8 Ways to Create a Sense of Belonging & Community at Your Association

S8 Ways to Create a Sense of Belonging & Community at Your Association

Few people come right out and say it, but the desire to belong and feel like you’re a part of a community is a basic human need and longing. The sad thing is, Cigna’s 2020 Loneliness Index revealed that three in five Americans consider themselves lonely. They don’t experience a sense of belonging and community.

Why are people feeling lonely and craving community now more than ever? Because modern life makes it difficult to find and build a community. Think about it, people are:

  • Moving to new cities in pursuit of jobs or never returning home from college.
  • Not joining social clubs, churches, and other groups like generations before them did.
  • Commuting long distances to work alone or working remotely alone.
  • Working long hours then going home to spend the night alone.

No surprise, technology is a big culprit. You can easily spend time alone, instead of going out, when everything you need is delivered or streamed to your couch. Add in the fact that after the age of 25, the number of friends you have begins to decrease as priorities shift, and you can see why we’re in the midst of a loneliness epidemic.

Membership Benefit: A Sense of Belonging and Community

“All the lonely people, where do they all belong?”

One place comes to mind: your association. Associations are communities to longtime, active members. They’ve had the chance to develop relationships. Over the years, some acquaintances have even become close friends, but most members develop what sociologists call ‘low-stakes’ relationships or ‘weak ties.’

The more weak ties a person has, the happier they feel. A member’s sense of belonging increases with a network of acquaintances. Weak ties help them feel connected to others in their industry or profession. Acquaintances provide connections to other members, recommendations, and referrals.

When members have this sense of belonging and community, they’re likely to renew since they’re receiving valuable emotional benefits from their membership—and we all know, emotions drive decisions.

But these members are the exception. Most members have a different relationship with your association. They go to events, read your newsletters, and hold your credential. But they haven’t yet felt the emotional impact of membership. They may belong but they don’t feel that same sense of belonging and community.

8 Ways to Help Members Feel a Sense of Belonging

You can create conditions and opportunities for members to develop the relationships and have the experiences that will give them a sense of belonging and community.

#1: New member onboarding. Once a quarter, introduce new members to others who have joined in the last three months. “Welcome, class of Spring 2020!” Use a web conferencing platform, like Zoom, to host orientation sessions, meet-and-greets, lunch-and-learns, or after-work hangouts. Give new members the opportunity to get to know and see each other while they talk about membership goals and interests.

#2: Online meetups. Extend the online meetup opportunity to all members. Many of them don’t have the luxury of attending in-person events but want to meet other members. Even if you have chapters, members still want the chance to meet people from other locations. Organize online meetups for virtual coffee breaks, brown bag lunches, or happy hours.

#3: Local meetups. If you don’t have chapters, give members the tools to organize their own local meetups, like MeetUp.com does. Don’t limit these meetups to professional topics. Seeing people out of the normal context helps a relationship go from casual acquaintance to real friend. Suggest social meetups, such as coffee chats, happy hours, hikes, tours, or festivals—activities that allow people to talk while participating.

#4: Member buddy programs. Association have always encouraged the building of relationships through mentor programs. How about a reverse mentor program? Start matching event first-timers with event veterans if you haven’t already. A membership ambassador program helps new members find their way.

#5: Niche groups. Given the size of an association’s membership, it’s challenging for members to find ‘their people.’ When you offer a variety of niche groups, members can get a footing and build a smaller community out of the larger one. Chapters serve this purpose to some extent, but even in chapters, members want to find a smaller group.

Think about creating niche groups:

  • Special interest groups (SIGs) by specialties and professional roles
  • Young professionals
  • Women and other underrepresented demographic groups
  • Remote workers: a growing group who don’t have the same camaraderie as members who work in offices
  • Solopreneurs, self-employed, freelancers, and consultants and others who work alone
  • Study groups, masterminds, discussion groups, and book clubs

When members can bring their whole selves to the association, they are more likely to feel a sense of belonging. Consider starting hobbyist groups for members who want to share information about cooking, crafts, DIY projects, etc.

#6: Online community. We can’t talk about community without mentioning online communities. They serve a practical purpose as a forum for advice and recommendations, but they’re also a good icebreaker platform for strangers who might become acquaintances given the chance.

#7: Volunteering. People want to contribute, especially when they can be part of something bigger. Volunteering gives members an opportunity to make a difference and, in some cases, meet others. But members don’t always have the time or want to make a long-term commitment to traditional volunteering roles.

Think beyond board and committee service. Consider offering short-term team activities, like advisory boards and project teams. Expand the number of opportunities with micro-volunteering.

Look at every association project and task. How could micro-volunteers help? Examples of microvolunteering include peer review of session proposals, curating external articles for newsletters, or researching something or someone (speaker). Come up with a list of tasks that can be done in less than an hour or can be spread out in a series of hour-or-less tasks.

#8: Inclusive leadership. Members will never feel a sense of true community if they see your association’s leaders in a negative light. If leadership is perceived as an exclusive ‘old boys’ or ‘old girls’ club, or gives off a country club or clique vibe, a sense of belonging will remain elusive for many.

Make sure you offer transparent paths to leadership with many ways to get there. Invite and seek different perspectives—a healthier approach for any association. Open leadership development training to all members so you can spot emerging talent who may not have the right connections.

Your Association’s Differentiator: A Place to Belong

Many organizations and platforms offer networking, education, and information, but associations offer something special—the sense of belonging to a community.

“As a young professional myself, I can tell you that what we want most from associations is a sense of community,” said Jeanette Gass, CAP, program development and special projects manager at The Optical Society. Young professionals aren’t the only generation who seeks a sense of community—it’s universal.

Associations have the advantage because you’re not just a community but a mission-driven community. Members can be part of something greater than themselves, contributing their time and energy to improving their careers, companies, profession, and industry. Along the way, they develop relationships with friends and acquaintances—strong ties and weak ties—who help them experience the sense of belonging and community they seek.

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