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Vol. 32, No. 2

Is there a hole in your bucket? Member retention as a year-round process

by Marilyn Cavicchia

One of the challenges of growing your membership, according to Peggy Gruenke, is that “you’re constantly recruiting new members to put in the bucket—but you’ve got a leak in the bottom."

Maintaining or increasing your membership count requires controlling that leak by focusing on retaining members once you have them, said Gruenke, formerly the director of membership at the Cincinnati Bar Association. In a workshop at the August Annual Meeting of the National Association of Bar Executives, she offered some tips on how to do just that.

One of the best things you can do, said Gruenke, who is now law firm manager at Finney Stagnaro Saba & Patterson, is to survey your members often. “The only way you’re going to know what your members want is to ask them,” she said. Instead of—or perhaps in addition to—a once-a-year survey to the entire membership, Gruenke recommended targeting different segments of your membership in shorter online surveys throughout the year. What do lawyers of color want from your bar, or like about it? How about women lawyers? Young lawyers? Senior ones? Those are just a few of the groups Gruenke recommended surveying.

But simply asking questions is not enough, Gruenke noted—those who take the time to reply need to know that you read their responses, that they’re important to you, and perhaps that you plan to implement some of their ideas. This follow-up could be done in an e-mail to respondents, but Gruenke recommended publishing some of the responses and any follow-up actions in the bar’s printed publication. That way, she said, all readers—regardless of whether they’re part of the membership segment that you surveyed—will be able to clearly see that you are reaching out to members.

Another good group to survey, Gruenke noted, is those who have chosen not to renew. What is it they needed or wanted, and didn’t get? Are there any changes you could make to persuade them to renew after all? When Gruenke did this type of survey, three respondents said they weren’t renewing because of financial hardship prompted by leaving a big firm and going solo. Gruenke contacted those three and offered half-price dues; two decided to take her up on it and remain bar members.

In certain cases, Gruenke even waived dues for a year, and found that this paid off in lifetime loyalty. “That member will always remember that you followed up with them, and that you were concerned for them,” she said.

Gruenke preferred to survey nonrenewers by e-mail, because she found it simple to do and liked the 22 percent response rate she achieved this way. If you prefer to make phone calls, and if you apportion this task to a few different people, she suggested making sure they’re all using the same form, and that they all have credit card slips they can fill out. What you want, of course, is for the person to renew after all, so you want all callers to be ready.

You can even use an informal survey to tweak the packet you offer new members, Gruenke noted. After you send the packet, she suggested, mail a postcard that asks such questions as which pieces of information were useful, and whether the packet had all the phone numbers the new member needed—and then change the packet accordingly if the responses are not as positive as you would like them to be.

Committed to committees

“Your committees are the most valuable intangible benefit you have for your members,” Gruenke said. That means they’re key in any effort to retain members, she added—which is why in her first year at the CBA, she tripled the budget to be spent for committees.

Gruenke highly recommended participating in the ABA Bar Discount Program, which offers bars 40 percent off ABA publications. Gruenke would buy books that were of interest to each committee, and the committees would use them as giveaways. For more information about the Bar Discount Program, visit and click on the link under the “Law Book Discounts” heading.

Gruenke also added periodic catered luncheons for each committee. Some of these were sponsored by established vendors of the bar’s member benefits; the vendor was allowed two to three minutes for a presentation, and Gruenke said no members complained about that. Some vendors also conducted lunch and learn sessions, in which they would provide educational programming related to their field. A popular session was one on identity theft, conducted by an insurance company, Gruenke noted.

Open house showcases member benefits

When the CBA began holding an annual member benefits open house three years ago, 60 people attended. The most recent one attracted 180 attendees, Gruenke reported, adding that prospective attendees now start asking about the event a few months in advance.

Such an event serves a few different purposes, she said. Not all members know everything you offer, and a particular benefit might be just the thing to add even more value to their continuing membership. It’s important to invite nonmembers, too, she noted. At the CBA’s open house, nonmembers are identified with a different color on their nametags.

“It’s an opportunity for them to be in your building, meet your staff, and see what you have to offer,” Gruenke said.

It’s also a chance to try out new vendors, she added. The CBA event is entirely funded through sponsorship, and while most sponsors are existing member benefit vendors, a few have been ones that have not yet signed on. Gruenke appreciated the chance to get to know the vendors better and to see how they interacted with staff and attendees—and how generous they were in their booth giveaways.

The giveaways at the open house can be quite valuable, Gruenke said: One vendor donated a laptop. Paralegals, secretaries, and other support staff are a key market for the open house, she said, because they are often the ones making decisions about which vendors to use for shipping and other administrative tasks. The giveaways add some excitement, and the lawyers at local firms appreciate that the bar is arranging for some of their support staff to have a special treat.

Tracking all year long

If you’ve been tracking your membership numbers once a year—or not at all—it’s time to make a change, Gruenke suggested: “Before you start on any recruitment or retention effort, you have to clean up your data.” But if you have little or no data, start from where you are, she added; rather than spinning your wheels in trying to recreate historical information you don’t have, begin tracking today so you will have good, sound data in the future.

It’s a good idea to create monthly membership reports and put them in the board meeting packets, she said. Even though there’s a defined membership year, new members join throughout the year, and board members love seeing those numbers go up.

The tracking chart Gruenke developed showed her three years at a time, and broke down the membership into a few different categories, including the ones she mentioned as good survey targets, so she could see how each segment was performing. Data she collected and tracked include:

  • How long a particular member has been a member
  • Age, and how many members are in each age group
  • Seminar attendance
  • The percentage of the membership that is made up of new members
  • Zip codes
  • The success rate in converting prospects—nonmembers who call to inquire about joining—to members

It’s particularly important to track prospects, Gruenke said, because your success rate with them should be high—after all, they’re calling you. Keep a spreadsheet just for prospects, and record as much information as you can (such as day and time of the call, the caller’s gender, age, and firm address and firm size), and then mark each subsequent communication you have with them. Send them an information packet the same day they call you, Gruenke advised, and call them three days later to ask if they got it.

If your conversion rate is not very high, alarm bells should go off, she noted. Are there some obstacles to joining? If you have a membership application on your Web site, is it hard to find, download, and print? Have there been delays in getting them the information they need? Did they encounter a rude person on your staff? Did they decide to join another bar instead?

And besides the surveys you do of nonrenewers to get their thoughts on why they’re not renewing, there’s some data you should track on a spreadsheet just for them, Gruenke said. If your nonrenewers are simply moving out of your region, that’s one thing—but perhaps there are some fixable problems you can spot when you analyze the data. If a lot of young lawyers are choosing not to renew, Gruenke advised, look into whether there’s something about your young lawyers section that is turning members off. Likewise, if you see from the zip codes that a lot of nonrenewers are far away from bar headquarters, perhaps it’s time to bring some programming into the further reaches of your county or state.

Between the surveys, the tracking, and all the small, informal ways you can think of to reach out to members, recruiting and retention should be a constant process, and not a yearly chore, Gruenke believes.

“Never miss an opportunity to ask your members for feedback,” she advised. “They usually have something they want to tell you.”