Category Archives: Benchmark Survey

Performance Metrics for Associations – Are You Driving Blind?

CautionWe’re way behind but we’re getting better.

Our sector is way behind the for-profit world, but we’re getting better. We know from our annual survey of Canadian membership associations, that the vast majority of Canadian associations do not track and manage the basic metrics of their business. Until recently, even the concept of managing a membership organization as a business was a foreign concept. However, this is starting to change.

Most Canadian associations are now on board with the fact that they are running a business, and that they must operate as a business to be sustainable. Some Canadian associations are starting to track the most basic performance metrics such as the new member attraction rate and the member retention rate. But we have some distance to go. One of the biggest impediments is weak membership database software (or worse, Excel spreadsheets!) that do not record the data that is needed to calculate the performance metrics.

Why does it matter?

Metrics tell us where we are now. Tracking them over time tells us where we are headed. Are we moving forward? Are we on a sustainable path? Without this information we are driving blind.

The basics – what must we track?

We need to track metrics in four areas:

  1. Sustainability
  2. Strategic objectives
  3. Member value
  4. Financial status

Sustainability; the key metrics

  1. New member attraction rate. This tells you how well you’re doing in terms of bringing new members on board. This should be at least 10%. If it’s not, you need to have a retention rate of more than 90% just to keep membership at the current level.
  2. Current member retention rate. This tells you how well you’re doing in terms of holding on to your existing members. This should be at least 90%. If it’s not, you need to have a new member attraction rate of more than 10% just to keep membership at the current level.
  3. Member satisfaction rate. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this needs to be at least 85% to keep the membership organization sustainable. You need a regular member survey to assess this. To keep it simple, consider asking this one question as part of the renewal process.

Strategic objectives; the key metrics

Our annual survey of Canadian membership associations tells us that almost all associations have a documented strategic plan. This has improved dramatically over the past 5 years and that’s great. Now we need to ensure we track our progress. This is the metric we need to track.

  1. Milestones status

Your strategic plan should show multi-year (3-5 year) objectives with milestones, and dates, that your association must hit in order to be on track to achieve your strategic objectives. At every board meeting, or at least quarterly, report on where you are in meeting these milestones.

Member value; the key metrics

  1. Member Engagement in association programs. You’re investing precious resources to deliver member value. This includes events, professional development initiatives, knowledge products, member-only discount offerings and other member services. How many members are engaged in taking advantage of these services? This is what you need to track.
    • Set targets for member engagement in each program and track them year-over-year.
  2. Government/stakeholder relations. For many associations, this service is the heart of the member value proposition. Track your impact. What have you accomplished against the base case of what would have happened if you were not doing anything? Your impact is not only whether or not you’ve achieved you GR/SR objectives, but what has/has not happened as a result of your efforts. You may not have accomplished your objectives (yet), but you have at least ensured that the dial has not moved backward. What value has been achieved? Even if decision-makers have not chosen to heed your counsel, your members are aware of what they need to do to prepare themselves for coming events. This is what you need to track.
    • % of members on GR/SR committees. How engaged are your members in the volunteer work your staff needs to support your GR/SR program?
    • Open rate on GR/SR information bulletins. Do your members care? Are they listening?
    • Meeting requests/call-ins. How often do decision-makers contact your association for input?
    • Influence/progress against base case. What would have happened if your association was not engaged with decision-makers?

Financial reporting; the key metrics

  1. Balance Sheet. How many months of operating expenses are covered by your net surplus? Report on this separately by both liquid and illiquid assets. Your net surplus should cover at least 12 months of operating expenses.
  2. Income statement. For each monthly statement, show where you are against budget and against last year at the same time.

Next Steps

  1. Figure out how to collect the data you need to report and track these metrics.
  2. Establish a regular reporting format and schedule to keep your management team and board informed.

Want more information and the details of how to calculate your performance metrics? Check out our webinar on this topic.


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Have We Turned the Corner? 2016 Benchmark Survey Highlights

Survey Image-2Zzeem conducted the fifth annual survey of Canadian membership organizations for 2016. The numbers tell an interesting story. Below is a short synopsis.

NOTE: A more detailed summary is available here.

