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Seven Questions About NAS's Membership Problems

by Jim Britell, Conservation Chair, Kalmiopsis Audubon Society

Summary:  NAS's true membership is smaller than the numbers it advertises because it artificially inflates its rolls with "free" memberships. But paradoxically its true membership may be much larger than it thinks because of members who belong only to chapters and not NAS. NAS unwisely chooses certain large conservative environmental organizations as role models when other rapidly expanding organizations like Defenders of Wildlife (DOW) would be better choices. NAS current policies are most unattractive to its activist chapters and the younger generation too. Posted to an Audubon list 02/00.


BACKGROUND: It is entirely possible for NAS to increase membership to a million or more - but only if we truly address the root causes which have led to the current situation. NAS must examine what it is doing - or failing to do - that has arrested the growth of our membership rolls. Improvements being suggested will not cure the basic problem, which involves more than tidying up our dues share processes. There is an old saying that "you can't sell Real estate just because your name is Jack Robinson". Wishing our membership to "grow" will not make it so.

If you are in the business of selling hamburgers, and the demand for hamburgers is increasing and other hamburger stands in town are booming, but your sales are flat; the question you face is how to get people to buy hamburgers from you rather than from the other ones in town.

QUESTION 1: Irrespective of our total membership of 400k - has NAS's core membership remained stable, i.e. the people who are say 5 year+ members. I know KAS has a lot of "in-and-out" members (we lose about 20% of our NAS members every year and then get them again at Xmas as magazine subscriptions go out as presents).

So has our core membership truly remained constant? My guess is that it is probably shrinking. New members attracted by discount subscriptions, gifts and other premiums churn the rolls and artificially inflate them. We may be promoting subsidized, below cost, new memberships at "give away" prices and thus artificially inflating the membership rolls. In effect, buying new members. If it takes 4 years to break even for a new member, and we spend (at least) 6 million a year on membership are we inflating and subsidizing our membership rolls and concealing a serious problem of declining core membership?

QUESTION 2: NAS is obviously very aware of the growth of all the other major enviro groups but does the board know that the groups who have grown the fastest in absolute terms - (total number increase) i.e. the WWF and Nature Conservancy are often perceived by many activists to be on the wrong side (or absent altogether) for important conservation issues, and both are in part perceived as corporate front groups doing the bidding of corporate interests. IMHO, NO membership strategy is more likely to backfire than one which holds up the TNC up as a model - at least to activists even remotely in the know.

Some groups - EDF and NRDC, have really grown in relative terms, (percentage increase) but there too, most activists I know would NOT want them held up as a model for us either. For example the 2/23 WSJ (text available on request) had a major story about NRDC which just experienced an ugly demo by Redwood activists at their yearly dinner because of the extra curricular anti-enviro activities of one of their poster child directors, Robert Fisher, a 45-year-old retired Gap executive who apparently is in the Old Growth Redwood logging business - big time.

But we do have a lot to learn from the Sierra Club. A group that is growing in both relative and absolute terms. Their rowdy internal conflict is bringing important issues to the surface and strengthening that organization. They are going to come out of it a much more powerful organization in the next few years. It is too bad that we have no one with the stature of a David Brower to serve as a catalyst within NAS to perform the service for us that he serves for them. You may recall that last May I predicted to you that the Sierra Club would increase their membership because of their adoption of Zero Cut. This has proven to be the case. They have picked up membership because of it. You might want to inquire of the club if this has been "the" factor in their reaching and surpassing the membership of NAS. I expect the membership of the Club to continue to grow. In five years a million member base for them is possible - and likely.

One more club board election should see the Club's Directors and their official and unofficial policies aligned with the sentiments and values of the vast majority of the thousands of independent unaffiliated grassroots groups. The Club's ability to engage in political campaigns gives them a paramount market position with the unaffiliated grassroots groups. This is because there has been a truly dramatic rise in interest in "hands-on" political activity among younger activists - a hitherto totally apolitical class of folks. Grassroots activists who used to not even register to vote are running for local office. For example our city council now has two of our former Audubon presidents on it and I have heard the same from other places around the country. Environmental activists all over the country are beginning to return to the political process, and they like it.

