Key considerations for association leaders in setting and changing their membership fees

September 14, 2021

Associations are looking to the future and considering where they fit in with their relevance largely determined by how well they serve their members and the value they provide. As association leaders reconsider everything from programs to membership models, diversity and inclusion programs, and more, one key topic up for discussion is often membership dues. When benefits and programs change, so should dues. Similarly, as staffing changes to accommodate additions to meet the demands of the association, dues may need to reflect the increase in services. What are the key considerations for associations reevaluating their pricing and membership dues structure?

Streamlining Memberships

After a year defined by uncertainty, many associations have responded by doubling down on strategy, revisiting their membership structures entirely to streamline and simplify. Along with that process inherently comes a dues restructure.

For years, the Wound, Ostomy, and Continence Nurses Society™ (WOCN®) averaged six different membership types that led to some confusion for members. Some would ask why they couldn’t change to another membership that was cheaper but also gave them the same benefits as the more expensive option.

“We really just went back to the drawing board and said, ‘Why don't we have just member or a student membership,’” said Heather Martinek, Director of Member Engagement for the WOCN society. “The student membership still does get a break financially while they're in school but it’s only for one year.”

Because the WOCN Society rolled out the changes in 2020 during the pandemic, they wanted to make the transition as easy as possible for members during a very confusing time.

“We made sure we worked with our committees and our clinicians to really work the definition of the dues; there was no confusion who belonged where and what they received,” Martinek said. “WOCN just wanted to make sure the dues changes were communicated and to show that we’re being as transparent as possible.”

Listening and responding to member feedback by simplifying membership and related dues structures helps ensure an associations’ long-term viability. Since introducing the new membership and dues structure, both new and renewing members have more clarity on their member type and benefits. An added bonus: WOCN Society staff report that retention is much easier to manage and track.

Keeping Pace with Change

While a dues restructure may be driven by internal factors, oftentimes dues are revisited in response to external factors. Whatever drives a change in dues, however, it’s critical that it be supported with data, and come at the right time for both the organization and members.

In 2012, the National Air Duct Cleaners Association (NADCA) proposed a dues increase that was ultimately voted down by the Board of Directors. At the time, NADCA had just engaged AH as its new association management company and the association was navigating that significant change along with other uncertainties.

“So, the timing was wrong,” said Jodi Araujo, CEM, Chief Executive Officer of NADCA. “That's really what it came down to: market conditions, the environment of the association at that time, and its life cycle.”

However, NADCA leadership understood that it needed to assess the association’s revenue channels and formed a finance committee to evaluate all of its pricing structures on an annual basis, including meeting pricing, webinars, dues, and other activities that supported the association. NADCA ultimately voted for incremental increases to its dues over the course of four consecutive years—enough to support the association’s growing activities but not enough to lose members. The finance committee continues to perform an annual review of expense and revenue in order to make an informed recommendation to the board for consideration.

Incremental increases can be an effective tactic for organizations that don’t want to alienate members with a large, one-time leap in dues. However, any dues increase warrants careful consideration.

Aligning Dues and Benefits

Especially as members are still reeling from the pandemic, membership dollars are more heavily scrutinized than ever. Before making a dues adjustment, consider what can be done to offset the dues increase with other benefits and how those benefits are positioned. “We have to be nimble and pivot and think about what our members facing and what tools we can give them to help,” said Araujo. “If we’re not doing all those things, they're not going pay the dues if they increase.”

While revisiting dues and benefits alignment often means a dues increase, it may lead to a decrease for some member types. In the WOCN Society’s membership restructure, many full members experienced a dues decrease from $170 to $135 a year while other members saw their benefits increase, giving all members the same benefits.

Associations may also find that restructuring pricing and access to benefits can help offset or justify a change in membership dues. The WOCN Society made their continuing education courses free for all members as part of their restructure.

Other Approaches to Membership Fees

If changing dues pricing is not in the cards for an association, newer approaches to membership structures can help engage reluctant members at a price point and fee structure that is proving to resonate better with prospects.

Tiered Memberships: Tiered membership allow for members to select their level of access, paying higher membership dues for more access. As members advance in their career, they may opt to increase their level of access, but if they need to scale back for any reason, the lower levels provide options without meaning a lapsed member. While there’s a risk that some members may leave higher tiers for the lower tiers, attach key benefits like discounts, continuing education courses, exclusive content, and more to keep members in the higher tier.

Membership Installment Payments: The flexibility of making monthly, quarterly, and semi-annual payments can draw in more members, especially for associations with corporate members that may find it difficult to make a large, lump-sum membership payment. An installment arrangement allows members to work smaller monthly or quarterly payments into their budgets, making it easier to renew their memberships and pay their dues on time.

Thinking About Your Dues

Associations provide benefits and services in exchange for the dues members pay. If your financials hint that a change in dues may be in your future, or if your members are asking for simplicity and streamlining that will bring about a dues restructure, consider where and how your benefits will support that change. Explore whether innovative models, such as tiered memberships or installment payments, would be a welcome change along with a restructure. Change is necessary and, done right, can help ensure that your association is able to continue serving members for years to come.

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