How Membership-Based Service Organizations Can Stay Relevant

Aug 22, 2018

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to speak to a local gathering for Optimist International, a worldwide volunteer organization with 2500 local clubs working to bring out the best in children, their communities and in themselves.

In just my brief time that I spent with the group, it was clear that the organization has many members who are clearly passionate about the club and its purpose.

Yet, their story is similar to many others I’ve heard from around the country:  members are ‘aging out’ of active service and not enough young members are coming in to replace them.

For decades, fraternal, religious or civic membership groups played a central role in American communities. Meetings were where you connected with like minds. You met mentors, collaborated with neighbors, built relationships and collectively supported causes in the community and beyond.

Today, decline is almost universal across chapter and organizations, leaving leaders perplexed by shrinking membership.  It is clear that the world has changed.  The result is that our membership-based organizations must change, too.

So, what’s different about members today?  

1. They don’t need you to get information – In today’s world, just about anything that anyone wants to know can be found via Google or by asking peers on social media. Simply post a question and you’ll have an answer back within minutes.

2. They expect you to be online – Having an online presence with a website that is actually kept up to date is a bare minimum, but the bar is actually rising higher each year. Digital communication via text, messenger or smartphone apps is where you need to be focusing now.

(And if you’re still making phone calls with a phone tree that’s printed on a piece of paper, be aware that a growing number of people are abandoning their landlines and some report that they never even answer their phone anymore.) 

3. They don’t need formality and rituals to make a meaningful contribution – Joining a group used to be how people addressed social issues and worked together to make the world a better place. Now, pop-up giving using resources like GoFundMe, make it possible for anyone to instantly create impact without ever leaving their house.

4. They have less patience for tradition (or bureaucracy) – Members today expect to be able to contribute in ways that are immediately valuable both to themselves and to the organization. They aren’t likely to wait “their turn” for leadership. Instead, they’ll be inspired to participate when they see forward movement, rather than being tied to traditions or stuck on the same barriers that have existed for years.

5. They have more choices available – When there aren’t many options in the marketplace for a product or service, mediocrity might be tolerated. That’s not the situation today. If a member doesn’t join your group, there are many other options available both online and offline. This means that we ALL have to ‘up our game’ as leaders. Our memberships have to be doing meaningful work, in truly engaging ways, if we expect people to join enthusiastically.

Some may read the 5 points above and wonder if the membership-based community service organization is doomed to continue in decline.I absolutely *don’t* believe that membership organizations are doomed. 

However, I do think that membership organization – as they’ve operated for decades – probably are. 

Organizations, or individual chapters, that can’t make the shift to attract younger members will simply not be able to survive.

But here’s the thing… I don’t want to leave you with doom-and-gloom because it’s NOT at all doomy or gloomy out there. 

Here’s what’s awesome about our new “changing world”…

  • We have LOTS of new resources to draw upon.  Members may not need you to get information, but WE also have a vast array of help available that previous leaders never dreamed of having!

    Want clever ideas for an event invitation?  You’ll find them on Pinterest! 
    Curious what peers think?  Join a Facebook group!

  • Similarly, getting online has never been easier. In fact, we’ve never had as many 24/7 communication channels available to us… many at little or no cost… we simply have to choose to do it!  There was a time not long ago when all we could use to get the word out about our programs was snail mail, newspaper/TV/radio ads, etc.
  • Our members can support us in new and exciting ways.  Just as our members can self-organize around their own concerns, they can self-organize around ours!  Our members (and prospective members) have the capability to INSTANTLY share our work and fundraise with dozens, hundreds or even thousands of their connections.
  • The challenges of our modern world can push us to be better – to be more attuned to member needs, to be more effective in our work, and more transformational in our impact. THAT is always a good thing.

The bottom line, in my opinion, is that by embracing the positive aspects of our changing world rather than mourning the way things used to be, membership-based service organizations have entirely new ways to achieve relevancy and impact!  

I think that's pretty darn exciting.

Of course, these opportunities are not limited to organizations like Optimist International, Rotary, Lions Club, etc… ANY organization that finds itself with dipping membership numbers can benefit from a review of how well they are standing the test of time. 

Have you noticed a change in what members want and need from you?  

Tell me about it in the comments.


Joy Duling is Founder and CEO of The Joy of Membership.  Since 2005, Joy and her team have helped associations, trade groups and membership-based nonprofits run their programs more easily and deliver exceptional member care.

You can find FREE tools, tips and training to help you run and grow your membership organization in The Joy of Membership Help Hub.



Hey there.  I’m Joy Duling, Founder and CEO of The Joy of Membership.

Clients hire me to help them design and deliver exceptional member experiences. If you lead an association, trade group, or membership-based nonprofit, you can find FREE resources to help you run and grow your membership organization by visiting here:

I look forward to connecting with you there.