Thought Leadership

Re-evaluating membership organisations: what it means to be a member

‘Sense of community is a feeling that members have of belonging, a feeling that members matter to one another and to the group, and a shared faith that members’ needs will be met through their commitment to be together.’ David McMillan and David Chavis, social psychologists

We all have the primal needs of food, shelter, safety, love and esteem. And it’s these needs that drive all our motivations.

Being in a gang, supporting a sports club or being a member of a political movement gives us power. Membership of organisations draws people together and provides familiar support. No disrespect to the Chartered Institute of whatever or the interesting object owners club of Great Britain, but they have their work cut out in replicating that sense of belonging.

However, combine the shifting influence of the traditional channels of communication with the pace of change in our societal structures and it’s no surprise that organisations built on the notion of membership and collective aims have struggled to keep up.

If remaining relevant and valuable to its membership is the ultimate ambition of such organisations, it is worth reminding ourselves of the component parts of membership.

A community is defined as much by what it stands for as what it stands against. There are specific components that influence the power of a particular membership and work together to help members identify who is part of a group and who is not.

Boundaries are important to a membership group, helping to inform the parameters of acceptable conduct, and who belongs and who does not. Establishing boundaries can be a strong bonding mechanism for a group – which is why gangs are so attractive to disenfranchised youth.

On the subject of gangs, we need to acknowledge the power that safety brings to a group. While physical safety is hopefully unlikely to be a clarion call for a commercial membership organisation, emotional safety is still hugely important. It creates trust and openness, which leads to more meaningful conversations and stronger bonds among members. This is why the activities of ‘trolls’ are so damaging to any group and why ‘open’ communities, where conversations are less intimate, are generally less successful.

A person’s ability to fit in with a group, knowing they have a right to be there and being accepted by other members, is paramount. Both boundaries and emotional safety help to support this sense of belonging. Members who have a voice and feel their contribution is valued will identify more strongly and feel proud to say, ‘This is my club.’

Membership thrives when people feel personally invested. Offering our time and energy to a common cause gives membership more meaning. This, in turn, builds a stronger emotional connection, which increases the likelihood for continued participation in a group. It is important, therefore, to create structures that encourage and reward participation.

Perhaps one of the most underrated attributes of strong membership organisations are symbols. The sociologist Robert Nisbet stated that ‘A common symbol system serves several important functions in creating and maintaining sense of community. Understanding common symbols systems is prerequisite to understanding community.’

Symbols can be extremely powerful. Sports teams wearing identical kit, uniformed public servants, your job title, military badges – even the type of clothing you wear – all go towards bonding you to others who wear or promote the same symbol. The converse effect is to create envy perhaps among those who cannot or do not wear the symbol. In fact, groups have always intentionally used symbols and social conventions such as dress, rites of passage and language to create distance between members and outsiders. Even the most basic archetypes can be highly uniting.

For membership organisations looking to re-evaluate their meaning and relevance, it makes sense to go back to some basic human needs and consider the ties that bind a group together and how your organisation can build on those ties.

Perhaps the most important of these is the sense of identity. The more embedded a person is with a group, the more they identify with them. The challenge for membership organisations is to identify themselves with their members (rather than the other way around) and let them do the talking. People power trumps all, eventually. With so much competition for your members’ attention, starting to think like a gang or a sports club could be the edge you need to remain meaningful – and to survive.

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