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Finding Value in Professional Associations: Management and Membership Issues
Volume 39, Number 3 - May/June 2015


Taking Kahan’s words at face value, I decided to investigate why people join associations. When I spoke with American Society of Association Executives (ASAE; president and CEO John H. Graham, IV, he commented, “There are many different reasons why people join an association including professional development, it’s a cause or issue they believe in, and being part of a community. Associations offer people an opportunity to enrich their lives by giving back, learning the latest trends and ideas, so they can implement them back into their organizations as well as enhance their careers.”

A business colleague of mine and a former LIS association president concurred with Graham’s comments. Her view is that associations serve their membership on three levels:

  • Networking with colleagues
  • Job awareness/placement
  • Education/professional development—which could manifest as CMEs (continuing medical education), CLEs (continuing legal education), or CEUs (a general designation for continuing education credits). Not every profession requires continuing education for certification or renewing certification.

All three are worthy pursuits, we agreed, and in the past, could have been one or more reasons to join an association. However, if I want to network with industry colleagues around the world today, I can tap into one of many social online networking sites. If I want to look for a new job, I can go to one of many job recruitment sites that not only give me information for jobs in my industry and my geographic area, but allow me to search for employment on a global basis. To further my education in my chosen field, there are online universities with a plethora of individualized courses and MOOCs (massive open online courses); free vendor and association sponsored webinars; and professional advice available through discussion lists.

The struggle to attract new membership, renew current members, and be relevant is thus exacerbated by the fact that younger people are not readily joining associations. They have grown up in a collaborative environment and can network without the aid of an association. Associations that offer key incentives to join through accreditation and regulatory courses or vendor discounts have an edge.

Given these alternatives, how do associations stay relevant to not only attract new members, but also stay viable and retain current members?


In 2013, the Association for Rubber Products Manufacturers (ARPM) split from the well-established Rubber Manufacturers Association (RMA) (“Associations Prosper from SPLIT DECISION”; The ARPM separated from RMA when it felt that the larger organization was not suited to the smaller manufacturers’ interests, specifically those in the nontire sector. The value proposition for the newer, more agile, and smaller ARPM is to bring better value to its members through networking, leveraging discounts for cost of supplies, and weekly educational webinars.

Executive director Troy Nix said, “Our goal is to infiltrate the industry. Ultimately, we want the ARPM to be the household name and the vision basically says the reason is because we help to make executives running these companies better.”

ARPM’s vision of leveraging better discounts for its members on various operational supplies seems to be working, as new members are continually joining the association. Charles Braun, president of Custom Rubber Corp., says that “some companies get 100% of their dues back to them with savings through these [discount] programs.” ARPM has also established a website for members to network daily. “We create extreme camaraderie between our members,” says Nix. In his opinion, this closeness is what separates his association from others.

The ARPM is leaner that the larger RMA and is thriving since it is providing its members with valuable services. It seems to have taken the advice given by Seth Kahan and has become successful by 1) understanding the market, 2) serving their customers, and 3) realizing their capacity.


How does a professional association make enough money to keep afloat? For the most part, its revenue comes from one or more of the following:

  • Sale of publications
  • Membership dues
  • Annual meeting

For some associations, the revenue derived from publishing journals and/or books represents a significant amount of income. Associations not active in publishing must obtain their funds from dues and annual meeting revenues.

This is certainly true of scholarly societies, which share some attributes with professional association. In a recent survey conducted by publisher John Wiley & Sons, it was revealed that 27% of the 13,929 respondents viewed access to peer-reviewed scholarly journals as important to membership in a society, and 26% credited continuing education and training opportunities as a reason to join ( Why not join? Reasons from respondents were it was too expensive; they were not invited to join; it never occurred to them to join; and they had a lack of knowledge of association within their fields.

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Michael Gruenberg is president, Gruenberg Consulting, LLC. He previously had a distinguished sales career spanning more than 30 years with a variety of companies including ProQuest, CSA, OneSource, Oxford Analytica, and Disclosure.


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