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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

Engagement Motivations in Professional Associations

This article follows Knoke in exploring how public incentives offered by professional associations (such as lobbying on behalf of collective interests) compete with private incentives (such as member networking opportunity) in promoting monetary gifts, voluntary coproduction of organizational outcomes, and commitment to the association. Olson’s contention that public goods do not motivate civic engagement has fostered several decades of research geared toward establishing the role of such goods in associational outcomes. Based on membership surveys of three engineering associations and two health care associations, the study concludes that private incentives are not universal motivators, while public incentives show some evidence of motivating engagement. Unexpected differences between the two fields of professional association are striking, prompting suggestions that current practitioners and future research give attention to field differences and resist overgeneralization regarding engagement motivations, outcomes, and commitment across professional fields.

In his landmark study of community engagement patterns of Americans over much of last century, Robert Putnam (2000) singles out professional associations. Putnam observes widespread disengagement from neighborhood and community association after World War II, and asserts that workplaces subsequently began to shape our patterns of engagement. In place of real connections, Americans joined more “tertiary” organizations (like the American Association of Retired Persons) where members had little opportunity or incentive to interact (Putnam, 1995; Wollebaek & Selle, 2002), and joined fewer associations. Professional associations, however, were unique because their membership numbers increased through the latter half of the 20th century, even though they were capturing smaller proportions of a burgeoning workforce. Although some members treat their professional associations as tertiary, others actively engage and coproduce content that enhances their career opportunities and develops the broader field. As secondary associations, professional associations mediate between individuals and institutions (Berger & Neuhaus, 1977; Cohen & Rogers, 1992; Tschirhart, 2006). Membership provides a means for political empowerment (Hooghe, 2003). Spanning tertiary and secondary space, professional association members enjoy a range of benefits, including purely private goods such as career advice and specialized field information, and public goods such as an amplified civic voice and the cultivation of normative standards of professional conduct.

Knoke (1988) recognizes the range of public and private benefits offered by professional associations and other “collective action” organizations. The “collective action” descriptor invoked another landmark study: Mancur Olson’s (1965) The Logic of Collective Action, which argues that individuals are singly motivated by their desire to maximize private gains, and that public gains are not enough to motivate association. According to Olson, collective action is best motivated as a “by-product” of private incentives. Although the importance of private incentives still strongly underlies economic treatments of voluntary association (Barbieri & Mattozzi, 2009; Page, Putterman, & Unel, 2005), Olson’s position became the straw man for a long line of research and theory aimed at demonstrating the independent value of public goods motivations. Knoke (1988) describes this line, and then adds to it. Based on a national (U.S.) survey of 20 membership associations and their members, Knoke documented the incentive structure and motivations of members to participate in recreational associations, women’s organizations, and professional associations. He reports that members with public goods motivations are indeed willing to participate in, give time or money to, or otherwise show commitment to their professional associations.

Twenty-five years later, no other studies have explicitly taken up Knoke’s public– private goods argument for why individuals are active (or inactive) in or committed (or uncommitted) to their professional associations. This article aims to do so. In addition to exploring the modern relationship between public or private incentives for member engagement, it explores the influence of simple lifecourse predictors (e.g., age, education level) that Knoke relegated exclusively to controls. Finally, it considers the implications of the study’s findings for practice, particularly for managers of professional associations who seek to engage their members and satisfy their collective desires for public goods.

Mark A. Hager is Associate Professor of Nonprofit Studies in the School of Community Resources & Development. From August 2008 to May 2010, he was Director of Research in the ASU Lodestar Center for Philanthropy & Nonprofit Innovation, and he still blogs there. Before joining the faculty at ASU, he was a Senior Research Associate in the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute, a Washington D.C. think tank.


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