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Featured Question - December 22, 2003

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Q:

We are starting a new organization that will consist of members from a common profession.   Do you have any suggestions about how to start this off with a strong connection to the members as owners? 

A:

I will push the edges here on creating an owner-driven organization, and you can pick and choose what fits your situation.  First, let me share with you my perceptions of the vast majority of membership organization's approach to ownership.  Membership organizations have a unique structure in that the members wear multiple hats, in particular they are owners, customers, and most likely the beneficiaries identified in Ends.  New members join the organization almost exclusively as customers rather than owners.  There may be a cursory mention of being an owner, but it is only cursory.  At the most, there is an explanation of the annual membership meeting, voting privileges and the governance structure.  Everything else signals to the member that he or she is a customer.  New members receive a detailed list of the benefits of membership, all the available products and services, locations, and hours of operation. The organization may even go so far as to equate great customer service with being treated as an owner.  No wonder membership organizations often struggle with the concept of ownership. 

If you want to create a membership that recognizes that they are owners, then start right from the beginning.  Ask them to be owners first.  Ask them to invest rather than pay dues.  Investments should promise a return based on an End rather than an individual benefit to the member.  It is a social return rather than a monetary return.  Investments don't have to be dollars.  They could be other things such as time, information, or certain levels of participation.  Greater investments should promise greater returns.  Instead of having a ceiling like dues structures have, investments could have floors with ladders or paths for greater investment in the organization's Ends.  This is similar to donor structures, except they tend to focus on providing resources for Means rather than Ends.

Given there are few resources to help us as individuals understand our role as owners, there will have to be some structure or time to assist these new owner-members to continue their growth as owners.  Even Policy Governance has only lightly touched on the what it means to be an owner.  Its focus is from the Board's perspective rather than the owner's.  Certainly a board that has implemented Policy Governance with strong accountability loops to the owners is a requirement.  These processes and linkages should help formulate structure for additional membership activities than just an annual meeting. 

In addition to this clarification of the ownership role, the customer role would benefit from better definition as well.  Much of the confusion of the two roles occurs because they have been combined into one position.  The customer activities need to separated as much as possible from the owner activities.  One strategy would be to make two types of membership.  One would relate to the owner role and the second to the customer role.  A member could be either or both, instead becoming both in the traditional approach to membership.  This would mean that members might have an obligation for an investment, dues, or both depending on the choice of participation. 

A question that gets raised with this approach is what is the effect on membership growth when the ownership aspect is promoted more heavily.  My hunch is that it will slow it down.  Not everyone wants to be an owner, much less have to make an investment.  No matter how much we may believe in the concept of ownership as defined in Policy Governance, it is easier and more tangible to just be a customer.  This is a trade off that your organization will have to balance, and may even effect the organization's viability if the ownership element is pushed beyond the membership's point of acceptance. 

Lynn A. Walker, Ph.D.
Boundary Management Consulting

12411 McKelvey Road
St. Louis MO 63146-2929

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