remember WIFM? It’s the acronym for, “What’s in it for me.” It seems that some membership organizations are staking their futures on the fact that WIFM doesn’t matter to their members or prospective members. Unfortunately, it does, and as nonprofits, they need to be acting now to adapt their business models and ensure that they are well-positioned to ride the waves of the future. Make your WIFM=What's in it for Our Members?

Recently, I had a conversation with a Chamber of Commerce regarding their structure, means of doing business, and what they should consider doing in order to remain a viable, impactful organization. Basically, I was encouraging them to consider a new business model, avoiding the trappings of the old one, since it was causing concern and didn’t seem sustainable.

In fact, membership organizations across the country, both within and outside of the Chamber world, are facing a similar dilemma. Why are members not motivated to join their organizations, and what does the future look like? Some have already closed shops, many are plodding along without taking a critical look, and others are simply living in the land of make-believe where all will be fine.

Nearly ten years ago, in 2014, authors Harrison Coerver and Mary Byers released a book titled: “Race for Relevance: 5 Radical Changes for Associations.”  It reviewed the future of associations and what they needed to do to remain relevant.  They focused on five key changes that needed to take place in areas ranging from governance to membership focus.   Basically, their message fit with the Tony Robbins quote, “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.”

However, I see organizations every day that are still falling prey to the belief that their history, and current support are indicators that all is well. Despite that fact, there is an undercurrent of change, evolutions, and perspectives that are chipping away at the perceived solid foundation. Some have aligned themselves with political support that is subject to change. Others are relying on the preferences of influential generations that are slowly moving toward inactivity. Many are still oriented toward their own comfort levels rather than preparing to surf the waves of rapidly changing practices of potential supporters. Some executives are just biding their time until they can retire or find a more satisfying position when the downward spiral begins.

For most, their current way of doing business was more relevant in a world less connected, less dependent on tech, and not transferable to one in which we conduct business remotely and online. It’s also not as transferable to a generation less likely to “join,” one caring passionately about social causes or any one of a dozen other environmental influences such as a multi-generational workforce.

Significant and influential change will require comprehensive assessments, financial investments, and dedicated staff and volunteer efforts. The latter may be the most challenging in more rural Indiana since many of these organizations have limited staff, and volunteers who are serving multiple organizations.

So where do we start? I believe there are four key areas to effect the type of change that these organizations need to make to ensure their sustainability. It has some aspects of a SWOT analysis which could be another valuable tool in the process.

Targeted Conversations

The boards of these organizations need to have intense, future-oriented, internal and external conversations surrounding the viability of their current business model. Here are a few conversation prompts. What will our organization look like in ten years if we make no changes in our business model? How are we obtaining objective input from our current and prospective members? How will we assess the vulnerability of our current members and the resulting revenues? What could we offer that we aren’t doing now to attract members? You get the idea.

Environmental Scans

Why reinvent the wheel? We can look to thriving, leading-edge organizations since future directions will be influenced by the environments in which we operate. What do they know that we don’t? Is their model transferable? How will our future be similar or different from theirs? What trends will have the greatest opportunities to influence our business? What issues exist today that could be negated or magnified with environmental change? Will we be relevant? Where are the land mines that we need to avoid?

Open-Minded Evaluation

One of the most damaging elements we face today when we look to evaluate our current status and structure is close-mindedness. I often hear comments like “We’re doing okay, We’ve been in existence for 100 years, We have strong support from,” etc. No doubt the statements are true, but one must look more critically at the reality. Have you seriously considered that your top ten largest members account for a significant percentage of your dues. What if you lost them? What are you doing to ensure you don't?

Perhaps your strongest "support" is from those generating less revenue. In one instance an organization discovered that the prime reason members gave for joining was “to support the community.” Do you think that will hold in tough economic times? There needs to be greater perceived value for members to answer the question,” What’s in it for me?”

Test Alternatives

Finally, test some alternatives to your existing way of doing business. Ask for feedback and input on any proposed changes. Hone the ideas until you’ve created a product that members don’t want to live without because they see what’s in it for them. Then, roll out those alternatives with a major splash that lets everyone know you’re not the same old membership organization.

Will Rogers said, “Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there!” Membership organizations desiring sustainability can all learn from that sentiment as they look for the train that is headed down the rails from the future. Be proactive, be diligent, and be relevant.

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