Paul Prewitt asked recently whether the membership dues-based association model is hurting alumni organizations, instead of helping them. Having recently stepped down from the leadership of a membership association, I exchanged some ideas with him via email. I've boiled down my thoughts to some simple pros and cons of the various association membership models.
The two alumni-centric models I mention here are
- The Membership Dues Model: Alumni choose to pay annual or life member dues, in exchange for a set of benefits and privileges not available to non-members.
- The Inclusive Model: All alumni have equal access to the same set of programs and services provided by alma mater via the alumni office.
There is also a fundraising-focused offshoot of this:
- The Donor Benefits Model: Individuals (including non-alumni) who donate at least a specified amount of money to the institution receive exclusive benefits for their contribution.
Some Advantages of the Membership Dues Model
- Generates revenue in the form of dues.
- Life dues can be placed into endowment for 1) growth and 2) long-term higher return (life members pass away and no longer use benefits, but the association retains and reinvests their dues).
- Helps you identify who really is a more active than passive supporter (ie, they bothered to join, which is a form of engagement).
- Members feel privileged to some extent ("first class citizen").
- Places the school in front of constituents through cyclical marketing and renewal process.
Some Disadvantages of the Membership Dues Model
- Members may think that they are donating to the institution when they join an autonomous ("independent") alumni association.
- There's overhead associated with maintaining dues programs (benefits administration, renewals, payment processing, marketing) so, generally, only larger organizations can justify the relative opportunity cost. Most small shops will do better to allocate their membership management position to events or programs instead.
- Non-members resent the paying for things they think should be free (e.g., library access, publications, discounts, merchandise...).
- Marketing can leave non-joiners with a negative feeling toward the institution.
The primary alternative to due-based associations are so-called "inclusive associations," where all alumni automatically are welcome to participate in activities without regard to having actively joined an association or other alumni organization.
Some Advantages of the Inclusive Model
- Saves on overhead of marketing and administering a separate membership and benefits program.
- Reduced marketing and sales aspect to alumni relations.
- Helps creates the impression that the association has something of relevance to all alumni.
Some Disadvantages of the Inclusive Model
- Alumni are not aware of the alumni association (or, they're not aware of their "membership" in it).
- All benefits potentially accrue to all alumni, which is a cost ineffective way to model service and product delivery.
- Removes a potentially significant revenue stream from the balance sheet.
In our brief exchange, Paul also mentioned an off-shoot of the dues model, the Donor Benefits Model. This is a system where benefits accrue to individuals who contribute to the institution above a specified financial threshold.
Some Advantages of the Donor Benefits Model
- Allows you to identify, cultivate, steward and reward those who support the institution financially.
- Helps identify prospects for future giving, increased giving, and more diversified giving.
- Can generate attention and gifts from people who otherwise wouldn't bother (for example, they like having access to the institution's president or senior administrators and professors).
- Creates a framework for "more equal than others" outreach, which reinforces the culture of giving at higher levels (e.g., travel programs for President's Circle).
Some Disadvantages of the Donor Benefits Model
- Alienates people who feel their non-financial contributions (e.g., career expertise, volunteer time at events, service on boards) is not valued at same level or in the same way as financial donations.
- Reinforces stereotype that only people who give money are "important" to the school.
- Distracts people from seeing relative value of volunteerism, and may discourage people from engaging non-financially.
Additional ThoughtsI think that many alumni offices tend to program for a mythical average alumnus who, all things being equal, is 1) interested in alma mater, 2) prepared to engage or join, and 3) willing to donate.
But there is no such thing as the "average alumnus." The fact is that the vast majority of alumni 1) don't have an active interest in the school, 2) don't join local or comprehensive alumni groups, and 3) don't contribute financially.
Some associations are already programming more for the minority of alumni who are predisposed toward engagement, while largely ignoring the rest of the constituents. Of course, there will be periodic efforts to attract newly-interested or available alumni as volunteers and donors as well, but alumni who have exhibited low or no engagement over some length of time will be dropped from mailing and invitation lists.
Dues-based associations are not "bad" for alumni relations. So long as an association has the scale to justify the overhead cost, dues structures are still justified. But to thrive, membership associations must deliver real benefits that people truly need or want, and that they cannot get elsewhere.