Learn why reevaluating your membership model should be top of mind and how to get started.
After the year the community recreation industry has had, and the challenges it’s still facing, reevaluating your organization’s membership model is probably the last thing on your mind.
While this may be true and a lot to take on at once, Adam Shilling, the former executive director of membership and program at the YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids in Grand Rapids, Michigan, breaks down the why behind now being the best time to make changes.
At the core of reevaluating membership, Shilling said you first need to start by asking how you define membership within your organization and discuss this with not only staff, but also volunteers and members. “At Grand Rapids, we defined membership, the membership experience and the expectations we had for what a member would go through when they joined the Y,” said Shilling. “It helped bring clarity to how everyone within our organization was considering membership.”
When working to define your organization’s membership definition, Shilling said to start with the basic definition of any membership — providing someone with access to goods and services that might be difficult for them to obtain on their own. So, when evaluating what community recreation facilities are generally known for, the focus has mostly been health and wellness — as in a place to exercise, socialize and learn — but due to the pandemic, these services hit an all-time low.
“A hesitancy that has surrounded membership change, whether it be pricing or categories, historically has been if we change our membership, our members might leave us,” said Shilling. “Since memberships are already at a low point, we don’t have to worry about many more people leaving us. If you want to change your membership and you want to make some radical alterations, now is the time.”
Once you have your membership definition, the next step to reevaluating is to list every single service you currently offer and assess the value they add to the membership. Assessing will consist of evaluating which services are highly utilized, less utilized, the expense and the facility usage of each service.
“One of the aspects I like to focus on is maximizing facility space usage,” said Shilling. “I ask what spaces in our facility are being utilized and what spaces are being under-utilized. And then I take that information in and examine it to determine if we were to make changes, what would we stop doing and what could we start doing instead?”
While a pro to reevaluating your membership model is remaining innovative by providing new services to attract more members, a con can also come about because serving a new audience means no longer serving an audience you were previously serving. For example, Shilling said if you have an underutilized cycling studio and decide to replace it, you need to have a plan for how you’re going to begin serving the new audience in this space before you stop providing the previous service.
“This gets you as close as you can to a one-to-one replacement,” said Shilling. “It really comes down to serving as many people as you can as an organization through quality versus quantity.”
This leads to another pro for reevaluating membership models: the opportunity to create an intentional process for diversifying the members you have and creating an inclusive community. This begins with identifying who you are currently serving and who you are not serving but could be serving.
Due to the pandemic, you can’t talk about membership models without mentioning virtual programming. Many organizations have already began monetizing virtual memberships with a monthly rate, offering services ranging from fitness to educational classes.
So along with virtual memberships, Shilling predicts a trend of moving toward a more balanced portfolio of offerings. “I think we’re going to see more mind and spirit activities, and more programs and services that help balance out the severely negative outcomes of the pandemic,” he said. “Mental health is something that has been plaguing our communities for well over a decade now, and the Y can position itself to provide a support network — especially with the help of partnerships.”
The third trend Shilling predicts for membership models is developing more partnerships, which in turn will overall benefit new membership ideas and all possible trends. “If the Y is going to really make a meaningful difference and make any progress toward alleviating negative mental health ailments, the Y is going to need partnerships,” he said. “I see more virtual membership options and it being monetized, more mental health focus, and an increase in partnerships to help support the holistic health of our members.”
Shilling elaborated even if you start reevaluating your membership model, it doesn’t mean you have to change anything. But he also warned just because you’ve been doing something the same way for years doesn’t mean it’s the right way.
“We should constantly be vigilant of a mindset that gets comfortable, because that type of mindset leads to stagnation which hinders us from seeking ways to improve and grow,” said Shilling. “Remember, the work is not done by one single person. If you want to start somewhere, talk to five or six people about what they think you should be doing with membership and get some feedback.”
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