To Free Or Not To Free: Exploring Non-Dues Memberships

The rules of member engagement are changing. “Everybody does it” is no longer a strong enough reason to compel people to join your association. That’s why membership incentives are more popular than ever.

In today’s world of social media and the tools that surround it, anyone can form a group or a following. If so, should people have to pay to belong?

A recent, bold incentive that some professional and trade associations have tried is free membership – who doesn’t love a freebie? While it sounds cutting edge, ADG went on a mission to find out who is doing it and how they make it work.

The end result of our search? We have yet to find an association that charges no dues at all. Even those with mostly free memberships have one or more premium options.

The Next Level Purchasing Association (NLPA), an organization for purchasing and procurement professionals, offers basic membership at no charge and premium memberships for $99.99 per year. Membership in the Internet Marketing Association (IMA) is free, with a premium option of $1,000 a year, but chairman and founder Sinan Kanatsiz says premium members account for less than 5 percent of the total member base.

The IMA, whose members work with companies ranging from small startups to industry giants, relies heavily on corporate underwriting to fund its programs. NLPA receives much of its operating revenue via tuition for its educational offerings, which ranges from $19 (free to premium members) for a one-off “Express” course to $3,057 for a three-level certification program.

More common are the associations that charge dues but offer a free option to certain members – smaller businesses, students, those from underrepresented populations – in the interest of diversifying the membership and attracting younger blood.

The Northwest Food Processors Association (NWFPA), made membership free for companies with sales under $1 million in 2013. The number of small-company members went from three to more than 80.

This proved to be a good move not just for the association but for the industry, NWFPA’s then-president, Dave Zepponi, told Associations Now magazine a year later. Larger food processors gained exposure to the experimentation and innovation taking place in smaller companies, while the small businesses gained access to the safety training and resources offered by the association.

Many of the organizations mentioned in that 2014 Associations Now article have abandoned the free membership tier, citing increased costs, but it’s alive and well at NWFPA, now known as Food Northwest.

In 2017, the New York State Nursery and Landscape Association (NYSNLA) began offering free memberships to high-school and college students in horticulture programs. Many of them have gone on to work for NYSNLA member companies or become dues-paying individual members after graduation.

Whether or not your association offers a free membership option, it’s important to have a healthy non-dues revenue base. Ideally the majority of your revenue stream – at least 61 percent – should come from sources other than member dues. How many of these are you using?

• Advertising (in your association’s publications or on its website, or both)
• Corporate partnerships
• Leadership programs
• Event fees
• Tuition for educational programs
• Job board on your website
• Merchandise sales
• Voluntary “key supporter” donation programs
• Member benefits that also provide the association with revenue. ADG gives back a percentage to associations who offer our web development services as a benefit to members.
• Donations to fund research projects that will advance your profession or industry

That’s just the beginning. A simple Google search turns up a wealth of ideas for boosting your non-dues revenue. If you need guidance figuring out which ones are right for your association, talk to us – we’re happy to help.