Many people who meet me are surprised to hear that I’m originally from Iowa. Those who know me closely can tell you that I’m…more of a city mouse than a country mouse. It’s true though! I was born and raised in Iowa, a state known for its rolling plains and cornfields. It’s also known for its farming industry, and as the leading producer of corn in the U.S., there is a lot of farmland. Growing up, we learned the nursery rhyme “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” early on, and like many other families, it has been passed down to each generation. As the lyrics go:

Old MacDonald Had a Farm


Regardless of whether you grew up surrounded by farmland, you likely were taught this song too and how could you forget it? The lyrics are very easy to commit to memory. I’m not about to sing you a nursery rhyme, but when it comes to membership, those letters E, I, and O are actually very important. For my version of things, I’m also adapting it a bit by adding the letter “U.” 

The EIOU acronym is one that I have developed after years of organizational and generational research. When working with associations, I use it to teach the four pillars of a successful, relevant, organization. Just like we memorized the nursery rhyme as children, I want you, as a leader, to commit this initialism to memory!

E: Exclusive

As we start to return back to in-person events, I’m hearing from several associations that program attendance is high. This is great news, but when I ask them about how membership is faring, I’m usually met with a pregnant pause. Many confess that membership is either stagnant or declining, and are at a loss as to why. I’ve discovered that one of the reasons this happens is because the boundaries have been blurred between what services and benefits members and non-members receive. In other words, their exclusivity is waning. 

You are not an event-planning organization – you’re a membership organization, which means that your focus should be directed towards attracting and retaining new members. Of course, you want to create an inclusive community, where members feel welcome, comfortable sharing ideas, and like they are part of a diverse organization. I am not telling you to exclude populations or demographics. Rather, I am urging you to consider the difference between what your members and non-members experience as a result of being involved in your organization. 

By offering similar benefits to both groups, it may feel like you are being inclusive, but eventually, you run the risk of driving members away. Here’s why: members need to feel that they are receiving exclusive value by paying dues to be a part of your association. There has to be a key difference between what they receive and what non-members receive.  

I: Included

Conversely, many associations make the mistake of nickel and diming their members to boost revenues and don’t include enough benefits as part of overall membership. If you start charging your members for every program, every service, every experience…they’ll start to wonder what’s really included in the dues they’re already paying. 

Ultimately, this system will backfire. Time and time again,  I’ve seen individuals let their membership lapse in these types of organizations because they realize it’s more cost-effective to just pay “a la carte” for each program, rather than pay annual dues. Operate from a place of creating values for your members, not from a place of greed. Creating an “all-inclusive” membership model that supports engagement ad creates value will win in the long run and will create a more predictable cycle of renewals for your organization.

O: Online

The recent pandemic forced us into a “new norm,” where technology reigns and everything – truly everything – can be found online. Practically overnight, businesses and associations alike had to adapt and modernize. Now that we are seemingly emerging from the darkest days of COVID, a host of associations have shared with me that they “cannot wait to go back to normal,” but their idea of “normal” is quickly becoming a distant memory.

Technology has been rapidly advancing since the 1980s, but organizations have been hesitant to evolve with it. For decades, membership associations resisted offering remote work or virtual programming – mainly because of the discomfort it posed. Change can be scary, but it can often lead to growth. Today, it is essential that your organization is current on the latest technologies that can be used to communicate with and engage members. Whether it’s through social media accounts, an online newsletter, email blasts, or virtual programming – you need to reach your members through modern channels. When you limit your online capability, you are limiting your ability to reach a larger audience. Remember, your NextGen members have been raised to value technology, which means they will appreciate on-demand access to your organization. They have grown up with devices that have made education, information, products, and services accessible with the click of a button. As a leader, it’s time to consider whether your organization’s approach to technology is dated or future-focused. 

U: Urgency

We live in a world characterized by disruption and rapid change and to stay relevant, we have to act with urgency to remedy the issues within our systems. Unprecedented access to information has unearthed what is “broken” within our society and instigated transformational movements. Increased awareness of social inequalities, injustices, economic conflict, and civil unrest have yielded tremendous growth and change, but there is still work to be done. Associations were founded for moments of crisis by bringing together government, business, and education to create a better future for a specific industry, community, or population. As a leader, I want you to consider what conversations your organization is having about these societal shifts and furthermore, what more you can do to respond to them with urgency. 

So – is EIOU in your organization’s lexicon? If not, it’s time to commit them to memory and implement them in your daily practices! By using these four pillars to support your mission, you’ll be doing what it takes to help your organization grow and bring about meaningful change.

If your organization is struggling to grow, you’re not alone. But we can help. Reach out to us to find out what steps your association can take to engage and retain its members.