In a nutshell, associations are not out of the woods yet, but we may have reached a plateau from which we can move upward. Industry and trade associations are lagging professional associations so for them, it may take a little longer.


Trend in Membership Numbers, Revenue

Each year, respondents are asked for the 3-year trend in their membership numbers and gross revenue. Last year we saw a sharp spike upward in the respondents who were reporting a downward membership trend and a more muted but still meaningful increase in the respondents reporting a downward revenue trend.

This appears to have stabilized in 2016. In 2016 we saw a sharp increase in the number of respondents showing a flat trend in both membership and revenue. Although the percentage of respondents showing an upward trend has been steadily declining since 2013, the rate of increase in the downward trend has substantially abated.

Current survey results in the U.S. are showing an uptrend for associations. If Canada follows the U.S. as we often do, this trend may be reflected in Canada in the not too distant future.


Financial reserves have increased substantially from 2015. The percentage of respondents with a surplus that would cover more than 1 year of operating expenses has increased from 36% to 56%.

Industry/Trade Associations versus Professional Associations

The 2016 survey shows that industry and trade associations are more likely to be struggling in the current environment than are professional associations. The reasons for this may be related to the following facts:

  1. Corporate Membership. Industry and trade organizations are much more likely to have corporate rather than individual members. The employees who are the direct users of member services are often not the decision-makers who approve the member dues payment. If the decision-maker is not aware of the member value, and/or if cost reduction is on the agenda, then memberships are vulnerable.
  2. Amalgamations/Takeovers. Canada has seen considerable consolidation in its corporate landscape over the past few years. When 2 companies combine, one membership is lost to the association. Also, when a Canadian company is taken over by a foreign firm, the head office decision-making is no longer in Canada and Canadian memberships are vulnerable.

Looking for higher revenue?

If higher revenue is important for your association, consider adopting as many of these attributes and practices that make sense for you. Organizations that have these attributes and practices are more likely to have an upward revenue trend and those who don’t, are more likely to have a downward revenue trend. The top best practices are noted in the diagram below. Those on the right, with a yellow highlight, are consistent with the results for 2015. Those on the left, with a green highlight, are new for 2016.

Increasing Revenue

For further information, a more detailed summary report is available here. Copies of the full survey results and commentary are available free to survey respondents. Contact

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Why Survey Your Members? Here are Three Good Reasons

Member surveys can be used to address a variety of objectives. In this blog I look at the benefits that can come from three types of surveys.

When I talk to member-based organizations about survey research, it’s often a low priority item. After all, they argue “we have our fingers on the pulse of our membership”. They support this by saying, “we talk to our volunteers, we see a large number of members at our annual conference and we chat with members via email and telephone when they have problems”.

This is all very true but here are three problems with that approach. First, you’re only hearing from a select sub group of your members – typically the most active. What about other members who are less involved? Secondly, most of us have a propensity to be polite. Researchers refer to this as a “politeness bias”. We are unwilling to put forth our true feelings in face-to-face conversations if we think it may hurt someone else’s feelings. Thirdly, we have a tendency to towards “selective listening”. Essentially this means that I tend to hear only the good news but unconsciously filter out the bad.

What we need is a method of listening, learning and responding to our entire membership. Survey research provides us with this opportunity. Using established sampling techniques, coupled with a sound questionnaire we can overcome the biases outlined above.

Here are three ways that survey research can be used to better serve your members.

Understanding Your Members

Your members are multi-generational with vastly different levels of knowledge and experience. Coupled with these differences, comes a diverse set of challenges. A well constructed survey can help you segment your membership based on theses factors. Armed with this demographic and psychographic information you will be able to prioritize your efforts and tailor products and services to target specific needs.

Attitudes Towards Your Organization

Your organization provides your members with a variety of benefits in the form of products and services. A survey will allow you to quantify the number of members who are aware of and use these product and services. Furthermore, you will be able to measure attitudes towards these offerings and examine other benefits and delivery mechanisms.

Sharing information

Members of an association, whether they be individuals or organizations, have information related to their profession or business. An association can tap into this vast pool of knowledge by collecting and distributing that information for the benefit of all members.  These “knowledge products” provide information that will help members in their decision-making efforts, for example, compensation and benefits surveys, industry outlook or benchmarking/best practice surveys.

