Union growth strategy & the vital role of retention

Member retention is just as important — if not more so — than recruitment for union growth.

The success of any union depends on its ability to continually increase its membership. Union leaders, therefore, often concentrate their efforts on new member recruitment. However, while this is a critical aspect of union growth, it is not the only way to keep a union’s membership numbers growing.

For unions to remain strong and healthy, they must ensure that the members they recruit are here for the long haul. Otherwise, if members simply resign or churn out, it will be impossible for unions to see any type of meaningful growth. Nevertheless, despite the importance of member retention, it can often get neglected in favour of other activities such as new member recruitment initiatives.

What is member churn?

Churn is a term that indicates number of members your union loses over a specific time period. “Churn rate” designates the percentage of a union’s total members who churn for whatever reason, and often refers to members resigning their memberships. Churn is a critical metric of union growth.

Retaining existing members should be a priority for all unions. In order to do this successfully, it’s essential to have a clear set of retention priorities and dedicated resources, in the same way your union would have a recruitment plan. And foundational to developing this plan is proper member insights and research.

This article aims to expand on my earlier articles about retention strategy in the context of union growth.

What are member retention programs?

Retaining members is a challenge that almost all unions face. If members feel disengaged, neglected, or unsupported, they will likely become frustrated and resign. Ultimately, this will lead to a decrease in union strength and resources.

A successful member retention program can help your union to growth by analysing resignations to identify causes and implementing strategies to reduce churn.

At its core, a member retention program should aim to understand the motivations and needs of the members through their “lifecycle” as a member. Surveys, interviews and focus groups are crucial ways to gather feedback from members and design actions to help pre-empt the resignation. (Read more here about a key metric for growth & retention.)

Once the problems have been identified, the next step is to come up with solutions. Though some solutions may be unique to a particular union or sector, there are general strategies that have proven effective in decreasing resignations such as incentives, education and support programs, communication plans, and engagement activities.

By implementing a member retention strategy and proactively addressing issues that lead to resignations, unions can create powerful connections between members, staff and the union, ultimately resulting in growth, increased density and greater worker power.

Why member retention is so difficult

When it comes to union growth, retention doesn’t get the same attention that recruitment acquisition does.

This is partly due to the fact that while many unions have growth and recruitment teams, few have staff or teams focused solely or primarily on retention.

Similarly, another factor is that retention can seem very difficult — there is a lot of research and union history on how we can encourage workers to join, but far less on how we encourage workers to remain members.

Finally, most retention projects have long lead times to see results — months or more — whereas recruitment activities can get immediate results.

Retention is typically not given the resources that recruitment is

When it comes to growth and union organising, recruitment is almost always the focus. After all, the rank-and-file workers need to be made aware of their rights and the importance of joining a union. Unfortunately, retention efforts are often overlooked in favour of recruitment. This can mean that unions are continually “filling up a leaky bucket”.

Therefore, it’s essential for unions to dedicate significant resources to retention efforts — for example, hiring dedicated staff or teams that specifically focus on retention and who can engage with members and ensure they remain active and engaged. Not only will it help build a larger and more powerful union, but it can also ensure that existing members are more engaged and active in organising and campaigns.

Retention programs take time to see results

Recruiting new union members is often seen as the easier and more effective way to build a union, as the results tend to be visible right away.

Retention, on the other hand, is often seen as more of a slow burn. It may take a while, months or even years, but the payoff of having a strong retention program in place is worth it in the long run.

The efforts that you put into medium and long-term retention, through developing relationships with members, reviewing your member onboarding and welcome, and building trust will pay off in the form of members who will remain loyal to your union and continue to become strong advocates.

Solving retention requires understanding why, when & where

While there will be common reasons across the union movement for why members resign (retiring, moving job/industry, etc), there will also be union-specific reasons for why a member resigns. Understanding your union’s unique member journey will ensure you can take steps to reduce offs and churn.

There are a few vital components for developing a retention strategy, and underpinning these is member insights and research.

This is where the ACTU can really assist, through the ACTU Insights Team. Get in touch via insights@actu.org.au or email me.

Identify leading indicators of churn

What are the indicators that a member may resign soon? Many union members resign due to retiring (so age/career stage is obviously important), but others may resign close to specific anniversary dates (i.e. after three or six months, of being a member). Examining these indicates are crucial to developing your strategy.

