“So… do you think I’m crazy?”Chris Jenkins, CEO of the South Carolina Association of CPAs asked me on the phone after explaining their new membership model.

I thought about it for a second and replied, “Not at all!”

Here at Sengii we’ve been doing a lot of research about the modern challenges associations are facing. I’ve read dozens of articles and watched video interviews about various types of problems with membership based organizations; affected by technology and social change.

When simplified “the membership problem” boils down to one question, “Why do I need to be a member of an association?” Some possible answers are:

  • The formality and support of belonging to an association that serves your professional interests
  • The benefits of knowledge sharing and networking with fellow professionals
  • The utility of CPE and other member discounts

There is a lot of concern about appealing to younger generations, student outreach, and securing the future of professional associations. The overall message most associations are hearing is that: they must embrace change to survive. But what is the direction of that change, and who decides?

Chris made it very clear that there is no single answer for everyone. Before making any decisions, he went back to roots and did a lot of research about SCACPA’s members, localities, and culture.

The conclusion he reached to best serve members was to simplify, be inclusive, and be their primary source for professional needs. Here’s the plan:

  • Transition CPE from a revenue stream into a member benefit,including 40 hours of CPE as part of the base membership (they can purchase more if needed through the catalog and non-members can still purchase CPE)
  • $799 annual dues (previously $200) or a 5% upcharge for a new monthly membership option
  • Every member is now part of a chapter and those chapters are funded by membership for social events and to promote the value of the CPA credential

The obvious question is: what do the members think?

  • 56% love the idea
  • 34% want to see the CPE offerings before deciding whether they like it
  • 10% say they will quit

Change is always difficult, but the numbers seem to indicate an overall positive reception. Many CEOs initially thought Chris was crazy, but have been warming up to the idea over time.

How do you figure out what solution is best for your association?

  • What is your unique competitive advantage? If you’re a state or regional association, focus on your location! Members already have a source for national news – focus on local news and government.
  • Make your chapters work for the profession – be inclusive.
  • Talk to members, do your research, and decide what best fits their needs.

What else?  Chris found SCACPA could increase utilization of local resources at a generous cost savings, funding 54 full day events for under $740,000:

  • He found that big industry members had training facilities that could be utilized at no cost for professional associations.
  • He explained SCACPA was a small non-profit association to the big 4 accounting firms and they donated speakers for the events.

Many associations have problems with members reading communications. I asked Chris about recommendations for reaching busy members and leaders:

  • Target the top firms and visit them in person about issues affecting the profession
  • Unless you have a very large member base, you’ll need to target your specific audience and focus on them when getting your message through
  • Don’t overlook Facebook advertising even for professional audiences
  • Don’t invest too much in any one social platform
  • Everything is digital now so spend time shaking hands and hand writing notes – consider creating a font based upon your actual hand writing

As our 2-hour call was wrapping up I asked one of the most prominent questions for associations: how do you appeal to younger members?

  • Meet them in person – that tripled student membership
  • Utilize an online community platform to facilitate communication and resources
  • Make conferences free for students so they can talk to established members

Chris also made the point that the declining membership associations are worried about, is to some extent a false narrative. Membership has been trending upwards for most associations, but many reports focus on specific criteria that defines what a member is, rather than the overall numbers.

Chris is quickly making his mark as CEO and although it’s a little risky, it’s also calculated. SCACPA’s new membership model launches 5/1/2018 and I’m personally very interested to see the results!