Get a group of association execs in a room and the conversation will likely turn to member engagement—the topic of a recent ASAE Membership Virtual Brown Bag. Three ideas from that discussion stuck with me because we don’t hear them often.

#1 Member engagement is not always what you think it is. 

Members are not a homogeneous group. They have different motivations, needs, wants, habits, and aspirations. Therefore, they engage with each other and with your association in different ways. The points of engagement you identify as important may not be meaningful to every member.

Engagement isn’t necessarily what you say it is. Members have different ways of connecting and different definitions of value. You’ll have a stronger relationship with members if you acknowledge that any type of engagement is okay. However members choose to engage is an investment in their relationship with you and your community.

The ASAE panel suggested new ways to approach engagement:

  • Meet with every department to identify all the points of interaction that members (and non-members) have with each other and with the association.
  • Develop member profiles (personas) based on how members engage with each other and/or the association. For example, one profile could describe mid-career members who are readers and lurkers only at the national level, but regularly attend and volunteer at chapter events.
  • Create membership packages that appeal to each profile. Rebuild the association experience around the actual behavior of members instead of forcing members to fit an artificial model.
  • Develop messaging about membership and engagement that takes into account what each member profile chooses as their association experience.


Engagement takes many paths, for example, tiny or large commitments of time, spotlight or behind-the-scenes roles, in-person or virtual, free or pay to play, and active or passive activities. Identify paths for each engagement profile by talking to members about realistic steps along those paths.

#2 The new engagement paradigm requires a different set of leadership skills.

When developing engagement paths, keep in mind that volunteering doesn’t always mean committee service. A member could feel engaged spending 15 minutes helping out with a task at an event, making a call to another member, commenting on a blog post, sharing a tweet, taking notes at a conference session, or moderating a discussion table at lunch.

Leaders and staff must learn to identify and promote these micro-engagement opportunities. They must be willing to empower ‘regular’ members to contribute and not allow the ‘usual suspects’ to hoard ad-hoc volunteering opportunities. Ask leaders to make a habit of regularly sharing the spotlight with members who step up to contribute even in small ways.

#3 Executives and boards are asking for the wrong numbers.

Boards want to see membership growth, but “more members” is the wrong metric to judge success. Instead, boards should ask:

  1. How are we making a difference in our members’ lives? How are we helping them become more successful in their career or business?
  2. Are we delivering value to all our members?


A recent Associations Now article described how the leadership of the Construction Financial Management Association decided to remove membership growth as a strategic priority.  President and CEO Stuart Binstock said, ”We concluded that a focus on delivering member value would drive desired membership growth. The outcome of that prudent decision was a 9% increase in membership over that period, which has led us to where we are today.”

Engage members by delivering the value that matters to them. What members value and how they interact with your association and with other members to receive that value will not be the same for every member, and will change over a member’s lifetime.

The needs, wants, habits, and aspirations of members evolve, so you can’t rely on what you learned about them when they joined. The ASAE panel suggested using one-question polls to regularly check in with members and collect data about their preferred engagement path.

Many thanks to ASAE and the panelists Lowell Aplebaum, CAECynthia D’AmourPeggy Hoffman, CAE, and moderator KiKi L’Italien for a fascinating hour.