These are three general ways that survey research can be used to help your organization meet the evolving needs of your members. Of course there are dozens of other challenges that will arise that can be addressed with a well thought out research study.

Guest blog courtesy of

Gerald Bramm, Principal, Bramm Research

For more information on association topics, check out our live interviews with association leaders on our VIMEO channel including the 2015 Benchmark Survey – Preliminary Results webinar

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Financial Reserves- How much should an association have?

I had a great question today from one of my favourite clients. They are a membership organization of about 1,000 members. They are in the fortunate position of being well-endowed with cash and their finance committee is trying to decide how much to set aside in reserves. Here’s what the CEO told me. “The committee is proposing 2 years of operating expenses, which I think seems really large – even 1 year of operating reserves seems like a lot to me. What is the norm?”

Personally I agree with her finance committee. Two years is a good, prudent amount of reserves. I have seen organizations go through 2 years of reserves so quickly it would make your head spin. It’s not as much as it seems when you run into difficulty or have a large investment to make. However, this amount of reserves is rare for a membership organization. Most just can’t do it.

The vast majority of Canadian membership organizations have less than a year in reserves. We do a benchmark survey every year and the typical range of reserves is 3-6 months of operating expenses with the average nearer the 3 month mark. The survey highlights for 2012 are on this page – scroll down to the section entitled Financial Reserves.

So if you want to be “normal” you could have 3 months of reserves and be part of the majority. But if you want to be safe- have a least a year in reserves. Also, to ensure you’re on the right side of the CRA, make sure you have documented what you have planned for the reserved cash (e.g. operating reserve, investment in new software, staff, marketing, PR, etc.) so it doesn’t look like you’re simply stockpiling it.

Some accountants will tell you that the CRA “does not allow” NFPs to have more than 6 months of reserves. This is bunk. However, if the CRA audits you, they will expect to see that you have a plan for your reserves and this must not include any plan to return it to members- either directly, in the form of cash, or indirectly, as a reduction in membership fees or services.

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2012 Benchmark Survey Highlights

Is it really the end of membership as we know it?

Sarah Sladek’s book “The End of Membership As We Know It” has generated a lot of attention. And with good reason. The chief executives of membership organizations and their directors are concerned that the 2008-2009 downturn is not over. Although member numbers and revenues are improving, it’s happening more slowly than we hoped or planned for and this is putting strain on our resources.

Zzeem conducted the second annual survey of Canadian membership organizations in the first quarter of 2012. The numbers tell an interesting story.

Members are no longer renewing their membership just because they always have. They’re assessing the member value proposition to find out if they are really getting value. Those who do renew are often less engaged that they were in previous years. It’s harder to find the time and the budget to attend conferences.

With fewer attendees it’s harder to make a successful pitch to sponsors. And they have troubles of their own. Many sponsors have pulled back or out of events that they have sponsored for years.

Although we seem to be through the trough in revenues it’s taking organizations longer than expected for revenue to return to “normal” levels.

Some organizations will not survive because they do not have the financial reserves to get through this. The membership organizations that will survive and thrive are those who have a compelling and well-articulated value proposition to their members – and to their sponsors.
2012 Benchmark Survey for Membership Organizations

By membership organizations we mean non-for-profit entities who have dues-paying members and whose primary activity is providing services to those members.

This is a specialized niche within the not-for-profit sector with its own unique characteristics. Membership organizations are typically self-sustaining, and cannot rely on government assistance or donations.

Just like service companies in the for profit sector, they need to provide value to the people that they serve or they will not survive.

A membership organization is a business and must be run as one to be sustainable.

There is very little data available for the membership organization niche. The purpose of this survey is to help to fill that void and to provide the sector with critical information about their peers and their competitors.

The Respondents

The respondents were either Canadian organizations or the Canadian arm of an international organization.

The membership organizations surveyed included entities of all sizes. Respondents’ annual revenue ranged from less than $10,000 to more than $20 million.

As was the case last year, the majority of the respondents are federally incorporated not-for-profit corporations.

