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A Beginner’s Guide to Membership Associations

9 min read
September 25, 2023
Alex Huntsberger
Membership Associations are a great place for professionals to connect, learn, and advocate for their common interests. In this image, members of a trade association fill a brightly lit amphitheater at an industry conference

Membership associations are a popular type of nonprofit that use a member-based business model to advocate for change and foster community—usually within a specific industry or sector.

Want to know more about associations or thinking about starting an association of your own? This article’s got all your bases covered!

Understanding Associations

First things first: What are associations, exactly? 

At their core, associations are groups of individuals, businesses, or entities with a shared interest, mission, or profession. They play a pivotal role in fostering collaboration, advancing causes, and driving change across diverse industries and sectors. 

Membership in associations can be driven by individuals, businesses, or by local chapters, but all associations exist, primarily, to serve their members’ interests and advance their goals. Members can also use associations to exchange knowledge, advocate for their shared causes, and swap valuable resources and services. 

Examples of well-known associations abound, spanning pretty much any industry you can think of. Two well-known examples are the American Medical Association (AMA), which advocates for healthcare professionals and patient care and the American Bar Association (ABA), which represents the legal profession. 

Have you heard of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, also known as AFP? The name doesn’t lie: They’re a member association that serves the nonprofit sector specifically.  

On the hunt for a CRM? Considering Wild Apricot? Click on this image to explore our side-by-side comparison to see which platform would be best for your organization.
On the hunt for a CRM? Considering Wild Apricot? Click on this image to explore our side-by-side comparison to see which platform would be best for your organization.

How Memberships Work for Associations

Membership lies at the heart of the association business model. Members set an association’s priorities and fuel their capacity to create change and drive progress. 

When talking about memberships, there are three important topics to discuss: membership structures, membership benefits, and membership dues.

Membership Structures

Associations can be structured in a number of different ways. Depending on their members’ needs and the different stakeholders involved, memberships might be structured in one of the followings ways:

  • Individual Memberships: This is the most common type of membership structure, where individuals join associations to access benefits and contribute personally. 
  • Organizational Memberships: This structure is also quite common. It’s designed for businesses, institutions, or entities seeking to align with a particular association’s mission and values. 
  • Local Memberships: With this model, an individual or business joins a local chapter which provides its own network, resources, and benefits. Those local chapters then work together to advocate for causes nationally. 

Membership Benefits

In return for joining an association and paying their membership dues, members gain access to an array of benefits, which can include: 

  • Access to Resources: Members often gain access to a wealth of resources, including industry-specific research, publications, best practices, and educational materials.
  • Networking Opportunities: Associations provide valuable networking opportunities through events, conferences, and online communities, allowing members to connect with peers, mentors, and industry experts.
  • Professional Development: Many associations offer educational programs, workshops, and certifications to help members enhance their skills and advance their careers.
  • Discounts and Savings: Members may enjoy discounts on products, services, insurance, and event registration fees, helping to offset the cost of membership.
  • Exclusive Content & Publications: Some associations provide members with exclusive content, such as proprietary research, reports, or industry insights. Members often receive newsletters, journals, or magazines that feature industry updates, case studies, and member profiles.
  • Access to Experts: Associations often have a network of subject-matter experts and mentors who can provide guidance and insights to members.
  • Advancement Opportunities: Associations can help members explore career opportunities, find job listings, or connect with potential employers.

Membership Dues and Fees

Membership dues are fees paid by members in order to join the association and avail themselves of its many membership benefits. 

They are the primary revenue stream for most associations—and they are also the component of membership structures that vary most widely from one organization to the next depending on the association’s size, scope, and offerings. 

Some associations charge a flat annual fee, while others have tiered pricing based on different membership levels. Industry-specific associations often offer reduced rates for individuals or organizations with limited financial resources, ensuring inclusivity and accessibility.

If you want to know more about how membership levels work for nonprofit organizations, you should read our article below: 

4 Common Challenges Facing Membership Associations

As nonprofit organizations, membership associations are always going to face challenges common to the field: financial stability, economic downturns, volunteer management, financial stability again, the list goes on (if you want the full rundown, just buy any nonprofit leader a drink and ask). 

But memberships also face a number of challenges that are more specific to their membership-based model versus the donor and foundation-based nonprofit models. Some of those challenges include:

Member Retention: Keeping members engaged and committed can be challenging. Any association sporting a low member retention rate risks unstable finances and will have a hard time achieving long-term goals.

