Are Membership Organizations in Post-Recession Decline?

Print Share on LinkedIn More

May 1, 2014; IUPUI Newsroom

An Indiana University report has found that, at least in Indiana, membership organizations like trade unions and business associations appear to be shedding staff faster than charitable nonprofits after a period of growth pre-recession. The study covers the period from 1995 to 2011.

Between 2007 and 2011, Indiana-based membership organizations lost more than 1,000 staff members and over $15.6 million (adjusted for inflation). According to the chart on page 2 of the summary, the decline appears to have occurred in 2008 and 2009. Prior to 2007, these groups had been growing.

The rate of employee loss is high relative to many charitable nonprofits. Healthcare nonprofits, for instance, showed steady growth, from 126,000 employees in 2007 to 138,000 employees in 2011. Arts and recreation nonprofits, however, showed even a higher rate of employee loss than membership groups, although the raw numbers were smaller.

Kirsten Grønbjerg, a professor at the Indiana University Bloomington School of Public and Environmental Affairs and the Efroymson Chair in Philanthropy at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy in Indianapolis, observed, “While grantmaking and social advocacy organizations saw very little loss of employment during the Great Recession, employment in business and professional organization has been on a downward spiral since the previous recession in 2001.”

Interestingly, the report did not look at whether the public’s engagement with these membership organizations had actually declined. NPQ would love to hear from its readers in membership organizations about whether these findings resonate with what you have experienced. —Ruth McCambridge

  • J. R. Digger MacDougall

    You are bang on !!
    With respect to Membership orgs – they are on the decline in Canada as well. One only has to go to a meeting of one of these orgs (service clubs, community groups, community and church choirs etc) to see the gray and balding heads of participant members.
    I have been trying to convince membership orgs to which I belong to look at social demographics and differences in generational values as a means of forecasting membership attendance and participation. The dinosaurs who are on the boards that run these organizations are destroying them from within AND THEY DO NOT KNOW THEY ARE DOING IT !!!.

    MOST MEMBERSHIP ORGS ARE SUPPORTED BY FOUNDATIONS OR OTHER CHARITABLE ENTITIES or are closely linked with a charity that redistributes their wealth to organizations that were popular recipients of gifts. The personal and organizational values can differ widely with resultant withdrawal of giving, membership, and new member acquisition.

    America, and Canada and the rest of the globe have a major problem. The 3 to 4 generations behind mine are comprised of age cohorts that do not join organizations. If they did, they would be knocking down the doors to get in. There is no line up and there is no response to show up let alone join an organization.

    What is painful is that social demographers have been telling us this stuff and forecasting membership declines for decades.

    it’s time to read the research and listen to the voices that accurately tell us what is happening and will happen.
    Wake up folks – I belong to several membership orgs. One, a 22,000+ org has dropped from a high of 38,000. In 1992 (when membership was 32,000) while on a leadership task force I told the board that with projected lack of interest and the projected “natural attrition” (otherwise known as death) Membership would decline by 41%. WE ARE ALMOST THERE AND THE DECLINE CONTINUES ! ! !

    I am also concerned with the epidemic in “folding” of performing arts organizations
    Cheers eh ! ! !


    J. R. Digger MacDougall
    President, Ottawa Branch, RMC Club of Canada
    Chair, Sing Canada Harmony Scholarship Fund
    BOARD MEMBER, Coalition for Music Education in Canada
    A Voice for Music Education in Canada
    Add your voice to ours at