Many historians argue that Genghis Khan changed the world for the better. Under the Khan’s control, all of Asia was united, crime was non-existent, trade flourished, technologies were exchanged, and citizens were able to freely practice whatever religion they wanted. Historians call it the Pax Mongolica- the Mongolian peace. However, his conquest of Asia was arguably the most cruel and bloody period in history.

So which is it? Was Khan’s ascendancy terrible or good?

I believe the good comes with the bad. And vice versa.

Right now, we’re all hunkered down in our homes trying to prevent a pandemic from becoming catastrophic.

It’s a terrible time. But good will come with it.

A Financial Recession and ... Growth?

A couple of years ago, I was surprised to read in a book on member engagement that many associations saw a surge in membership after the financial collapse of 2008. The author theorized that it was because people were turning to professional communities for help with all their problems in the recession. Unfortunately, I spent all morning scouring my books and can’t find the source for where I read this. Sad trombone.

However, Marketing General’s annual benchmarking survey goes back to 2009, covering the period where industries were in turmoil. It’s a market sample of 350 associations and it paints an interesting picture.

The 2009 survey was conducted in April. This was looking back over the previous year and the nadir of the recession. In that dark time, 49% reported new member growth (21% declined, 22% unchanged.)

“Overall, almost one-half of associations reported increases in new member acquisitions over the past year, with 25% indicating growth of up to 5%, and 24% boasting increases of 6% and higher.” - Marketing General, 2009 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report

A line graph showing association growth from 2008 to 2018

% Increased, Decreased, Stagnant
Visualized from 10 Year of Marketing General Reports

In the years following the financial collapse, most associations reported growth in all years except 2010. And for 2010, it wasn’t a huge drop in numbers- for organizations that reported decline the majority had less than a 10% drop.

At a higher level, in the 10 year period following the recession almost twice as many associations regularly reported growth rather than decline.

What’s interesting in the above chart is that both increases and declines are much higher than "no change" to membership in the 7 years following the recession.

Associations either grew or declined in the face of economic challenges, but few remained the same.

2008 Wasn’t the First Challenge You’ve Faced

2008 wasn’t the first recession to impact the association sector. In the early 1990's, economies in the west dipped into recession and associations felt it. Just like 2008 though, associations evolved, adopted new strategies and tactics, and improved their efficiency.

In both cases, you became stronger for the hardship and better serve your members today than you did then.

Regardless of how much we don’t want it, change is here and it’s bringing the bad and the good.

Is it Practical or Ethical to Grow Membership Right Now?

I spoke with the president of a society of association executives this week. She told me that, until recently, many of her association members were thinking about recruitment campaigns and how to grow. She said that pushing membership now seemed like a tough sell. Execs are concerned with whether it’s even possible to recruit members now? And beyond the viability of it, is selling membership an ethical or responsible activity to focus on?

Those are good questions. Unfortunately, I don’t have the answers.

However, I would encourage you to consider three things:

1) The industry you serve needs help that you are uniquely positioned to provide. Leadership, intelligence, support, and government cooperation are all extremely valuable right now. When I say intelligence, I mean about what’s working, what’s not, what’s coming- all things that move through a community quicker than alternatives like outside experts.

2) You are the steward of a population including both members and non-members. To some extent you have a responsibility to sell membership because it will help the non-members you represent. I’m not advocating that you go all in on recruitment, but rather to see it as having its place in service to your industry.

3) You’re likely going to see member attrition as members “tighten their belts” and reevaluate the value of membership. Proactively working to recruit new members will help you offset this attrition. While some members are going to weigh the benefit of non-renewal to cut costs, potential members are also going to be weighing the benefits of joining in helping them to surmount a challenging environment.

How the Pax Mongolica Ended

Do you know what caused the downfall of the Mongul empire?

It was a plague. Disease drove people apart and fractured the empire.

One of the primary reasons that we at Steward chose the association space as our focus is because we value community. What you do in bringing people together is noble.

We need those connections now more than ever. Times are tough and will likely get tougher. All the more reason for you to keep working to grow your communities.

John Hooley
President, Steward

John is a graduate of 10,000 Small Businesses, a certified Customer Acquisition Specialist, and a Zend Certified Engineer. He speaks and writes on connecting digital strategy to association goals. Outside of work he's an avid traveler, climber, diver, and a burgeoning sailor. He also volunteers with Rotary and Big Brothers Big Sisters.