Drivers shaping the future of membership: yesterday's presentation

I wrote this think piece as the basis of a presentation on the drivers shaping the future of membership, for the NCVO membership schemes conference on the 22 April.

Individuals are affirming themselves as individual agents
Individual freewill and autonomy have become important social values. This individualism, although often associated with selfishness, also links to growing notions of self-reliance and personal responsibility. A linked trend is the decline in deference; our willingness to accept without question what those in authority say has declined.

Our identities and how we express them is more complex
Personal identity – how we define ourselves in relation to others – has become increasingly complex. Generally speaking, people are less willing to conform to narrowly defined identities. A sense of individual freedom enables people to define their own identities, often based on multiple cultures or values (an arsenal fan, a mother, a knitting enthusiast, a socialist, fair trade campaigner, Londoner and a British and global citizen!) As social beings, individuals look for groups and organisations to join which enable them to express their identities, campaign for change, meet like-minded people and find out things of interest to them. Our huge and diverse sector and membership organisations in particular, thrive on people coming together in this way.

Political participation has shifted towards single issues
One manifestation of more individual and complex identities is a decline in participation in 'formal' politics. Parties are playing less of a role in connecting the public with the political process as voter turnout at elections falls and traditional affiliations with political movements and parties declines. However, the public is not apathetic and politics with a small 'p' is alive and well. The public have simply chosen to express their values and political ideals through engagement with a number of single-issues, often by joining membership organisations or supporting particular campaigns.

Forms of individualised action are on the increase
Another manifestation of individualism is an increase in individual action. People increasingly think about their own actions as a way of effecting change – one example is the increase in ethical consumerism. The way in which business, government and often the VCS speak to the public, mirrors, and perhaps reinforces, this trend (eg websites like 'we are what we do', or government discourse around personal responsibility in relation to public health or climate change). There is a risk that the actions of individuals are seen as more important than collective action. However, there is an opportunity for membership organisations to facilitate the transition from individual action to collective action.

Forming groups is easier, and does not require a mediating organisation
The internet makes it easier for people to find others that share their interests, often regardless of their geographical location. Many membership organisations have exploited the potential of tools such as e-mail lists and online forums to reach more people and communicate with them at a lower cost. However, there is a new generation of online websites (sometimes termed 'social networking' or 'web.2.0') which have two important characteristics: firstly, they allow an individual to build a unique online presence and profile; and, secondly, they facilitate connections between individual users, allowing each user to build a personal network. These have made it even easier to form groups, particularly without the need for a mediating organisation. As it becomes easier for individuals to make new connections and form groups, power can shift away from traditional membership bodies towards individuals and their informal networks. This can be a challenge for those who view themselves as the only experts in their field wanting to remain the gatekeepers of information for their audiences and these organisations may find that their members increasingly migrate to other online groups. However, for organisations willing to work in a more open and collaborative way, this offers opportunities to engage with people where they choose to come together, and to draw together and aggregate a range of perspectives and experiences.

There is a wealth of free information online
In the coming years, it will continue to get much easier to access a huge volume and variety of free information online. The type of information that is available is also changing, with much of it produced by 'amateurs' or what some have termed 'the former audience'. 'Experts' no longer have the status that they once had and individuals are increasingly more inclined to trust their peers. This presents a challenge for membership organisations providing information and advice, as it suggests that they may increasingly be bypassed in favour of informal peer-to-peer sources. However, in the context of the ever-increasing amount of information online – a world where 'common sense' can often win out over facts – there is an opportunity for membership organisations to position themselves as a trusted source of information and advice, and to aggregate, filter and provide routes to navigate the wealth of information now available. In addition, membership organisations can increase the quality of the advice and information they provide by building new knowledge communities by hosting and moderating online peer-to-peer services.

Membership is becoming more fluid…
As a result of the drivers discussed above it is likely that individuals' membership of organisations, groups and networks will become more fluid. Research on volunteering suggests that although volunteering overall is stable or growing, volunteering has become more 'episodic' with long term commitments being replaced by more short term activities. Likewise, loyalty is changing. Whereas older generations were often loyal to an organisation, younger generations who are used to far more fluid online networks are more likely to be loyal to a cause which expresses an aspect of their identity or values, and to move their activism, participation and formal membership around different groups and organisations related to that cause.

… and commodified
And as membership becomes more fluid, the membership 'offer' is becoming increasingly commodified – in other words, viewed as a good or a service that individuals (as consumers) can buy or dispose of, rather than a commitment. This is an unsurprising trend as membership organisations respond to a more individualised audience, which is less likely to be loyal to an organisation for life, and offer benefits targeted at individuals as consumers. But is this a vicious circle? Are membership organisations complicit in this commodification, reinforcing the trends of individualism discussed above?