Walled gardens and climbing over fences

Last week I spoke at the NCVO Membership schemes conference on what the future of membership might look like. I raised one of the key things that has struck me in our research to date: the difference between recruitment and retention for membership organisations.  As Colin Rochester puts it in his Making Sense of Volunteering,

“the cocktail of motives that lead people to engage [in the first place] may be very different from the factors that maintain their involvement”

In general – and I’d be interested to know others’ experiences of this – it seems that people join for what they can get but stay for what they can give.

There seem to be some simple steps to maximising recruitment and retention based on these understandings:

Recruitment – remove barriers to entry

  • Make it easy to take part in the first place
  • Make it cheap (time and money) to take part in the first place
  • Make yourselves approachable 
  • Make it attractive to take part in the first place

Retention – put up psychological barriers to exit by promoting the communal reasons for membership

  • Keep communicating the good work the organisation does
  • Keep thanking members for their contribution (financial and/or through voluntary work)

However, what’s not clear is whether by making it a bit difficult to become a member (for example, through making membership by invitation only) there might be gains of retention (due to a “I worked hard to get in so I’ll stick around for a bit longer” mentality).  The question is whether this retaining instinct would outweigh the numbers of potential members that would not join due to apathy from a slight hurdle to jump over at entry.

So perhaps we should exhibit caution when trying to make membership organisations as easy to join as possible.  That’s why two things caught my eye: this article;


And this membership club:


What is it in a recession that means that mid-range brands seem to be doing surprisingly well and suggests it might be a good time to open up a members club with £100 fees? (Incidentally, Quintessentially Soho seems to be a brilliant idea – charge £100 for an exclusive experience, give £99 of that to charity).  The answer seems to lie in the headline – these offer luxuries – and moreover experiences that won’t break the bank.  This fits the trend that has been in the news that ‘little luxuries’, such as lipstick, shoot up in a recession when larger items are a no-no. 

But there is more than that: they offer a degree of exclusivity – both are, in effect, questions of brands – at a price that is not prohibitive to everyone.  This effect is particularly marked for Quintessentially Soho, due to the enforced urgency of a limited time period (it’s only open until Christmas) and celebrity members.  There is a danger in apparently selective organisations that they become homogenous and stale, sites for bonding social capital but little bridging.  However, since almost all membership is opt-in, forming a group of like-minded types is almost inescapable.  And it is precisely this sense of shared interests and values that combine to form a sense of community, which is a valuable asset for any organisation, particularly a membership organisation.


So what of climbing over fences? Well, in terms of economic attitudes (and the increasing visibility of the term ‘the new austerity’) it’s worth considering the [over?]stated rise in the popularity of  pick your own schemes and perhaps more interestingly the rise of sharing ripe fruit.  The BBC terms this the abundance movement; for the Independent it’s scrumping – there’s more on that as an activity in this article.  Building barriers around something desirable can make it more attractive; sharing that something desirable with those who need it is pragmatic, ethical and beneficial to all parties.

Last updated at 15:02 Fri 30/Oct/09.
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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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