Partnership v. Membership: What Behavior Do You Want to Encourage? Posted on July 2, 2019 | by Elizabeth Weaver Engel, CAE

That question is not rhetorical.

Corporate membership can be complicated. To being with, there are at least two main types:

  1. Companies that are your core audience (i.e., trade associations’ typical members).
  2. Companies that are NOT your core audience (i.e., the suppliers who often comprise the associate members).

Even in the “are your core audience” arena, things get complicated. Individual/professional membership associations almost always want to offer some sort of company/institutional membership, particularly in fields where it’s common for employers to pay individual members’ dues. Those types of “corporate” memberships are usually more along the lines of group discounts – sign up four staff members and get the fifth for free, buy a ten-pack of memberships that you can distribute among your staff and get a deep discount, we’ll give you 10% off if you handle all the individual memberships at your company on one renewal notice and pay them all at the same time, etc.

(On the trade side, it’s also usually the case that associations look for ways to involve as many people in the organization as possible, both in order to provide value commensurate with what are often hefty corporate membership fees and also to provide an insurance policy in case the key membership contact at that company leaves. If she’s the only person your association has had a relationship with and she sells/retires/takes another job, you might lose that member.)

However, thinking just about the associate/supplier members and what those memberships might entail by way of benefits, you have to ask yourself: What behavior do you want to encourage?

First let me point out that I am a BIG fan of the style of corporate relationships Lewis promotes, getting away from $500 to get your logo on the lanyards, $1000 to get your logo on the conference bags, or $1500 for a full-page ad in the magazine, and moving to a $50,000 customized year-round relationship that might include lanyards and bags and ads if the corporate partner happens to care about that stuff, but is fundamentally shaped by everyone’s larger goals.

In thinking about offering supplier membership, however, you have to think carefully about the points Lewis raised in his most recent post:

  • What is your association trying to accomplish in allowing suppliers to be members?
  • What are suppliers trying to accomplish that would be better served by membership than some other type of relationship?
  • What are your core members’ goals with regards to their relationships with suppliers, and what structure best accommodates those?

The answer to those questions may or may not include membership for those suppliers.

Quoting from my previous post in this series:

 Some suppliers want long-term loyal relationships with the association and are deeply invested in the overall good of the profession or industry you serve. They may have aligned advocacy or other interests and can be powerful partners in achieving your association’s mission. They don’t JUST want to sell. They are potential candidates for supplier membership.

In my previous post, I had already outlined some of the things you need to consider in structuring supplier membership. But if you’ve decided that you want to offer BOTH supplier membership AND corporate partnership, you need to make sure that you are providing incentives for and rewarding the behavior you want to see.

Do you want a supplier to pay $500 for membership, or $50,000 for a partnership?

That’s what I thought.

(Although do remember, those large scale partnerships may not be in every supplier’s budget, and even if they are, you likely need to provide lower-price entry points where they can try you out before they will be willing to make a large-scale financial commitment.)

At a minimum, you probably want supplier membership to be a standard component of your corporate partnerships. But you’re going to have to delicately balance what programs, products, services, and opportunities are available to supplier members versus what’s reserved for corporate partners if you want firms to be writing those big checks and be WANTING to write those big checks because what they’re getting in return helps them achieve their goals in your market.

What that looks like is going to vary for every association. Which is why I’m going to, once again, urge you to talk to your supplier supporters to learn what goals they’re trying to achieve in your market, what problems they’ve encountered on the way that they’ve been unable to solve on their own, and what your association can do to help them. And then you’re going to have to make some choices about who gets access to what.

But let me provide a concrete example of what that might look like, one I talked about in my previous post: advocacy support.

Supplier members are often just as concerned about your industry’s regulatory environment as are your core members.

How do you structure who gets to do what in a way that both provides value at the membership level and also encourages stepping up to partnership for those who are able?

What that might look like is:

  • Your supplier members participate in your legislative action network, but only your corporate partners have the opportunity to serve on your policy committee.
  • Your supplier members are invited your fly-in, but only your corporate partners are invited to a VIP event with your board of directors at that fly-in.
  • Your supplier members participate in your lobbying training prior to your Hill meetings, but only your corporate partners get to speak from the podium during the training event.
  • Etc.

The bottom line is: you need to make sure that you are providing value for your supplier members for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that not every supplier is going to be able to afford corporate partnership, but you also need to make sure that the corporate partnerships provide enough additional value to justify their cost in the minds of the people writing the checks.

Now that we’ve got our theoretical framework built and have had a chance to consider what partnership is, what membership is, and how those pieces might relate to each other, it’s time to start talking tactics, the first of which Lewis will address in his next post: How do you find potential corporate partners? How do you nurture those relationships?

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