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Dear Betty: How do we ease the pain of a dues increase?

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By Dear Betty |March 18, 2014

Dues-increaseDear Betty,

At the request of our Board, our association recently worked with a consultant to evaluate our membership structure. The consultant strongly recommended increasing our dues rates. I’m worried about the impact this will have on our retention rate. How do I explain an increase in dues to our members? How do I ease the blow for them?


Gentle Reader,

You know that old saying that the only two things in life that are certain are death and taxes? As any association professional knows, they left one thing off the list: dues increases. They’re a fact of life in associations, but that doesn’t mean your members are going to like them.

Some of how you handle this depends on how large the increase is and how satisfied your members are overall with the association. If it’s a small increase (either small dollar figure or small percentage) and your members are enthusiastic about your association, they may not even notice or care all that much. In other words, don’t assume you have a mountain here – you may just have a molehill.

But what if the increase is large, or your members’ attachment to you is a little…squishy? What can you do to help prevent a mass exodus when your dues rates increase?

First of all, your consultant had good reasons for recommending the increase. Which of those can you share with your members?

Related to that, what are your plans for the additional revenue you will raise? Are you going to use it to improve customer service? To upgrade your website? To create a sophisticated mobile version of your magazine? To launch a private member community? Share that vision. Don’t be shy about asking your members to invest in creating an association that will serve them better.

As an example, at a previous association, we created a new top category of dues on our income-based sliding scale specifically to offset the cost of better programming and greater outreach to students and new professionals. We were shocked at how many members voluntarily upgraded to the top category when we knew for a fact, due to our salary survey, that they did NOT earn that much.

What is the ROI (return on investment) of your members’ dues? One would hope that for $XXX in dues, they receive $XXX+ in value and benefits. Create an online interactive ROI calculator where members can plug in the value of the benefits they use and see how that compares with the dues they pay. Caution: only do this if the calculation is favorable for the vast majority of your members. And if it’s not, it’s time for a little soul-searching.

Another question for you to ask yourself is: “Is there anything we’re currently charging for that we can include in membership?” You’ll be charging more, but your members will also be getting more.

As an example, in the mid-1990s the association I worked for produced a print monthly newsletter of all open positions in the profession. When we took it online in the late 1990s, we made the online version free to all members, with the print version still available for a slightly higher subscription fee (we covered the rest of the cost of the online version via a slight increase in the non-member price to list jobs). We did this at the same time as we instituted a dues increase and saw our retention rate go up.

In a more tactical sense, don’t hit your members with the full increase all at once. Much like the District of Columbia does with property tax increases, set a percentage cap on increases (something like “no more than 15% per year”), and let members adjust into the new rates over the course of a few years. One of my clients is in the process of doing this right now as part of a larger dues model change, and they are experiencing good results.

Finally, to avoid the entire “large dues increase” problem in the future, switch to small annual increases. After the first year or two, it’s highly likely your members won’t even notice the increase from one year to the next. This is a tactic I’ve used repeatedly with both association employers and clients over the years, to good effect.

What about you, Gentle Readers? What advice can you share about easing the pain of inevitable dues increases?

Dear Betty
Dear Betty: How do we ease the pain of a dues increase?

“Dear Betty” is the association advice columnist alter-ego of Elizabeth Weaver Engel, M.A., CAE, CEO and Chief Strategist of Spark Consulting LLC. Elizabeth has over sixteen years of experience helping associations grow, in membership, marketing, communications, public presence, and especially revenue, which is what Spark is all about. She speaks and writes frequently on a variety of topics in association management. When she's not helping associations grow, Elizabeth loves to dance, listen to live music, cook, garden, and blog about the Philadelphia Eagles.

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