You’d be hard-pressed to find a member who doesn’t cite “community” as a driving force behind their decision to join and engage with a professional association.
People depend on communities to support their common interests and goals. They rely on communities for networking, solving common challenges, and engaging in collective learning.
And while most associations can feel confident in their ability to fulfill their members’ needs for resources, industry best practices, and training, true community-building may be more elusive.
What association leaders sometimes fail to see is that creating community isn’t about planning an annual event or a networking reception. It isn’t about hosting a forum, a virtual meeting, or an occasional roundtable. It’s not even about implementing an online platform.
Building community—one that thrives and delivers real value—is about enabling member-to-member interactions with a purpose. And oftentimes, that purpose is found where people and knowledge intersect.
Convening Communities of Practice
When you combine people and knowledge, a natural place to arrive is at communities of practice. In a previous article, we explored communities of practice with cognitive anthropologists Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger-Trayner, who define the concept as “groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.”
As it turns out, research demonstrates the benefits of group learning. This should be especially compelling for professional associations because, by their very nature, they’re custom-built to convene like-minded people for knowledge-sharing.
The bringing-together part is easy for many associations. You have pathways that create connections—your events, your sub-groups, your platforms. The bigger question is this: when they gather, do you help them capitalize on their collective input?
Taking Learning from Transactional to Transformational
Professionals are increasingly seeking opportunities to expand their knowledge and skills, which makes learning a critical component of the value associations offer their members. But all too often, learning takes place in a lecture hall, over a webinar, or through a self-paced course.
With this approach, associations stray from the true value they provide to members and fall into the trap of placing too much emphasis on delivering a service in exchange for membership dues. Offering access to journals, books, training, and certifications are all important, and they do influence members’ decisions to join and remain engaged with an association. But focusing solely on these tangible benefits creates a member experience that feels transactional rather than transformational.
When you part from the assumption that learning is a solo activity and knowledge is acquired in siloed events, you can open your members up to experiences that transcend what they’d typically get in a classroom setting.
And this is where community comes into play. Community is an intangible benefit that plays an increasingly important role in shaping a more meaningful member experience. It’s where people find deeper connections and more valuable learning. It’s where they transform, professionally and personally.
You have the power to enable these transformational experiences, but it may require thinking differently about how your association fulfills its purpose.
Start with Your Value Proposition
Enabling the purposeful member-to-member interactions that are at the core of communities of practice starts by evaluating your value proposition. Why did your members join? What did you promise to deliver?
When professionals join an association, they’re often looking for opportunities to engage and connect, learn and grow. With those goals in mind, you can assess how well your association fulfills its promise to members and meets their expectations. Consider:
- Have you created space and conditions in which members can “talk shop”?
- Are members modeling that behavior and setting the community spirit?
- Do they take the initiative to learn from shared and sometimes challenging experiences?
- Do those interactions build trust and create safety to share ideas and solve problems?
- Is your community flexible enough to help members “learn on the go”?
Flex Your Imagination
Challenge the way your leadership team and your board think about the value your association provides. Flex your imagination when it comes to building community, leveraging technology, creating connections, and encouraging learning. Rather than providing a product or service in exchange for a fee, consider your purpose to help members engage, learn, and grow.
As you shift your approach, it’s likely that the way members perceive the value your association provides will start to shift in positive ways, as well—and that’s likely to lead to greater retention, engagement, and revenue.