Attracting New Members: In a crowded landscape, it’s vital for associations to continuously recruit new members. This can be tough due to competition for members’ time, attention, and resources; changing demographics in a given industry; and evolving member expectations.

Relevance and Member Benefits: Membership associations must continuously provide value to their members. Staying relevant and offering meaningful benefits that align with members’ needs and expectations is an ongoing challenge. And the better the benefits, the more time and effort it requires to make them happen. 

Communication and Engagement: Effectively communicating with members and maintaining high engagement levels can be challenging. Striking the right balance between frequency and content quality is key. Holding events can be a huge boon for member engagement, but events take a lot of hard work and planning to pull off!

Overcoming all of those hurdles requires hard work, smart strategic thinking, and the right tools at your staff’s disposal. That’s why choosing the best membership management software for your association could be the thing that unlocks your organization’s true potential.

Luckily, we wrote a mega-guide on just that topic! Check it out below:

Launching a Membership Association: Your 7-Step Guide 

If you’re considering starting a nonprofit association, you probably have a lot of enthusiasm, but you might not know where to begin. 

That’s where we can help! Here are seven essential steps that anyone starting a brand-new nonprofit association.

Step 1: Define Your Purpose

Begin by articulating your association’s purpose and mission. What unique value will it provide to members and the community at large? This clarity of purpose will become the north star for your association, guiding all future decisions. 

Need help coming up with your mission statement? Have a gander at the steps and examples we provide in the article below:

Step 2: Identify Your Target Audience

Determine who your association will serve. Most associations serve a specific industry niche, but you should consider demographics, interests, and needs. Will your target audience be individuals, businesses, institutions, or a combination thereof?

Understanding your audience is crucial for tailoring your offerings. After all, this target audience will form your membership base moving forward. 

Step 3: Develop a Membership Structure

Create a membership structure that aligns with your mission and audience. Should you create different membership tiers, each with its own benefits and pricing? Or would a flat, annual membership fee for everyone offer the best path forward? 

It’s not an either/or proposition. For example, you could have a single membership level but also offer discounted rates for students, nonprofits, or businesses under a certain revenue number. 

Step 4: Legal and Governance Matters

Begin your organization’s legal journey (lucky you!) by establishing your association as a legal entity, such as a nonprofit corporation or association. Develop bylaws that outline governance, decision-making processes, and member rights. 

Consult legal experts to ensure compliance with local regulations. Now is also the time to begin assembling your nonprofit’s board. Begin tapping your professional network to find experienced and like-minded colleagues. 

Step 5: Financial Planning

Determine your association’s financial strategy. Develop a budget that accounts for operational costs, membership dues, and potential revenue streams, such as events, sponsorships, or grants. 

Make sure to consider how you’ll handle membership dues collection, tracking, and reporting. Take it from us: If you have membership management software that ties together your membership forms and your database, it’ll make the process much easier.

You can learn more about membership form best practices—and how we’ve built them in to Neon CRM for Association’s membership form builder tool—in the article below!

Step 6: Marketing and Promotion

Time to get out there and sell! Create a compelling brand for your association and a marketing strategy to attract members. Craft a compelling value proposition, communicate the benefits of joining, and establish an online presence through a website and social media. 

Leverage your existing professional network to spread the word. Unlike a traditional nonprofit, which might have to rely on more traditional channels to raise general awareness, your connections in the industry your association is serving will be critical to your success.

Step 7: Launch and Grow

Launch your association program with a well-planned event or campaign. Encourage initial members from your network to join and become advocates. As you grow, continually engage members through events, resources, and networking opportunities. Listen to feedback and adapt to meet evolving needs.

Neon CRM for Associations Has All the Tools You Need

For all their complexities, membership associations rest on a charmingly simple premise: That when people come together to share expertise, pursue common goals, and foster a true sense of community, anything is possible. 

But possible and probable are two totally different ball games. That’s why an association that’s serious about serving its members and advancing its mission needs a powerful set of tools at their disposal. Otherwise, even the possible will seem impossible.

That’s where Neon CRM for Associations comes in! It’s got all the great features of Neon CRM, from email, forms, events and volunteers, automated workflows, and powerful reporting, plus membership tools like member management, member portals, custom member directories, and more.

Neon CRM for Associations has everything you need all within a single cutting-edge platform. Want to learn more? Request a personal demo today. We look forward to hearing from you!

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