The membership cycle: What is your division's plan?

Analyzing the membership cycle and how your division treats each professional stage of membership is the first step in developing a comprehensive plan

By Chad Rummel

It is during membership season (starting in September of each year) that divisions begin to look at membership numbers, scan for upward or downward trends, and brainstorm ways to move toward increased membership. However, sustaining a healthy membership base can only happen when divisions think about membership year-round, not just during membership renewal season, and strive for members satisfaction.

The process of developing and carrying out a membership plan often falls on one person: the Membership Chair. Engaging the entire leadership, as well as a separate membership committee, invites many into the fold of working with new members and working toward retaining current members. The synergy that comes from this collaboration will sustain membership and take the pressure off of one person.

To start a membership plan, it's important to recognize that there are five stages of membership (Recruitment, Orientation, Engagement, Renewal, Re-instatement), and depending on the division's focus, many professional stages to consider (Undergraduate Student, Graduate Student, Early Career Professional, Mid-Career Professional, and Late Career Professional). As you develop your membership plan, think about how the Membership Cycle applies to each stage in the professional cycle. You can plot short-term and long-term initiatives on a matrix (DOC, 25KB) to help your membership committee delegate work and focus on membership activities that cater to their needs.

  1.  Recruitment (how you reach out and encourage members to join your division)? 

    1. How do potential members find out about your division? Are members of your division who work at universities encouraging their students to join? 

    2. What is the first impression when a potential members visits your Web site? Is it dynamic and new, or has the same story been up for three months? 

    3. How easy is it to join your division? Remember that not everyone prefers to pay via credit card, and some will only pay by credit card. How long is the application? Is there someone they can call with questions? Or email? Or instant message? 

    4. What incentives are you offering to new members (reduced prices, book/journal discounts, raffles for free conference registration, etc)? Is there money in the division budget to offer an incentive for new members? 

    5. What are the advertised benefits of membership (remember that younger generations need to see concrete, fiscal advantages of membership)? Note that in the 21st century, it's not enough to say "networking" is a membership benefit (potential members can network via LinkedIn or other social media sites, with no need for the division). 

    6. When someone visits your membership page, do they see people like themselves? Are your testimonials from "seasoned" members only? Do you break division memberships into various professional cycles? 

    7. If you have an electronic newsletter, consider a way to offer a non-member version of the newsletter that uses the same content, but shows your division as a "trusted resource." (And of course, markets your division membership with testimonials and ads). For information on this (as well as other membership resources), read Al Hopper's blog

  2. Orientation/Onboarding (after someone completes a membership application and writes the division a check, how do you welcome them to the division and introduce them to the benefits they have "purchased")? 

    1. The first step is a welcome letter that acknowledges payment and provides a brief overview of benefits received. 

    2. Beyond the welcome letter, what additional communication is received for new members? Consider a schedule that allow for new members to receive communication every two months during their first year of membership. Each communication should introduce a piece of the division (advocacy, listserves, etc.). 

    3. If a new members has questions, is there someone he/she can reach out to? Consider assigning a new-member mentor from the Membership Committee. 

    4. Anytime personal communication happens with new members, always end with a "call to action." That can be a "click here to join the listserve" or ask a specific question that tells you something about the new member, such as "Would you be interested in joining the discussion listserve?" 

    5. Never assume that just because something is on your Web site, new members should know about it. Engage personal communication (email is free!) to alert new members and encourage them to go to the Web site. One of the benefits of ongoing personal communication between a member of the membership committee and new members is the occasional moment when a new member says "Oh, I didn’t know the division had that…" 

    6. For additional ideas on onboarding, read Deirdre Reid's blog on Avectra: 

  3. Engage (How do you get your new members to involve themselves in the division once they know about your division's activities?) 

    1. When members feel ownership in the division, they will be more likely to stick around. By using the contacts/communication that took place during orientation, it's easy to recommend strategies for engagement ("You mentioned you are interested in XYZ, so you might want to attend an upcoming Webinar…") 

    2. Engagement is the stage that must be clearly related to a person's stage in the professional cycle. For example, how you engage student members (by getting them involved in mentee relationships) is very different than how you engage late-career members (engaging them in being mentors). 

    3. Professional development and Continuing Education opportunities are easy ways of engaging members. Do your new members know all the benefits of attending the APA Convention? Four months before convention, are they aware that your division has a separate schedule for hospitality suite sessions/socials? 

    4. Not all members want to be a part of division governance. However, letting them know of the opportunities that exist is crucial. All committees benefit from having members in each stage of the professional cycle, from undergraduate students to those who have retired. Actively choosing NOT to be involved in governance is better than passively not being given the opportunity. 

    5. An annual or bi-annual membership survey can give you plenty of data to help engage your members. In addition, it can solicit volunteers to be on committees or serve in elected positions. It can also rate how satisfied members are with division benefits and give you areas for improvement to head off non-renewal. 

  4. Renewal (How do you encourage members to renew each year?) 

    1. Don't expect that members will renew just because they are sent a renewal statement (You pay your electric bill every month not because the electric company sends you a reminder--you pay it because you want your service.) 

    2. What is the reason that the member should stick around for another year (focus your answer against the professional stages and cater a personal letter to members based on their individual needs)? What exciting initiatives are coming down the pipeline? What was the division able to do for them during the previous year? 

    3. Consider offering a member benefit right around renewal season (a special CE Webinar, a special issue of the newsletter that highlights something specific to your division's psychology focus, etc). 

  5. Re-Instatement (How do you get members back who have dropped out of the organization OR how do you keep future members from dropping out for the same reason?) 

    1. When members do not renew, do not assume it was a conscious decision. Many times they think they did renew. Maybe their renewal was lost in the mail? A few months into renewal season, get a list of those who have not renewed and send an appeal letter letting them know of all the benefits they will miss out on. 

    2. If you consider being a part of a division listserve as a division benefit, make sure you update your listserve to drop those members who do not renew. Give fair warning before doing so. 

    3. For those members who do not renew, find out why they chose not to renew. Did a policy change within the division upset them? Do they not find your journal as beneficial as another division's? Did they hope to find something within your division that they did not? 

    4. Consider taking a look at the members who have dropped your division in the last 2-3 years and survey them (either through a very brief online survey or via schedule in-person calls). Find out what you could have done to change their mind so you do not have future members fail to renew.