Why you are losing members – and how to fix it

Senior Editor Robert Jeffery urges professional membership bodies to embrace naked ambition above altruism in their communication strategies

By some measures, the UK’s small army of professional member bodies has never had it so good. While the size of their membership may fluctuate, their relevance remains undimmed, even though we’ve all heard enough from experts (apparently).

From the Chartered Institute of Building to the Chartered Management Institute (via, if you prefer, the Association of Nail Technicians or the Association of Professional Declutterers & Organisers) there are around 400 professional bodies across the country representing 13 million people. The construction sector alone has 22 of them.

There’s no question that these institutions do sterling and under-publicised work. Their research advances our understanding of science, business and culture. They influence government and other decision-makers, representing their members’ views in ways that have only become more important given the decline in collective representation among the general workforce.

For individuals, they confer prestige, raise knowledge and offer a sense of pride and place: who would be a mere surveyor, for example, when you could be a chartered surveyor?

But the proverbial Holy Grail for membership bodies is to encourage members not just to qualify with them, but to remain lifelong, actively contributing members of the professional community. It’s a hard aim to achieve – and an easy thing to get wrong. Here are three reasons your communications strategy isn’t resonating with your members.

1. You appeal to members’ sense of professionalism

‘Professionalism’ is, at best, an undefined concept; to a younger generation it not doing another job. In the eyes of philosopher Alain de Botton, the idea is a fig leaf masking our animal selves during the working day: “Being professional means little more than me agreeing not to go completely crazy in your presence.”

This focus on professionalism masks a dirty secret: while we all want to be thought of as competent, consummate professionals, we view the topic through a prism of self-interest. While there will always be some people who want to learn and improve for its own sake, most of us seek advancement for the greater security, power and financial heft it grants us.

2. You downplay members’ ambitions

This leads us to problem number two: ignoring the fact that human beings are inherently self-interested.

Social scientist Adam Grant suggests that while those he characterises as ‘givers’ are ultimately more popular and successful than ‘takers’, they are not motivated by altruism but by the knowledge that, somewhere down the line, giving will pay off.

When was the last time you offered to selflessly help someone out at work, with no desire or expectation of something in return? It’s ok, I’ll wait.

Don’t worry if you can’t think of an example: it’s entirely human to, consciously or subconsciously, believe that by offering to take some work off your boss, or your colleague, you might, some day, get ahead. We shouldn’t be squeamish about this selfishness, since it is biologically ingrained in us.

Membership bodies should embrace this naked ambition. In almost all professions, being qualified and recognised gives a proven boost to your pay packet – and this revelation should be front and centre in marketing campaigns.

3. You tell members what you they ought to know – not what they need to know

Content should not shy away from being careerist, either. Under the People Management brand that Haymarket Network produces for the CIPD – the 142,000-strong HR member body – we have conducted salary surveys, offered advice from headhunters on how to get ahead and produced masterclasses on ‘soft skills’ designed to advance your career prospects. This sits alongside content on the macroeconomic concerns plaguing employers, or the nuances of the HR profession itself.

Member bodies have a unique opportunity to be career partners to their members – to be the place where they qualify, get a job, meet the people who will help them into an even better job and find the ammunition that will increase both their status and pay packet.

The best of them, the CIPD included, are even helping those who lose their jobs get back into work, offering both financial and practical support. Because if you don’t appeal to their enlightened self-interest, you can guarantee someone else will.

What birds can teach you about self-interest
When Daniel A Cristol, a professor of biology at the College of William & Mary in Virginia, studied gulls on the nearby James River, he noticed something fascinating: the birds were plucking clams from the creek, flying into the air and dropping them onto the rocks below. But they were not doing so randomly. Over the years, they had calculated the exact height required to smash the clams, but would not fly a single inch higher. In other words, like us, they were doing what it took to get ahead – and nothing more.

The ultimate HR career partner
Every article in People Management is designed to help readers do their jobs more effectively. In the CIPD’s most recent member survey, it was judged ‘insightful’ by 89 per cent and ‘authoritative’ by 88 per cent.