It could be that members who resign are much more likely to have never been contacted by your union. Are you making sure all new members are contacted (called, SMSed, visited in the workplace by a delegate or organiser) at least once, but ideally more than that, within their first three months of membership? Perhaps you get resignations after you increase your membership dues. Are you introducing a pre-emptive communications plan to reinforce the value of membership (e.g. higher wages that the union has won)?

Clues to why members churn will be hidden in your data. You can get assistance from the ACTU Insights Team on how to collect and analyse this type of data.

Onboarding new members to reduce churn

When a worker joins your union, what is their experience like? Are they immediately welcomed, told what campaigns are being run and what support and services they can access? Onboarding new members and setting expectations is crucial to how likely they are to remain a member.

There is a large body research in the membership and subscription sector (outside the union movement) that shows that the new member’s perception of their onboarding in the first month is vital. Did the new member feel included and informed? Are they aware of how to access the benefits of their new membership? Are they receiving information from their workplace delegate about upcoming member meetings?

Effective onboarding of new members requires a union staff member, or a team, who is responsible for implementing a plan, and ensuring that it is understood throughout your union.

It also means you should have a really good understanding of your member life-cycle — where is your new member in their journey and their career? (Members’ needs and perceptions of value differ depending on their career stage.) Is there an active workplace campaign underway or is the new member’s workplace currently bargaining?

Build a recovery plan for members with declined payments

The most common reason for membership churn is consecutive declined credit card or direct debit payments. This means that the resignation is not an active decision, but rather involuntary. (The second major reason for resignation is the member leaving the industry covered by the union.)

If your union has the IMIS membership system, then you can work with the Union Innovation Hub to develop a payment recovery process. For unions not using IMIS, there may be are other technical options that can assist. Get in touch with the ACTU to discuss what options may be available.

Another area of involuntary churn is from credit card expiration — again, this is something that your payment gateway may be able to assist with, but may require you to introduce a proactive program to contact members (e.g. by email or phone). Increasingly, modern membership systems and payment gateways have membership “portals” that allow members to proactively log in and update their credit card details.

It is crucial that for involuntary churn that you review your union’s systems, processes and policies. Research in the corporate sector for software and subscription businesses for example indicate that simply increasing the number of repeated debit attempts (e.g. from 3 to 5) can reduce involuntary churn significantly.

Changing membership renewal frequency

Union membership payment options don’t always have to be the same. Deductions every two weeks seem are the norm, but for many other membership or subscription organisations, there is the option for monthly, quarterly or annual payments.

Evidence shows that annual payments can actually increase member retention, especially if members can receive a discount when paying 12 months up front.

If you’re looking for ways to retain members, then exploring different payment frequency should be on your agenda.

Talk to members and get feedback throughout their member journey

Unions should talk to members and get feedback constantly; this should be in a way that goes beyond anecdote (but should also include qualitative feedback from organisers and delegates). Most unions do this through their democratic structures, so the challenge is to use this information for your retention planning.

Qualitative feedback (e.g. from organisers and delegates) is especially important for being aware of the causes of resignations that are external to the union and the member, such as employer restructures or large-scale redundancies.

Your union should be surveying members regularly, especially new members or members in the “danger zone” of potential resignation/churn. This could be in the first few weeks or months of membership. By asking for and reacting to member feedback throughout their membership, you can identify problems early. Surveys can help identify the gaps that your delegates or organisers may be missing.

The ACTU Insights Team or Union Innovation Hub can assist in setting up a comprehensive member survey/feedback program.

As a union leader, you’re likely always thinking about how your membership can grow, and that your existing members are engaged, supportive and happy. This can be a difficult balance, but with a clear plan in place, you can minimise membership churn and keep your union growing.

Retention is not easy, but when put on the same priority level as new member recruitment, it is a battle that can be won.

Research and insights are the foundation of a successful plan for managing membership retention and growth. By understanding the needs of your members, as well as trends in your industries, you can develop strategies that will help to keep your current members while you are actively recruiting new ones.

Furthermore, regular review of your membership data and analytics is invaluable in keeping on top of churn. This will allow you to quickly identify any potential issues, or areas of improvement that you could focus on. Being proactive about managing your membership is essential if you want to ensure that it remains healthy in the long-term.

In short, keeping existing members is just as important as recruiting new ones. You’ll need a solid plan in place if you are going to minimise member churn. And research and insights is the foundation of any retention plan.

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