Building a Successful Membership Association: Part One

By Steven E. Sacks, CPA, CGMA, ABC

Steven E. Sacks

The world of accounting firm associations and networks (for the purpose of this paper “association” also means “network” and/or “organization” related to accounting) has rapidly evolved because of globalization, information technology, societal needs and changing demographics. Most associations, operated on a not-for-profit basis, irrespective of their mission, have learned, or are learning, that philosophies, assumptions and activities cannot remain static and serve the needs of their members. It is imperative to align goals and strategies with a clearly defined vision. This article addresses some of the more important aspects of operating a successful association.

Gathering Business Intelligence

No association can be successful without taking the pulse of its members – an environmental scan to determine whether the activities and initiatives are truly meaningful. To accomplish this, one of the most useful tools is an “outreach program,” a leadership communication and business intelligence undertaking to offer checks and balances among the board, senior leadership and the members – and not just those at the partner level.

Why is this important? Because it provides an understanding of the association’s strategic direction, new programs, the influence of new legislation and regulation, training and education programs, and cultural issues. This information can be used to determine trends, similarities and needs among cohorts. From this, new programs are developed and information is shared on a regular basis to keep members “in the know” and to elicit feedback. This results in a greater likelihood of the association retaining a strong bond with members and other interested parties. It creates a sense of esprit de corps and shared commitment to success.

Most associations offer 75% to 80% of the same benefits and services – conferences, intranet, newsletters, special interest groups, webinars, third-party discounts etc. – so why do certain associations have a long track record of relevance while others seem to constantly battle to maintain members?

The bigger question is, putting benefits and services aside, what  what comprises the remaining 20% to 25% that distinguishes one association from the others when all seek the affiliation of the same population? Two words: culture and commitment. While each accounting firm operates independently, based on structure and governance rules, members believe in the value of affiliation value through networking – between leadership and members and member-to-member relationships. In an ideal world, a member firm will treat another member firm’s client as if it were its own. This is the culture element. Promising to fulfill the needs of that client and actually doing so is the commitment element.

Understanding Member Demographic Differences

We are going through a generational change: Baby Boomers are retiring at the rate of 10,000 each day. In addition, 75% of today’s CPA firm leaders will most likely be retired by 2025. The next generation of leaders will decide whether to remain in their current membership organization or look elsewhere. While it is important to address the succession issues of Baby Boomers, it is equally important to be positioned to serve the younger professionals – those who have just reached partner or who are on an upward trajectory.

Associations must appeal to the varied needs of business or industry professionals, whether it involves assistance with client-facing matters or business operations (e.g., administration, IT, HR, marketing). The association should be able to identify and share best practices so that its members can experiment and implement new processes and policies. No one firm has a “lock” on the best practice (though some operate under this illusion).

Appealing to Young Professionals

It is up to the firm’s leadership to encourage membership in a relevant association or business group so the younger professionals can apply what they learned and bring more value back “in house.”

Three major areas of focus that accounting firm associations must address:

  • Promote professional respect that can increase interest and allegiance to the association. Treated as professionals, they are more likely to be engaged by the more senior members of the association.
  • Overcome resistance to getting the younger professionals involved. This means creating initiatives that go beyond the usual offerings to the more established members. Many young professionals have experienced a leadership opportunity within their firms – and this can translate into meaningful and successful involvement within the association.
  • Encourage relationship support. Associations need to identify the role of young professionals by developing program initiatives that meet their daily professional needs, such as training in management, communication and business development. If the focus remains solely on a legacy audience (MPs and partners with long-term participation) instead of future leaders, members and individual firms will be short-changed. Consequently, there will be an exodus of firms from the association when the next generation of firm leadership takes the helm.

Retaining Legacy Members

Let’s not forget, however, that the current and recent past leaders within association firms have their own needs. I have found that a very important membership benefit is in the form of a rapid and helpful response to a technical question or some other assistance. This is also accompanied by quality and quantity of information exchange between members. The latter, however, cannot be directly controlled. It is an element of circumstances – both domestically and internationally – requiring familiarity of the skills and expertise of other member firms and their representatives. This is why participation at conferences or on webinars and conference calls is crucial.

It is not onerous to regularly attend conferences and participate in special interest groups, to take part in discussion boards or to submit an article or a success story. Similarly, it is very worthwhile to offer a timely and helpful response to a request for assistance or to answer a technical question. A partner would not (or at least, should not) ignore a partner from his own firm for help. So why ignore a request by a member from to another firm? And if a request comes from an international member, it would be self-defeating to ignore it.

Confidence in the Peer Network

One of the greatest advantages that an association offers is an open and social network. This provides a “confident” environment, where members have a high degree of certainty they are communicating with a qualified community of peers. This vetting process has been traditionally used to determine a firm’s suitability for membership (and continued affiliation), as well as in the sharing and development of best practices, credentials and virtually all meaningful content that firms provide – from internal publications to training courses and conference presentations.

Appreciation and Understanding Behind Expanding Membership

Sometimes member firms view growth as a plus; sometimes they view it as a threat to competitive positioning. It is important to understand and convey the need for growth; it cannot be simply a matter of getting big to derive more dues revenue. An association, particularly one with global reach, must articulate the importance of growth and how it fits into a changing marketplace. The focus should not be on perceived low membership numbers; instead, establish a sensible and effective plan to recruit and retain member firms to rapidly benefit the entire group. Thus, it is important for an organization to understand why it pursues certain strategies.

Some methods of member recruitment resemble a sales process. An association needs to understand the purchasing life cycle of potential members. This is not dissimilar to building a client relationship.

Effective Member Recruiting

Before recruitment begins, an association needs to be sure that its information and message is creating a sense of awareness and understanding. If the leadership is centralized, then the member firms – through a regional archway – must be in alignment. If it is chapter- or regional-driven, then all participants must understand and embrace the vision and mission and articulate a consistent philosophy. This includes an effective methodology for bringing in new firms (e.g., creating awareness, recruiting, engaging, renewing). All regions’ marketing, branding and recruitment/sales teams should work in tandem to create cohesive messaging at every stage of this process.

Membership recruitment may be sales, but it’s not always about the dollars. Rather, it is about creating long-lasting relationships, engaging prospects and proving to them why they would benefit affiliating with the association.

The issue of differentiation, here, too, plays a role. The question of “What really is our ‘niche’?” needs to be defined and then shared with prospects. No association can operate as the solution for every type of firm. A careful assessment of the target market and how it can be infiltrated to gain new members is a vital step.

Continue reading part two of this article.

About the author:

Steven E. Sacks, CPA, CGMA, ABC is CEO and founder of Solutions to Results LLC. His firm assists professional service firms and organizations to solve the challenges of human capital development and culture, and develop effective internal and external communication strategies and techniques. He has been in the forefront of the accounting profession for nearly 30 years, serving professional service firms and membership associations through the deliverance of leading-edge conferences, presenting to colleges and universities on careers in accounting, and creating workshops, webinars and webcasts on a variety of accounting and consulting topics.