It is Better to Give Than to Get

Earlier this week was my first board meeting with Spruce Hill Community Association. I’ve already made the connection between this group and my church before, but I’d like to draw another similarity. At one point in the meeting, we were talking about membership, and I asked, “What do people perceive they are getting out of being a member?” I meant it both in terms of tangibles (a free T-shirt, discounts on special events) and intangibles (warm fuzzies, camaraderie). We proceeded to have a spirited discussion on the subject, and I’d like to continue the stream of thought in this post. As I reviewed our membership brochure, it occurred to me that the benefits of membership are similar to what the benefits of membership in a church should be.

When you are considering joining a professional group or a trade association, your goal is to see if the value you can get out of the affiliation exceeds the cost of membership. That value may come in the form of credentialing, discounted conference registration fees, and networking opportunities, and if you think this particular organization can get you more value through those things than what it costs to join, you join. Conversely, if you don’t think this particular organization is of that much value to you, you don’t join.

What doesn’t “count” as much in your calculations is what general good that group does for you. If it lobbies Congress or sets policy or writes position papers or defends the reputation of your group, you get the benefits of all of those things whether or not you pay your dues. So those general goods that groups provide aren’t the reason for joining, since you can be a free rider and get them regardless of your membership status. Why you join goes back to whether the group gets you more value, in the form of things that only members can access, like preferred status at meetings or members-only publications and gatherings, than what you pay in dues.

But community associations are not quite like this. Sure, there may be specific gains that accrue only to members, whether it is being on a members-only mailing list for special publications or simply having the satisfaction of saying that you are a dues-paying member of your neighborhood association. But good community association sell you on the benefits of membership by inviting you to give, not to get. Our brochure isn’t emblazoned with snazzy marketing messages like, “Join now and get a free mug!” or “Pay two years of dues and you’ll get a free pass to our next gala!” Rather, it lists all of the good stuff we are doing, and invites you to join so you can get involved in those things as well, whether they are education advocacy or zoning issues or block clean-ups or special events.

For a variety of reasons, we have become a far less communal people. People come and go, the housing crunch leads to high turnover and pervasive blight, and crime keeps us on our guard against strangers. As a result, the neighborhood feel that many of us remember from our childhoods is far weaker today, and busier schedules make it harder to care or to take the first step in doing something about something you care about. Community associations offer a salve, by organizing people around topics of interest, and providing easy on-ramps for getting involved and making a difference.

It may seem strange to pay for the opportunity to give, rather than expecting to get. But it’s what good community associations, and churches for that matter, are about. And I think we’d all be better off, our neighborhoods and our souls, if we took these opportunities to get involved and to give.

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