The Changing Face of Membership Organisations

Humans have always sought belonging, from ancient tribal groups to modern business associations, clubs, and societies.  Today, social media represents the latest evolution of this trend, offering nearly limitless opportunities for like-minded individuals to connect and exchange views online.

This shift has led to a decline in traditional club memberships.  People no longer see formal membership as necessary to engage in club activities or to support a club’s principles.  Many are willing to participate in and financially contribute to club activities without officially joining.  Research done into this trend is showing that close to 50% of survey participants will participate in the club activities provided the activities are meeting their needs, that they will pay for participation, but that they will not become members.

Some clubs have responded by emphasising membership and excluding non-members.  Such exclusivity can lead to financial struggles and a shortage of capable volunteers, causing clubs to fail.

In contrast, other clubs have adopted a more inclusive approach, welcoming non-members into their activities.  Non-members can be made to pay their own way, and even pay more than members, providing a financial benefit to the club.  The key difference is the formal membership status, not the level of support or participation desired.

This inclusive strategy acknowledges that both members and non-members seek similar benefits from the club.  Rather than excluding non-members, clubs can restructure to accommodate both groups, ensuring financial stability without compromising the club's operations.

In New Zealand, the Incorporated Societies Act 2022 has added to the trend of falling memberships by increasing regulatory requirements for club officers and members, aligning the rules for societies more closely with the companies’ legal regime.  This has led to concerns about excessive bureaucracy that is discouraging formal membership of clubs.  Many believe that clubs will forgo registration under the Act, losing certain legal protections, like member immunity from club debts, and these club’s will operate as unregistered entities with a focus on participation over membership.

The increased government oversight, intended to improve club governance, may inadvertently push clubs away from formal registration, driving them "underground." This is resulting in a dual movement—both organic and government-induced—away from formal club membership towards participation.

It is becoming evident for clubs to thrive, they must adapt by embracing non-members and integrating them into their activities, ensuring participants contribute financially keeping the club both financially and operationally viable.  This approach can sustain clubs in a changing social landscape, where formal membership is less valued, but active participation remains high.


Mike Chapman,

Chair New Zealand Ethical Employers Inc