Respondents included organizations whose members are primarily individuals, and those whose members are primarily corporate. The respondents were almost evenly split between these two types of organizations.

Survey Highlights

Financial Reserves

This is a danger zone…

Membership Trends

We’re less optimisitic…

Value Proposition to Members

We’re getting better…


We’re less optimistic…

Value Proposition to Sponsors

We’re not selling it well…

Staffing and Costs

But we’re planning to increase staff and costs…

Board Efficiency and Engagement

This needs work…

Planning for the Future

We’re getting better…

Looking forward

The 2012 Survey tells us that membership organizations are looking to improve business processes and retain and attract members. Respondents are doing a lot of things right. The focus for this year is to increase members and revenue.

The really good news is that membership organizations are paying a lot more attention to their member value proposition and trying to articulate in a way that resonates with their members. They are for the most part, aware of the necessity of revenue diversification and of the necessity of reserves.

The challenge for membership organizations this year is to build the systems they need to retain and attract members find the resources to execute them and at the same time, build up their reserves. No problem.

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2011 Benchmark Survey for Membership Organizations

This annual survey of membership organizations was conducted in January of 2011. Membership organizations are not-for-profit entities who have dues-paying members and whose primary activity is providing services to those members.

There is very little data available for the membership organization niche. The purpose of this survey is to help to fill that void. The survey included 35 Canadian industry, trade and professional organizations of all sizes.

It was particularly timely this year, because most membership organizations are just starting to emerge from a battering due to the economic downturn.

The most important lesson from the survey is that many leaders of membership organizations do not think of the organization as a business.

Below are the highlights. The detailed survey results are available for purchase. To find out more about the survey or to purchase a copy, contact us at

Benchmark Survey Highlights



Member dues and sponsorship are the primary sources of revenue for all respondents.

Most of the respondents saw higher membership and sponsorship in 2010 and expect a further increase in 2011.

Almost all of the organizations surveyed have no legislated or regulatory requirement for membership. Membership is completely optional. And so is sponsorship, of course.

Despite this risk, we are surprisingly complacent about our membership. Fewer than half of us of us have a clearly defined process to attract and retain our members.

We are even more complacent about our sponsors. Less than a quarter of us have a clearly defined process to attract and retain our sponsors.

But we’re surprisingly optimistic. Three quarters of us expect membership to increase in 2011 and more than half of us expect sponsorship to increase. This seems to be based entirely on the economic outlook. Not on a confidence that the organization has a strategy to sustain and enhance revenue.

  • Hope is not a strategy.


The survey told us that many organizations found their costs increasing at the same time as their revenue was decreasing.

It also showed huge variations in productivity. We found out that many organizations in excess of $1 million in revenue are operating successfully with five employees or fewer whereas others of the same size have a substantially higher payroll.

Respondents are not investing in productivity-enhancing technology but they are investing in their web presence.

  • The use of business process technology is much more limited in this sector than in the for profit sector. Many processes that were automated years ago elsewhere are still performed manually by membership organizations. This is particularly true of finance and communication processes.
  • However, outward-facing technology is quite current. Almost half of the respondents have done a major overhaul of their website within the past 12 months.

Financial Reserves


One quarter of the organizations surveyed have no financial reserves. Of those that do, three quarters have less than 12 months of reserves. But only half of us plan to add to our reserves in 2011.

Board Engagement and Efficiency


About half of the respondents consider their board members to be “highly engaged”. Just over 40% of them consider their board to be “highly efficient”. Smaller organizations had a higher level of engagement while larger organizations had a higher level of efficiency.

Value Proposition


Most of us don’t know. Most respondents have a strong value proposition but less than a third of the organizations surveyed were highly confident that their board members could clearly state this value proposition to a prospective member. Even fewer (only 13%) were highly confident that directors could clearly state their value proposition to a prospective sponsor.

  • If the board isn’t clear on the value proposition then who is? We need to articulate the message.

Planning for the Future


Three quarters of the organizations surveyed have a current strategic plan. This is indeed good news. But for those who do, one third have no operating plan to ensure that the strategic plan is implemented.

To find out more about the survey or to purchase a copy, contact us at

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