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On novel ideas to raise IEEE member retention

The “Stay as Members” project is well-intentioned, but misguided in its focus.

The most memorable quote for me at an IEEE volunteers conference last year was from a delegate in the Pakistan-Bangladesh-Sri Lanka geographic forum. The question was: how do you get members to stay on? “If you run good activities”, she opined, “members will renew.”

Such simple wisdoms are not well-understood among volunteers, who continue to scratch their heads at the IEEE’s low member retention rates. They constantly repeat the statistics. Region 10 is growing. But our newcomers aren’t renewing: less than a quarter of undergraduates stay on when the membership year expires.

The solution? The “Stay as Members” project, a “special initiative” to raise the rate. How? By asking Student Branches to come up with, well, initiatives to raise the rate.

The effort is admirable, but the show of leadership is underwhelming. The initiative specifies no method of improving retention. Either Region leaders are themselves bereft of ideas, or they think Student Branches should be left to conjure their own. Given that most Student Branches are clearly struggling at this—at least according to those statistics—this seems odd. More motivation in the form of US$250 for the best idea is unlikely to change that.

But more importantly, to focus on retention like this misses the point. Imagine that you’re a new member. Why would you renew, or not renew? The answer is what that delegate told her forum: you’ll renew if you got something out of the last year. Some argue that non-renewers just don’t understand the benefits. That’s an insult to their intelligence: after a year, it’s more likely that they just didn’t find them valuable.

In fact, the statistics would seem to indicate so. High joining rates probably mean we do a great job of explaining what we offer. Low retention rates probably mean those offerings are empty promises.

So here’s a novel idea: stop stressing about membership retention. Just run your Student Branch, and focus on running it well. If members see value, they will stay. If they don’t, they will go.

Of course, that leaves the million-dollar question: How can Student Branches offer value? It is indeed a difficult and searching matter. Better that we tackle it directly.

If you’re curious, last year I wrote a series about the state of IEEE volunteerism. You can read it here.

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