In terms of professional and alumni associations, you need to understand the value proposition of each organization you join, and optimize each component of the value proposition which is relevant to you. Do not be afraid to challenge an organization to help YOU get what you are promised with your membership, and ask what you need to do make it happen. Specific ways to fuel your ROI from a membership to a professional or alumni association include: serving on committees, speaking at events, participating in online discussions, being a Board member, engaging other active association members, and understanding what you have to offer an association in addition to what they may have to offer to you. Yes, you may be paying to be a member, but when you offer value to an association they will actively connect you with the services and fellow members that offer you the most value. One specific tactic that I have used often is speaking at conferences so I could attend. Speakers often do not pay registration fees and can even get travel expenses covered. Associations can be a very valuable networking channel if you use them correctly. If make a commitment to build a brand within an association other members, and potential employers, will reach out to you organically and help you develop a powerful professional network.
In terms of free professional online communities purported to offer professional development opportunities, many are only worth the price of admission unless you actively contribute or engage those actively involved in these communities. These communities can offer great opportunities to develop your professional brand and make valuable connections in driving your career success, but you need to put some effort forth in realizing any benefits to being a member.
From the business development perspective, you can “pay to play” to be a member of an organization or association, but that in and of itself does not deliver sales growth. Paying to play can certainly open doors to opportunities, but few doors, if any, have parties waiting on the other side of them. As way of example, during my experience in working with chambers of commerce, I see companies that pay to join, subsequently do nothing, and then complain that the chamber of commerce is no longer a viable business development channel. I strongly disagree with that assertion, this can be a very valuable business development channel, but requires a commitment in understanding how your company can work with a chamber of commerce to drive your company’s business development. The same tactics I mention above work within a chamber of commerce type environment to drive the ROI for membership: serving on committees, speaking at events, participating in online discussions, being a Board member, engaging active chamber members, and understanding what your company has to offer a chamber of commerce in addition to what they may have to offer to you.
Ask not what a membership organization can do for you, but you can do for the organization. Doing so can unlock the value that membership has to offer in driving your professional success. A failure to do so can result in a waste of money, and perhaps the waste of an even more valuable asset, your time.