May 11, 2016

Does membership in an organization “matter” anymore?

Posted by Laura Guertin

When I saw this article shared by @SEGWiki, the title intrigued me. It turns out many organizations (dare I suggest all?) are going back and examining the value of membership and what that offers. Engaging students and the Millennials that make up the majority of the workforce (now surpassing Generation X, according to a Pew Research Center report) takes a different approach. Professional connections, collaborations, and our overall “work” is being completed more and more in the virtual world instead of face-to-face. We are finding new collaborators outside of annual meetings. We are accessing research reports and peer-reviewed journal articles through open access without paying for a subscription. So if we rely less and less on professional organizations for publications, conferences, educational opportunities, etc., what are we paying annual membership dues for?

The Geological Society of America simply states on the Membership section of their website that membership has its advantages – “advance your professionalism, your research, your career.” They are also posting very short personal stories with an image on social media and in GSA Today from members that describe what membership in GSA means to them. (Unfortunately, I could not find one place where all of these stories are easily linked/accessible.)


In November 2014, Wiley conducted a survey of close to 9,800 individuals who identified as society members to rank the top reasons why they joined their organizations in the first place. They found that the top reason to join is the quality of the society or association’s research-based content, closely followed by the prestige of the organization. The membership requirement to attend the annual meeting, career certification requirements , and networking opportunities round out the top five (see full survey report).

Yet one significant role professional societies play that was not reflected in this survey is to increase recognition, opportunities for leadership, and so much more for underrepresented groups. Work still needs to be done when it comes to the general demographics of membership in STEM organizations. For example, in December 2014, the Geological Society of America reported 35% of their membership as women. AGU reports 30% of the membership as women (pers. comm. J. Treby, AGU). Intentional programming is constantly being added by AGU and others to promote not just gender equity but ethnic diversity, those with varying auditory/mobility abilities, etc.


The Earth Science Women's Network logo, used with permission

The Earth Science Women’s Network (ESWN) is an international peer-mentoring network of women in the Earth Sciences. With over 2,500 members, even ESWN is taking a thoughtful look at what membership in ESWN means. Membership is open only to women, and membership is free – the organization is currently fundraising for an endowment to ensure permanent support for basic operating costs (, which leads those from outside ESWN to question why and how ESWN is a different model of and structure for a professional organization. Tracey Holloway, one of the founding members of ESWN, provided me with this excellent example to explain ESWN’s role as a service to the public good.

“Imagine Lisa. Lisa got excellent grades in college, and majored in a STEM field with high earning potential and opportunity. Lisa loves science – she wants to make the world a better place. She knows that this will require 5-10 more years of training after college, between M.S., Ph.D., and post-doc. She knows that she’ll have to move 2-5 times during this process, possibly delaying starting a family. She knows that she’ll make less than if she went into business or software design … but that’s okay. She’s willing to devote her life to advancing human understanding, solving big problems, and maybe teaching down the road.

“So when ESWN tries to help Lisa succeed in science – to navigate the job transitions, to have a community, to make good decisions – this isn’t really about helping just Lisa. Lisa will be okay, no matter what she does. But if Lisa, and other women like her, switch out of science, then it’s not good for science. It’s not good for bringing new innovation to science. It’s not good for girls who are considering their futures and looking for role models.

“There are lots of small barriers that affect the “Lisas” of science more than their male peers. And, by removing these barriers, science does a better jobs supporting both women and men, from a wider range of background and perspectives.”

Tracey sets up a great example here for why members of ESWN care about belonging to the network, and how the organization allows the members to share examples and even mobilize themselves on what actions can take place to ensure all of the current and upcoming “Lisas” can succeed in the Earth Sciences. (I have blogged previously about ESWN and what membership in the organization means to me – check it out!)

AGU-logo-blue_620x375But I’ll wrap up with AGU. Even with its 60,000+ members, AGU is always looking for ways to make sure its membership is aware of the value of being a part of AGU, that it isn’t just something you have to do to submit an abstract to an AGU meeting! Yes, the annual meeting is a very valuable part of the AGU membership, but AGU provides so much more during the other 51 weeks of the year. I had a conversation with AGU’s Membership Staff, and we spoke about how AGU membership is especially valuable for students (undergraduate and graduate). Their top three reasons for students to join AGU include opportunities for leadership, recognition, and networking. And there are several activities under each of these categories that allow students to develop skills and build their resume.

AGU student members can serve on the council and on the board. Students can disseminate their research results at AGU meetings or through the Virtual Poster Showcase. Both offer opportunities for feedback from judges and the opportunity to qualify for an outstanding student paper award. To travel to AGU meetings, students can apply for student travel grants and take advantage of the mentoring program. And if students cannot attend, their AGU membership allows them to log in and view conference sessions through AGU On-Demand. The AGU Career Center is available year-round, as are several other resources and opportunities under the Education section of the AGU website. Certainly, students have the opportunity to stand as part of a global Earth and space scientist community and quality for AGU’s student and recent graduate/post-doc awards.

The AGU Staff also encourages faculty to impart to students their own stories about their own AGU experiences and what membership has meant to them during all stages of their careers. Our own membership stories and sharing these stories to our students and through our science communication channels is the best way to answer the question, “why does membership matters in a membership organization?”



Additional sources for exploration

Rampton, J. (2015, June 5). Millennials Have Rediscovered the Benefits of Joining a Professional Organization. Entrepreneur [article]. (Available online)

Harrington, M. (2013, January 24). GENERATIONS: How to Excite and Engage the Millennial Generation to Join Your Nonprofit Association. New Directions [article]. (Available online)

Cherwin, K. (2010, March 23). Why Join a Professional Organization? HigherEdJobs [blog post]. (Available online)