This article was written by Guest Blogger:
Beth Williams, Quality and Membership Officer
Traditionally a decline in membership numbers is viewed as a problem, however at London Youth we’ve discovered the opposite to be true.
For years London Youth has proudly proclaimed itself to be a network of over 400 youth clubs across London, however this figure hadn’t been examined in quite some time. Our numbers may have been in the 400 mark, but in reality we were engaging with only a handful of our clubs on a regular basis.
Added to this, we only removed clubs from our membership if they actively requested to be removed. We kept them on the system. Our motto was “once a member always a member”. Communication with these disengaged clubs continued, emails and letters continued to be sent. We were doing a lot of talking but we had no idea who was actually listening.
Moving away from membership size to engagement
As with all membership organisations, we concerned ourselves with the size of our membership, rather than the engagement. In doing this we lost sight of the true definition of a member. I’m sure we aren’t the only organisation to recognise the feeling that it’s easier to ignore a problem if challenging it could mean potentially losing something. In our case, as long as we defined members as organisations listed on our database who had never asked to be removed, we could say that we had a high membership. If we have a much lower number of engaged members then we decided that we wanted to reflect that in our communications.
With this in place we started to pay more attention to membership payment. As a charity supporting other non-profits, we had initially felt uncomfortable enforcing payment on our members. The membership fee is small in the scheme of our funding yet actually it did matter. Payment is indicative of commitment and engagement. Every member of staff was assigned some member organisations to call. Whilst acknowledging our own failures in the administrative process, we asked members to get up to date.
Closing off 50% of existing members – A big step
Through our phone calls we realised how far the level of disengagement had become with some of our members. There were clubs whose contact details we had were no longer correct, others had closed for business and some were simply inactive. After several months, we changed the status of around half of our members to ‘closed’ on our system and stopped contacting them. It felt like a big step to take, but it allowed us to see which members truly wanted to be within our network.
We stopped giving time to member clubs who were no longer engaged. This gave us the opportunity to have more meaningful conversations with those who wanted to be part of our network. Naturally we began to know them more and better understand their challenges and strengths. Our membership offer strengthened as we were able to shape it to what they needed. We started to make sure all our members had equal opportunity to access our programmes and some that we had barely known before started to engage with us in a much more meaningful way.
Moving towards member value and quality improvement
Numbers help to gauge success, reach and retention rates, but they fail to tell membership bodies the full value associated with their membership. By going small we have been able to focus more on our work with and through our network. This has undoubtedly improved the quality of our offer and increased our knowledge and confidence in representing youth workers, and of course our members, and better understanding the challenges and opportunities facing young people across London. When we look to consult with our members about changes in the sector, we now have a wider variety of voices contributing. The process has also brought membership closer to the heart of our organisation. Even staff at London Youth with internally facing roles are more engaged with our members’ needs.
We’re now working more closely with members to ensure the offer we provide is useful and valuable to them, we also know much more about them and how satisfied they are with our services.
So are we staying small? Not at all. We’re putting together a growth plan as we speak. This process of redefining our membership has taught us invaluable lessons about needs of our members and how we can best serve and support these needs. In doing this work we now have a firm foundation on which we can increase our network, having confidence in the quality of our offer and the strength of the relationships we have with members. As we grow our network of members we’ll remain focused on keeping the same high quality offer to members, as well as staying as close to our members as possible.
This article was written by:
Quality and Membership Officer