Partnership v. Membership: Defining Terms

Note: The post below is a guest blog from Elizabeth Weaver Engel (Spark Consulting) as a part of our series on partnership vs. membership.  Spark helps associations grow by providing strategic membership and marketing advice and assistance.

Lewis and I are both going to take a crack at this topic, and I’ve elected to go first.

I see partnership and membership as being founded on the same broad idea: individuals or organizations that seek some type of a relationship with an association. Whether they are individuals, companies, or other types of institutions, they have problems they can’t solve, or goals they can’t achieve, all on their own. So they’ve decided to associate in order to do those things more effectively than they can in isolation.

However, that desire for relationship can be expressed in a variety of ways.

The people who are engaged in the work of your profession or industry are coming to your association to solve problems and achieve goals that are – or at least should be – core to your mission. They need to get jobs in your field, improve their skills and networks in your field, and then get better jobs in your field. They need you to provide or point them to the education that will help them do that. They need you to uphold standards in your profession or industry and potentially discipline those who violate them. They need you to organize efforts to advocate on behalf of their profession or industry in their state houses and on Capitol Hill. These core constituents can be individuals, as is the case in professional societies, or companies/institutions, as is the case in trade associations.

Your suppliers are coming to your association because they need to connect with your core constituents. They need to establish themselves as trusted partners to your members, resources that can provide the services and solutions your members need to run their businesses, or operate in their professions, successfully. One piece of that is access. Another is the “glow” that being affiliated with your association can provide. They’re also looking for the opportunity to demonstrate expertise, whether formally through things like conference presentations, research projects, “how to” guides, and white papers, or informally through interacting with your members. These suppliers are most frequently companies of some sort, although they may be very small companies, as is the case with consultants to your industry.

The way I see it, there are two key distinctions to be aware both, both expressed in the matrix above.

One describes the relationship the person or organization has with the profession or industry your association serves. Is that person/entity engaged in the practice of the profession or industry (core), or does that person/entity seek to serve people who are engaged in the practice of the profession or industry (supplier)?

The second describes the relationship the person or organization has with your association. Is it short-term and transactional or long-term and loyal?

Some of the people who are in your core audience, those who practice your profession, only need a transactional relationship with you. They’re your customers. In fact, even those who become long-term, loyal, highly engaged members will probably start out as customers. They need to date you before they decide to marry you. And some may choose to stay at the dating/customer level, and that’s OK. You don’t have the capacity for every single person who practices the profession your association serves to be maximally involved. This core audience can be comprised of individuals, institutions/companies, or a combination.

Likewise, some of the suppliers that serve your industry only need – or can only afford – a transactional relationship with you in order to achieve their goals with your membership community. They are likely to be your advertisers (website, magazine, enewsletter) and conference exhibitors, or sole practitioner/small shop boutique companies who can’t afford a large-scale relationship. They have narrowly defined goals for your industry, and they can achieve those goals through transactional relationships (or that’s all they can afford).

Some suppliers are going to have larger or deeper goals for your audience, and deeper pockets. They are your candidates to upgrade, from advertiser/exhibitor to sponsor or even partner.

What role, if any, does supplier membership play in this ecosystem? You’ll have to check out Lewis’s forthcoming response post to find out!