Social media and membership organisations

The apparent threat (or opportunity) that social technology presents to membership organisations is summed up in the subtitle to Clay Shirky’s zeitgeisty book Here Comes Everybody: The Power of organizing without organizations. If ‘everybody’ can organise action by themselves (or rather, together), what possible reason is there for organisations to exist?

The first answer is, of course, that ‘everybody’ is not coming quite yet. Older people in particular – precisely those who, demographically, make up much of the membership of current membership organisations – are not all on Twitter and Facebook. Many do not even use e-mail. So any use of social media tools by a membership organisation has to be careful to avoid alienating existing subscribers used to more traditional forms of engagement. Many members still like receiving a journal or newsletter in the post, four times a year, and arguing it all out once a year at the AGM. Increasingly though, this will not be an option: this cross-section of the membership will sadly die out – perhaps literally – and be replaced with a more demanding community. Organisations need to anticipate and adapt to the needs of not just an increasingly technically literate membership, but also of members who are used to belonging to many communities, many of which are self-organised, digital and completely free.

Membership organisations have traditionally offered a repository of specialist information, advisory services, networking opportunities, meeting places, and lobbying on behalf of their members. Many of these services can now be done voluntarily by individuals who set up their own platforms using tools like Ning. What can membership organisations offer to people who can instead use social tools to find out about causes or interests (such as through Google), share information and campaign (Twitter, blogging, Number 10 petitions), find other people who share their interests (Facebook, LinkedIn, School of Everything), organise offline meetings (Meetup, Eventbrite) and even disseminate what happens there (Flickr, YouTube)? Of course there is still a value in bringing people together and providing a common cause. While the barriers to entry for setting these up have lessened, they have not disappeared altogether: it still takes time, effort and, in the case of Meetup, nominal amounts of money, to get people together behind a cause or to find and bring together people with a shared interest. But it is a lot easier than it used to be.

So the second answer is that membership organisations have to do more than just organise. Indeed, to really add value they need to shift the emphasis from organisation to membership.

Membership organisations are a broad church, from charities that use membership to support their work, financially and/or through advocacy and volunteering, to trade associations, trade unions, political parties… Likewise, ‘membership’ can be whatever an organisation chooses: anything from signing up to a mailing list, to full voting rights and the ability to elect, fill and remove the governing structure. But membership can also be whatever the members choose, too. The response to the flurry of Facebook groups ‘supporting’ your membership organisation hints not at a dilution of your message, but instead at the desire of social media users to present a strong personal identity through association. This is an opportunity that can be embraced. But it requires bravery: it is becoming increasingly difficult to ‘own’ your organisation’s message.

Increasingly, members who can have a personal engagement as consumers (to use Tapscott’s phrase, ‘prosumers’) will escalate the demands they make of membership organisations. It is vital, therefore, to genuinely engage members in any change or action and to do so from the outset. This will be co-ownership in the true sense: members will be unwilling to act on your behalf, but they will happily act for an organisation in which they play a real and governing part. Members are not stupid, and they usually have other options: pay them only lip service and they will walk. Co-ownership is also the most effective way to reach your desired outcomes: on aggregate, your members probably know more about most things than you, and they certainly know more about what they like and what technologies they already use. There’s no need to spend a fortune on websites if all your members are already on Facebook or Ning, or to pay for extensive consultancy support when your membership can help for free.

The third answer is to organise things that members simply cannot create for themselves, namely, brokering connections with people they might find it difficult to meet (people they don’t know, those that aren’t online and, crucially, staff within your organisation) or making that connection easier (facilitating and ‘hosting’) and offering experiences they can’t access by themselves (as a member of the public, I can’t organise a private view at a gallery. That’s worth paying for). The bar to entry may have been lowered, but there are still things that individuals find hard to do, and membership organisations need to find these new opportunities and fill them. And that’s the odd answer to all responses to social technologies – it keeps coming back to quality human relationships. It isn’t really about technology at all.

(social by social cover)

This piece originally appeared in Social by Social: A practical guide to using new technologies to deliver social impact. If you are interested in this area, you can read the whole book online, dowload it, or buy a copy. You may also like to take a look at the Technology drivers, such as OnlineCommunities and Online Revenue.


Last updated at 10:59 Thu 29/Oct/09.
AddThis Social Bookmark Button
View blog reactions

Recent comments

Kathryn's picture


Third Sector Foresight

There is an interesting discussion taking place on the blog for the upcoming NCVO Campaigns Conference around social media and its role in how people organise themselves. Specifically the people talking on this site are looking at it through the lens of politics and how social media can facilitate engagement with government; but I thought it was relevant to the discussion here around self-organising and how social media facilitates that.

Join the discussion!

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

Log in or join for free to comment.