Membership in the future

I wrote this think piece as the basis of a presentation on the drivers shaping the future of membership, for the NCVO membership schemes conference on the 22 April 2008. It draws on lots of our previous work, including on public attitudes in the 2007/08 Voluntary Sector Strategic Analysis, the ICT Foresight work and our Future Focus guides on social attitudes and volunteering. It will inform our project on the future of membership which we are developing with colleagues at the RSA and ten leading membership organisations. Thanks also go to Simon Berry, previously of Ruralnet, and David Wilcox for helping to develop the project in its early stages (see the Membership Project website for early discussions).

On 18 February 2009 the future of membership will be the topic of our seminar at NCVO's annual conference: Does membership matter? Membership and association in the new decade.

Individuals are affirming themselves as individual agents

Individual freewill and autonomy have become important social values. This individualism, although often associated with selfishness, also links to growing notions of self-reliance and personal responsibility. A linked trend is the decline in deference; our willingness to accept without question what those in authority say has declined.

Our identities and how we express them is more complex

Personal identity – how we define ourselves in relation to others – has become increasingly complex. Generally speaking, people are less willing to conform to narrowly defined identities. A sense of individual freedom enables people to define their own identities, often based on multiple cultures or values (an arsenal fan, a mother, a knitting enthusiast, a socialist, fair trade campaigner, Londoner and a British and global citizen!) As social beings, individuals look for groups and organisations to join which enable them to express their identities, campaign for change, meet like-minded people and find out things of interest to them. Our huge and diverse sector and membership organisations in particular, thrive on people coming together in this way.

Political participation has shifted towards single issues

One manifestation of more individual and complex identities is a decline in participation in 'formal' politics. Parties are playing less of a role in connecting the public with the political process as voter turnout at elections falls and traditional affiliations with political movements and parties declines. However, the public is not apathetic and politics with a small 'p' is alive and well. The public have simply chosen to express their values and political ideals through engagement with a number of single-issues, often by joining membership organisations or supporting particular campaigns.

Forms of individualised action are on the increase

Another manifestation of individualism is an increase in individual action. People increasingly think about their own actions as a way of effecting change – one example is the increase in ethical consumerism. The way in which business, government and often the VCS speak to the public, mirrors, and perhaps reinforces, this trend (eg websites like 'we are what we do', or government discourse around personal responsibility in relation to public health or climate change). There is a risk that the actions of individuals are seen as more important than collective action. However, there is an opportunity for membership organisations to facilitate the transition from individual action to collective action.

Forming groups is easier, and does not require a mediating organisation

The internet makes it easier for people to find others that share their interests, often regardless of their geographical location. Many membership organisations have exploited the potential of tools such as e-mail lists and online forums to reach more people and communicate with them at a lower cost. However, there is a new generation of online websites (sometimes termed 'social networking' or 'web.2.0') which have two important characteristics: firstly, they allow an individual to build a unique online presence and profile; and, secondly, they facilitate connections between individual users, allowing each user to build a personal network.  These have made it even easier to form groups, particularly without the need for a mediating organisation. As it becomes easier for individuals to make new connections and form groups, power can shift away from traditional membership bodies towards individuals and their informal networks. This can be a challenge for those who view themselves as the only experts in their field wanting to remain the gatekeepers of information for their audiences and these organisations may find that their members increasingly migrate to other online groups. However, for organisations willing to work in a more open and collaborative way, this offers opportunities to engage with people where they choose to come together, and to draw together and aggregate a range of perspectives and experiences.

There is a wealth of free information online

In the coming years, it will continue to get much easier to access a huge volume and variety of free information online.  The type of information that is available is also changing, with much of it produced by 'amateurs' or what some have termed 'the former audience'. 'Experts' no longer have the status that they once had and individuals are increasingly more inclined to trust their peers. This presents a challenge for membership organisations providing information and advice, as it suggests that they may increasingly be bypassed in favour of informal peer-to-peer sources. However, in the context of the ever-increasing amount of information online – a world where 'common sense' can often win out over facts – there is an opportunity for membership organisations to position themselves as a trusted source of information and advice, and to aggregate, filter and provide routes to navigate the wealth of information now available. In addition, membership organisations can increase the quality of the advice and information they provide by building new knowledge communities by hosting and moderating online peer-to-peer services.

Membership is becoming more fluid…

As a result of the drivers discussed above it is likely that individuals' membership of organisations, groups and networks will become more fluid. Research on volunteering suggests that although volunteering overall is stable or growing, volunteering has become more 'episodic' with long term commitments being replaced by more short term activities. Likewise, loyalty is changing. Whereas older generations were often loyal to an organisation, younger generations who are used to far more fluid online networks are more likely to be loyal to a cause which expresses an aspect of their identity or values, and to move their activism, participation and formal membership around different groups and organisations related to that cause.

… and commodified

And as membership becomes more fluid, the membership 'offer' is becoming increasingly commodified – in other words, viewed as a good or a service that individuals (as consumers) can buy or dispose of, rather than a commitment. This is an unsurprising trend as membership organisations respond to a more individualised audience, which is less likely to be loyal to an organisation for life, and offer benefits targeted at individuals as consumers. But is this a vicious circle? Are membership organisations complicit in this commodification, reinforcing the trends of individualism discussed above?

Last updated at 15:08 Mon 18/May/09.
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Amy's picture


We were founded as a member-based organisation 35 years ago. At the start members were core to our organisation’s activities but over the years we’ve lost touch with them. Last year we launched a new scheme which was an attempt to engage people into our organisation at large as opposed to having them align with one programme.