QUESTION 3: I note that the latest Audubon magazine has a two page spread for Honda on the inside cover. Does the board know that Honda funds right wing anti enviro causes and is behind the ORV push and the commercialization of the public lands problems that many chapters are very concerned about. Every discussion of membership in our chapter begins and ends with criticism of the advertising in our magazine. Our members do not like it at all.

The NAS annual report shows that our Corporate contributors include many from the Corp Watch's top 100 corporate criminals list - does the board care about this at all? The whole list of top 100 corporate criminals. (You might read it and our annual report's list of corporate contributors side by side.)

I suspect that our policies that encourage corporate giving from anyone no matter what their reputation, are at cross purposes to our efforts to acquire new members. Organizational policy and style which may be attractive to the former may repel the latter. It is NAS's choice whether or not to embrace corporate "bad actors" under the theory that "all money is green"; but it is disingenuous to then whine when a whole younger generation is turned off. (The current McCain campaign may be instructive here.)

Any organization's "true" policies are what it does - not what it says its policies are, or what is in it's policy manual. NAS's "real" policy appears to be to pursue a 200 million dollar asset goal - mostly raised from corporate-friendly folks, with a core membership base of 250,000-300,000 affluent white birders. Maybe in its secret heart, that is what the board truly wishes to do. If not, then the only groups we need to really pay attention to are: the Defenders of Wildlife; and the Sierra Club. Those two are true conservation organizations and the only two we should be concerned about. We need to examine what needs they fill that we don't.

It would be instructive to see the current age distribution of the membership of the DOW and the Club v.i.v. NAS and if this has changed over the years, I suspect it has and that our core NAS "magazine subscription" membership is aging more rapidly that the other two groups.

QUESTION 4: In Oregon some chapters have "chapter only" memberships. Is this just a Oregon phenomenon? If not, does the board know that the total membership of Chapters affiliated with NAS may be higher than the total national membership of NAS. In our case it is our most active members that do not want the magazine and are "chapter only" members. Maybe 40% of the total. Does NAS know the difference between the #'s for total chapter newsletter mailings and the NAS Magazine mailing - that would give you an idea of any "hidden" membership of Audubon. If our experience is at all typical- and it may not be, Audubon may already have 600,000 members and just not know it. If so the problem becomes a conversion rather than a recruitment problem.

QUESTION 5: in any case, I watched the membership video and read the Chapter Networker and am not clear as to exactly why NAS needs to grow - do you know? I see that we are now sitting on $132,000,000 in assets. is that too little? Why? Is there something NAS wants to do that we need, say, 200,000 more members to do? Is it just a TNC vs. NAS testosterone thing? If so, maybe the board folks who came to NAS from TNC would be happier if they went back to TNC...or...is it possible that the TNC grew a half million more members because these particular folks left TNC and came over to NAS?

My impression is that NAS already has all the hard core birders as members already and there is probably no large pool of in-the-closet birders to solicit new members from. The big pool of potential recruits for any national enviro organization is the huge membership of enviro organizations unaffiliated with any national who have voted with their feet to not affiliate with nationals. in Oregon there are maybe 225 of these independents - and several thousand groups nationally. Is there any thinking about how to market to those folks. What is it that they need that would attract them to any national group? Hint: they all care about protecting their local birding habitat from being taken over by construction and sprawl.

Clearly the class of potential new members for any national are the Julia Butterfly folks - I think we can refer to them as the "Butterflies" - the under 25 year old folks not much attracted by stodgy old white men (like us) who like to watch birds. In our community we have a separate outdoor group just for teenagers. We work closely with them, help finance them, and send them to activist conferences etc. but we would not even dream of overtly trying to invite them into an active role in our chapter. But we hope they will be our future leaders.

The thing that attracts recruits to local chapters is activism in their own community - what does NAS have to offer chapters in this regard.

QUESTION 6: Does NAS have the existing management skills and capacity to service an organization of say 600,000 or more? Are they able to manage the organization they have now? As I have told you several times, from what I can see of how they do their basic tasks like voice mail and email etc ...I wonder ...

QUESTION 7: Was the critical review of NAS in the recent Outside magazine - where they ranked and reviewed all the national groups, considered at all by the board - their observations seemed perceptive and very on target to me.

©2000 Jim Britell
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