Author in her handmade kayak

These two M words crashed together in my mind as I lay pondering the meaning of the universe one recent night. I’d been working on a presentation about motivation for a local Toastmasters chapter on the same day that  I’d had a meeting with the president of another association of which I am a member.

I am involved with a lot of different membership-based organizations, both as a member and as a professional. Many of these are large, well-established associations with professional staff – Chambers of Commerce, trade and professional associations, etc. The ongoing conversational themes among the leadership of these groups include engagement, participation, and increasing membership. How do we get more people to join? How do we motivate them to participate once they’re here? How do we keep them?  Often when I’ve asked the question, well, WHY do we need more members? What’s wrong with the number we have? The answer usually has more to do with financially perpetuating the infrastructure – we need more members to have more money to pay more staff to offer more services to more members, on and on in an endless circle.

Contrast this with a completely different organization  – my sea kayaking club. This club is almost 25 years old, has no property or paid staff, and has a very healthy bank account. We have five hundred members and never seem to lack for leadership and participation.  We have many traditions but very few rules. One of them is that if you don’t like how someone else  does something – whether that’s editing the newsletter or organizing a paddle or a workshop – then you are cordially invited to do it yourself!

We rarely spend time worrying about how members we have, how many of them show up to any given event or meeting, or whether we are “delivering value.” People show up when they feel like it and do what pleases them to do. Many members spend countless hours organizing paddling trips, parties, rescue practices, and skills clinics.  They have spent time lobbying for state and local policies to improve the marine environment and shoreline access for paddlers. They do it for fun, for learning, for camradery, for creating the kind of environment in which they want to live and play.

What if we ran our professional associations this way? What if we let go of worrying about numbers, let people do what pleases them to do, and see what happens?

What makes these groups different…besides paid staff and an office?