We now attract potential members with our mission but pull them in with our money-saving benefits. The membership numbers are rising and so are our volunteer inquiries.

Offering money-saving benefits is not useless. It is one of many tangible benefits to membership. But more than that we need to retain members. This steps into the need to promote a sense of community and even exclusivity. You join and you receive access – to like-minded people, to programmes, to staff and trustees. Building and maintaining that community, I believe, is the greatest resource challenge for staff.

This is timely, connecting as it does with the new public benefit reporting requirements for charities being proposed by the Charity Commission.

This is an interesting issue for the National Trust. We owe so much of our success to having a membership model – off the top of my head I think it probably drives c. 40% of our income directly, and probably significantly contributes to another c. 20 to 30% which arises from members visiting National Trust properties (i.e. spending on guide books, catering, in shops etc.).

The “transactional” versus the “charitable” relationship is a challenge we’ve discussed in the Trust and for us we’ve found that is not simply an either/or. Indeed we’ve begun to think and use the language much more in terms of a “supporter journey” i.e. how do we shape the relationship to maximise mutual benefit. This is because members for us are both:
1) A means to our charitable ends – members provide a major source of income without which we would not be able to do our job our “looking after special places, forever, for every one”. They are also a significant route into volunteering, and increasingly have a role in fostering the changes we believe are needed to undertake and achieve our conservation and access charitable goals (e.g. in decisions they make as consumers which impact upon environment and heritage).
2) An end in themselves – membership is a way for people to engage in, enjoy and show support for what we do.

And to make it all the more complex, some of our most ardent supporters aren’t “members” in a fully paid-up sense (this includes c. 30% of our volunteers; and not all of fundraising income comes from members).

Getting that balance right between harnessing members in pursuit of the goals of the organisation, and ensuring that members find ways to enjoy and value their membership is a huge challenge. It’s likely to get even more complex I think due to the kinds of factors (in particular the social networking phenomenon) you’ve already highlighted but also in questions around:
1) What will be the impact of Consumerism 2.0? – values / ethical driven consumerism is likely to cloud the role and relationships in some areas/sectors as this seems to be an area where some people are finding “agency” i.e. seeing a direct influence from their actions. Why be a “member” of a cause when you can express your values through the way you spend your money? Why be a “member” of a cause when a company offers you a way to “solve” a social need or participate in a “campaign” to change things for the better? Will membership organisations which connect well with the commercial sector thus be seen as more positive and effective, or conversely will this be perceived as “selling out” and driving supporters away?

Similarly what will be the impact of Social Enterprises? With hybrid “for profit, for benefit” organisations supposedly being a growth area, will this shift people’s views about the need for charity membership (i.e. does this continue to strengthen a transactional approach as people find social enterprises as a way to “do good” without a bigger commitment)?

2) Are we going to see a continued inflation of expectations? Some survey data I recall suggested that many people have as high expectations for service from the voluntary sector as from the commercial sector. Do these high expectations force the third sector into increasingly commodified forms of membership to meet these higher expectations for service delivery?

3) Which way will globalisation take us? – there are questions around the geographical levels at which people will be involved in various (but not all) kinds of “cause”. Some “causes” and the ways in which they are delivered are intrinsically local. But I wonder whether membership will become more complex in terms of being a member of local charity, as part of a national charity, within a global federation of like-minded causes/entities? And I imagine that the choices for people to express membership at a local, national or international level will increase (we’ve had the local/national aspect to this for a long time, but the global aspect for some citizens is only just growing). Conversely many people are terrified by the rate and extent of globalisation, so will this generate a bounce back in favour of localised membership of more locally focussed causes?

Lots (for me) to think about!

Simon's picture


NCVO Web Team

Clearly social networking has usurped some of the traditional roles of membership organisations (at least, for some people). This is in a way a continuation of what the web has been doing since its inception: information provision, networking with like-minded individuals, proclaiming one’s affiliations and points of view, accessing those in authority, have all been made easier, faster, cheaper and more accessible.

This surely begs a re-examination of why people join (rather than for what). One fundamental reason is to align oneself with others under the umbrella of an organisation that represents and amplifies how we feel about a particular issue. So the more active an organisation is in campaigning around its core issues, the more they will be seen as a pole of attraction, and the more it will seem ‘necessary’ to be a part of that organisation.

I suspect that it will be those organisations who best engage their members in active campaigning – and provide them with the means and the space to self-organise – that will most successfully re-engineer the nature of membership.

Creating the desire to belong will then become the way in which to draw in members; as Amy put it, promoting “a sense of community and even exclusivity” is the challenge to address.

Megan 's picture


Third Sector Foresight

It’s great to see a good discussion going here! There’s also a lot of discussion on the RSA Networks site here that you may like to join. We had an excellent meeting last week with David Wilcox, Simon Berry and colleagues from the RSA and the project really has some momentum behind it now – I’ll keep you posted!

I mentioned yesterday the Conservatives new campaign and their drive to get people to sign up to be their Friend on a variety of social networks …

There’s more in a David Cameron article from yesterday’s Times explaining more …. and linking the idea of the Radioheard experiment, which Karl has written about so well here

I guess with webCameron et al, it was no surprise that the Conservatives have beaten Lab & Lib Dems to this way of thinking …or are the parties doing similar things under the radar??

Join the discussion!

How will this affect your organisation? Have you considered it during your strategic planning? Can you share any interesting relevant links?

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