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Membership Capacity

(from the Lake Tides Capacity Corner Article, Volume 43, No. 1, Winter/Spring 2018)

Our mental model of lake organization capacity is built around four related parts: membership, organization, relationships, and programs. Membership is the basis for the other three: a group needs members who provide financial and volunteer support that fuels all other efforts. Organizational capacity is mostly about how a lake association or lake district conducts its internal affairs, and organizations develop relational capacity by collaborating and networking with external people and groups. Lake groups leverage these three types of capacity to increase their ability to get things done: programmatic capacity. 

Member engagement is fundamental to community responses to water resource problems.” - Mae Davenport and Erin Seekamp

Membership capacity reflects the value of an organization to the population of its possible supporters. People and households tend to join organizations if they believe doing so will reflect well on them, if they understand and believe in what the organization seeks to accomplish, and perhaps if they may receive something beneficial in return for their support. Lake associations attract members who believe that by joining forces with neighbors, they can have a collective impact on the health of their lake. Lake districts, in contrast, typically have boundaries drawn to include all those landowners who would benefit from the lake district; once the district is formed, the landowners become compulsory “members” of the district. 

Wisconsin’s surface water grant program has long recognized the importance of membership capacity for ensuring that grant funds are allocated wisely. Lake districts and other local governments are automatically eligible for grants; lake associations must meet the DNR’s standards for a qualified lake association. Several of the standards focus on membership aspects of the lake group, specifically:
  • The lake association must have at least 25 members;
  • Membership fees must be no less than $5 or more than $50;
  • Any individual who owns real estate or resides (seasonally or year-round) within one mile of the lake must be allowed to become a member; and
  • Members cannot be denied the right to vote in lake association affairs

The overall thrust of these requirements is that a qualified lake association should be relatively open and non-discriminatory when determining who is eligible to become a member. Many lake associations choose to be even more open, allowing anyone who wishes to support efforts to care for lakes to become a member. 

Attracting members is only one step in an ongoing process of membership management and development. Experienced lake organizations know that membership turns over: new people move to the lake as long-timers move away, and members need to be continuously cultivated if they are to be more than “just a member” and become volunteers, board members, donors, and ambassadors. 

Drawing on the research of Mae Davenport and Erin Seekamp, Aaron Thompson at the UW-Stevens Point College of Natural Resources identified five facets of membership capacity that lake organizations would ideally be prioritizing in order to build a solid foundation for their efforts:

1. Raise Awareness: The ability to develop and maintain a high level of knowledge within members about lake conditions and management options. 

2. Access Technical Skills: Intentional recruitment to bring in volunteer or paid staff to provide critical expertise, such as project management, water quality management, accounting, communication, fundraising, etc.  

3. Identify Issues: Collect information (meetings, interviews, etc.) from both members of your organization and the community to document their priorities for lake management or improvement.  

4. Create a Process for Involvement: An open, transparent approach to engaging citizens has been developed to recruit new members and increase discussion within the larger community about issues important to your organization.    

5. Conduct Outreach: Members of your organization (including those who don’t currently hold a leadership role) are capable and active promoters of your mission to their connections, which has led to new members and donations to support your efforts.  

Each of these five facets is easier said than done, but we can learn from each other to minimize reinventing the wheel and hone in on “best practices.” In 2017, the Lakes Partnership worked with lake groups to brainstorm some of the basic steps and ingredients needed to actually carry out these sort of activities. For example, at Advanced Lake Leaders this past fall, two groups discussed what works and what doesn’t work when it comes to “Raising Awareness.” There are several practices that Lake Leaders reported as working well: 

  • Producing newsletters, and printing enough copies so that they can be shared at local “hotspots” (grocery, taverns, bait shops, etc.)
  • Maintaining websites and social media (Facebook)
  • Holding well-planned annual meetings with guest speakers
  • Regularly sending emails to members with updates and news they can use

Lake Leaders also stressed that a lake association board or lake district committee needs to spend time thinking through and developing an awareness strategy: what exactly are you trying to raise awareness about? How would you measure progress: do you have benchmarks of awareness that you are comparing against? 

They also noted that in the past, a controversial issue has often served as a jumping off point for having a larger conversation about their lake. For example, a heavy rainfall during a road construction project near a lake resulted in a visible plume of sediment in water near the lake. This provided an opportunity to discuss the lake’s watershed in a newsletter article, exploring all the different points where polluted runoff could easily make its way into the lake. 

While it may seem daunting to think strategically about how your lake organization raises awareness among its members, there are a number of tools that can help. There are numerous online tools that can help connect some of your group’s basic needs like managing a list of members to awareness-raising tools like your email and Facebook communications. These range from simple, free tools for small organizations to multi-faceted suites that while somewhat more expensive, can provide powerful and easy-to-use tools that you can start using today. 

The databank is a Minnesota-based company that provides an all-in-one cloud hosted database that provides fundraising, email marketing, advocacy tools and support. Chris Hanson, Co-founder and CEO of thedatabank, gbc posted a short blog that introduces an 18-page guide for building capacity through the strategic use of technology. The blog also includes a link to a short presentation by Chris recorded in 2017. View the webinar and access the guide here

Access other Membership articles from Lake Tides:

Winter/Spring 2019 - A Closer Look at Membership

Winter/Spring 2020 - Taking a Look at Membership in 20/20

Winter/Spring 2021 - Engaging Members in Virtual Opportunities

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