SHRM Membership Numbers Raise Mixed Concerns

From the HR blog at TLNT.
From the HR blog at TLNT.

When John Hollon reported from the 2010 Society for Human Resource Management Annual Conference that membership held steady in 2009, I was admittedly a bit surprised.

With the amount of SHRM memberships that are often company-sponsored, it seems like it would be an easy place to cut with the recession in full force. However, it looks as though SHRM weathered the recession better than some other professional associations as companies chose either to not cut membership, members chose to renewed on their own, or they added more members.

Even with the “good” news that membership had stayed flat, there continues to be a growing concern at SHRM about longer term issues that could impact the organization’s stability.

Marketing SHRM is a challenge

SHRM is well known among HR and other talent professionals, so you’d think attraction would be much easier. But even with name recognition and recent TV spots, SHRM hasn’t hit the year-over-year growth spurts of years past. Other HR and business organizations compete for their most highly prized members (C-Suite human resource professionals in Fortune 1000 companies) especially in the top metropolitan areas of the country. Even local SHRM chapters don’t necessarily require national SHRM membership, so there is some cannibalization there.

Recently, the organization trotted out a more word-of-mouth approach according to Pamela Green, Chief Membership Officer for SHRM. The promotion called “Member get a Member” awards current SHRM members for recruiting friends and colleagues to the organization with a $10 Amazon.com gift card. While Green didn’t expect a large spike in new members, she said it was a way to reward their best source for new members: other members.

Uncertainty about legacy members

While SHRM has relied heavily on legacy members (those with 10 years or more in the organization), there are whispers of uncertainty as to how long they can continue to do that. Many of those members are near or at retirement age. While the recession may have put some of those plans on hold, there is concern about the other shoe dropping. SHRM puts much of its organizational weight on the thousands of volunteer leaders throughout the world. Replacing a legacy member in a leadership role is a lot different than replacing shorter term memberships.

According to Green, SHRM has encouraged local chapters to push mentor programs and they have seen positive results from that. Still, even with mentor programs, a large scale movement of legacy members to retirement could leave weaker local chapters even more crippled.

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The fickle youth

I asked Green about how SHRM is reaching out to future leaders of their organization. Based on my experience, there was no student SHRM chapter and there was no outreach done to me as a young HR professional. That made it difficult for me, both to commit to SHRM and to commit to the profession.

“That’s the million dollar question,” laughed Green. She talked about some of the outreach efforts they’ve been doing with young professionals in the Washington, DC area to give local SHRM chapters a framework for reaching those fickle folks in the under 35 category.

What is known from outside observation is that much of SHRM’s base of volunteer leaders and reliable members aren’t in that under 35 category. Given the template of other associations, recruiting younger folks into the organization is no picnic. Even if SHRM is simply looking to replace retiring members, they will have to recruit anywhere from two to five times the number of members they lose to even maintain their membership.

As SHRM continues into the next decade, it will be interesting to monitor how it continues to respond to membership challenges it faces. I’ll be looking personally at how they answer the question of bringing new leaders into the organization.

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