The Scarlet F of Freeloading

During the past few weeks I have been a participant in an online discussion I found to be fascinating and frustrating, one that has been a catalyst for incredibly insightful comments and unnecessarily judgmental or inflammatory opinions.

The reason?  One bright and articulate young professional blogged about why he would not be renewing his membership in a professional association.  While his story is specific to one organization, ASAE, universal lessons about how individuals perceive value can be gleaned.  You can read what resulted here, here, here, and here.  Brew yourself a pot of coffee or grab yourself a stiff drink because there is much to contemplate and learn if you spend some time with the posts and comments at those links.  Be forewarned.  It ain't always pretty.

I just want to add one observation on this blog, my own forum.  A few individuals on these other sites have asserted that members of a profession who don't join their association in some ways are freeloaders.  Literally, this could be true.  Those who pay dues help ensure the association exists and their financial contributions support activities designed to sustain the profession or industry the association serves and represents.

Freeloading implies benefiting from others.  And when that definition is comprehensively applied, a significant percentage of these supposedly more worthy dues-paying members are themselves freeloading.

  • Freeloading off those who contribute to newsletters, magazines, and discussions boards when they might only lurk.
  • Freeloading off those who prepare and present educational sessions at meetings while they never share their knowledge.
  • Freeloading off those who devote personal time and money to perform volunteer responsibilities to lead the association while they sit back and observe.
  • Freeloading off those who solicit donors to fund new programs and recruit new members to broaden the dues base while they note they don't like to do sales.
  • Freeloading off those who contribute to PACs and lobby actively while they do nothing to shape regulations that affect them.
  • Freeloading off those who take the risk to offer honest feedback that brings about meaningful change while they remain silent or just gossip.

So by all means, feel a brief moment of dues-paying smugness when you meet a member of your profession who didn't join the association, but freely reads its magazine, the one he borrows from a colleague who is a member.

But if our only contribution is in the form of being a joiner writing a check and not being a contributor, remember we also could be chastened with the Scarlet F of Freeloader.  In fact, at any given time, other than keeping our dues current, we all freeload and let others contribute in ways that we aren't.  That's the way it has always been; that's the way it probably always will be.

Many ways exist to evaluate whether or not someone is a contributing member of an association or community.  Paying dues is one of the most obvious metrics, one we've used for a very long time.  But those who write, speak, mentor, advocate, fundraise, share, and present pay their dues as well, and we are foolish to not value them for doing so, regardless of whether or not they join our associations.  For in many cases it is those contributions on which others freeload the most.


KiKi L'Italien said...

I have loved following this conversation and have had several backchannel conversations as a result of it.

Joe Flowers is amazing for posting helpful information that one association should be able to learn from and I commend him.

Thanks for writing this insightful post, Jeffrey!

Maggie McGary said...

Love this post! You are so right. I'll use myself and my husband as an example--and no offense at all to my hardworking, awesome husband--because I think the whole example of someone freeloading by reading someone else's Associations Now subscription started with my comment on Joe's post.

My husband is a long-standing member of ASAE--much longer-standing than I. He religiously pays his ASAE dues. When his association's budget permits he attends Annual--which hasn't been the cast the past few years. He may occasionally respond to something on the listservs. Basically his goal is to accumulate the CEs necessary to maintain his CAE. He doesn't complain about ASAE. He's too busy helping to run an association to do much more than pay dues and gather CEs when possible. And that's fine.

I, on the other hand, complain plenty. I blogged about the Power of A thing, and regularly grumble about their listservs and other things. But I also contribute--I have spoken at numerous ASAE events over the past few years, including webinars, Great Ideas, Tech10, Idea Swaps, etc. I have written for Associations Now. I was a judge for the Gold Circle awards last year. I regularly comment on Acronym.

What ASAE is getting from my husband is annual dues. What ASAE is getting from me more than that--it's my time and my knowledge. Say I had not chosen to renew and just read his copy of Associations Now? Which one of us would be more of a freeloader?

Kevin Whorton, Whorton Marketing & Research said...

I would think, on the continuum of contributors, that former freeloaders like Maggie still had an impact--if not large individually, very great collectively. An association that runs its business end effectively should be able to demonstrate its pass-on and capitalize this in ad revenue. So often we value our leaders and intellectual contributors well above other members and customers, but it's never certain how indispensible we really are if the association has enough of us already. I know if I'm occupying a council seat or speaker slot, someone else would happily take my place. There might be a slight increase or decrease in quality coming from replacing me with someone else. Most of us acknowledge we would be in trouble with volunteer structures if everyone wanted to be very active. I guess the goal is to manage a community that keeps a pyramid shape--a few top contributors with sufficient diversity and quality to ensure the association has well defined intellectual captial--and a vast group of mailboxers, lurkers, and other loyal members who outnumber the freeloaders enough to ensure financial viability.