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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

Who Engages in Professional Associations?

The ASU Lodestar Center congratulates Mark Hager for recognition of his article Engagement Motivations in Professional Associations as recipient of the 2014 Award for Outstanding Academic Publication on Membership Organizations by the American Society of Association Executives and the Institute for Nonprofits at North Carolina State University. This blog post summarizes the research presented in his award-winning article.

If you are a working professional, there’s a good chance that you are (or could be) a member of an association of people in your field. Could be local, statewide, national, or international. You pay dues to a central nonprofit that probably has annual meetings, probably educates on the ethics and standards of the field, and maybe even helps people find jobs. These are often called professional associations, and examples are the American Society of Civil Engineers, the American College of Healthcare Executives, and the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE).

These kinds of nonprofits are called associations because they mainly exist to serve members. Association members can be people, organizations, or government bodies, but professional association members are usually people like you and me. I’m a member of ARNOVA, which gives me a venue to meet and learn from other like-minded people, visibility in my field, and a mechanism to work through in moving my field forward. So, I have lots of reasons to join.
As long as professionals have good reasons to join their associations, they probably will. So, if associations want to survive, association managers just have to make sure they are providing good value to their members.  However, survival is not the high goal for most professional associations or their members. A vibrant association wants engaged members who actively volunteer to carry out the work of the association. It wants members who want to donate money beyond their annual dues.  And it wants members who say they are committed to the association.
How can professional associations pursue these high goals? Who volunteers, donates, and commits? In contrast, who just pays dues and does nothing else with their association? This is the central question I pursue in a recent article based on data collected by ASAE for their Decision to Give report. In my study, I was interested in whether members were motivated (to give, to volunteer, to commit) more by private incentives or public incentives.
Private incentives are easy to understand: I might be a member because the association helps me in some specific way, such as exposing me to career opportunities, providing me with leadership experience, giving me information on developments in the field, or providing me with conference or other educational programming. Many economists say that people are motivated primarily, if not almost exclusively, by these kinds of private incentives.
But public incentives might be important, too. We might value the work of an association that helps a broader array of people, even if we happen to be included in that array. So, I might be a member because the association promotes the development of my field, or promotes broader public awareness of the work of the field, or lobbies to influence policy on critical social issues, or promotes a code of ethics for work in the field.
I study the relationship between these different incentives and high forms of member engagement in five professional associations: three in the field of engineering and two in the field of healthcare.
The results were unexpected in an unexpected way. Studies like this are always messy, with some relationships panning out and others not.  What was unexpected was how the patterns of relationships differed so much between the engineering associations and the healthcare associations. Professional associations are professional associations, right? Well, one big takeaway from the effort was to find out that this is clearly not the case. Their differences make generalizations about member motivations difficult.
For the engineering associations, public incentives were more important than private incentives in getting members to donate money beyond their membership fees. Neither public nor private incentives help us understand whether engineering association members were engaged in the activities of the association or not. However, the data suggest that the members who value the career opportunities that their association brings were much less likely to volunteer their time to the association’s happenings.  That said, both public and private incentives are related to feelings of commitment to the association.
In the healthcare associations, it was the private incentives that motivate charitable contributions, not the public ones. Volunteerism is not generally explained by either the public or private incentives, although volunteers do seem to value the leadership experience that the association affords and are put off by information about field developments.  Unlike the engineering associations, commitment to the association is not explained by these kinds of private incentives.

So, what to make of these findings? Private incentives matter, but not to everybody for all things all the time.  Sometimes public incentives matter, but their influence varies, too. Field matters. History matters. While the research points to some conditions that managers should take into account when fostering the strengths and strategies of their professional association, there’s no substitute for closely considering your own members, in your own association, right now. They probably differ in important ways from whatever generalizations our research articles and textbooks might make.

Mark Hager is associate professor of philanthropic studies at ASU. If you enroll in the Master of Nonprofit Studies degree program, you'll take one, maybe two, maybe even three classes with him. If you want to see what all he has written and talked about, click here.


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