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21 January 2014

How did we get here? Membership

In the LinkedIn CSI Leaders group, Joy Davis recently began a series of discussions under the heading #CSIStats. The goal, as expressed in the first post of the series, is "helping CSI leaders understand where CSI stands by sharing facts about the Institute … to help you start and  participate in discussions about who CSI is and where the Institute should go in the future."

Each discussion has started with a few membership statistics about who members are and what they do, followed by links for recommended reading, and a question to start a discussion.

As often happens, each discussion has had a brief flurry of responses, then died. Part of the problem, which affects everything we do, is the limited number of participants. Because this is a locked LinkedIn group, discussion necessarily is limited to members of the group, who number 503. Still, these are by definition leaders of CSI, so it's not a bad place to have a discussion, though it would be good to seek input from the general membership. That is being done through the Institute website, where the posts are available to all. To date, they have garnered a total of three comments. (Contrary to popular belief, posting something to a website does little to get the word out, as few people visit websites except when looking for specific information.)

In Week 4 I posted a few statistics about the discussion.
  • Members: 11,000 plus or minus
  • Emerging professionals: 500 plus or minus
  • Board members: 18 (Only one is not a member of the CSI Leaders group)
  • Institute committees, task teams: 43 (I didn't count the members, but I suspect there are hundreds)
  • Participants in CSIStats discussion: 24
  • Board members in discussions: 3
  • FCSI in discussions: 12
  • Elders in discussions: 12
  • Emerging professionals in discussions: 0
To be fair, it's unusual for emerging professional members to be in leadership roles (though I'm sure they would be admitted to this group if they asked), so their lack of participation here is not surprising. However, similar statistics are found in other LinkedIn groups, in 4specs discussions, and elsewhere. In essence, it's a problem that plagues us in all areas: we spend a lot of time preaching to the choir.

We advertise for members in our own publications, and we ignore the many potential members who are engineers. We claim to be an organization that represents all who are involved in construction, yet ignore two of the most important groups: owners and contractors. We do a good job telling our members about coming events, but rarely go outside to invite non-members to our meetings. We tell each other about awards members have received, but make no effort to tell others what our members have done or why the awards are important. And we talk a lot about getting younger people involved, but it seems we spend our time talking about them, not with them.

In the next few posts, I'm going to add some context to our discussions. The membership statistics that have been presented on LinkedIn are interesting, but by themselves it's hard to know what they mean. How are we doing compared to other organizations? It's obvious that we're suffering, but is that unique? Are other organizations facing the same problems? I'm not saying it's o.k. to have trouble recruiting new members because everyone else has the same problem, but it would help to know if what we're experiencing is a result of what we do or don't do, or if it's a result of societal changes.

By now, I'm sure most members are aware that our membership is declining, but I doubt that more than a few know how our membership has changed over the years. The graph shows our membership curve, from our beginning in 1948 to the present.

I'm not indicating specific numbers for a couple of reasons. For most years, I relied on anecdotal reports I found in narrative histories written by various members, and those numbers didn't always agree. For the period 1999 through 2007, I used figures obtained from reports I received while serving on the Institute board. There are many years before 1999 for which I have no information, but adding those numbers would not materially affect the curve. I recall seeing claims that our membership was near 19,000 several years ago, but I was unable to find confirmation, so I left the curve as you see it, topping out at just over 18,000.

It has been suggested that part of the reason for the falling membership after 2000 has been the economy, and indeed, we have had some bad times since then. However, during the first forty years, we went through eight recessions, in 1949, 1953, 1958, 1960, 1969, 1973, and 1980. Despite those slowdowns, membership grew. The graph indicates the economy probably had some effect, but the trend was always up.

Since 1988, we have had more recessions. As might be expected, they had an adverse effect on membership, but subsequent recoveries had no restorative effect. And now, even during an improving economy, the trend continues down.

The question, then, is this: What is different now? Why did membership grow the first forty years, despite economic conditions, and why is it not now responding to an improving business climate? It's easy to blame the economy, but I don't think that argument holds up.


  1. Oh brother! I keep reading your blogs and I am going to be tagged a Curmudgeon in Training :) OK, my .02 cents as short and sweet as I can make it.

    First, our experienced membership is getting a little older, maybe a little tired and is not doing enough to share the load and get more current members involved. A whole lot of people are just waiting to be asked and it makes them feel good and included when they are.

    2nd, We need to pursue those young professionals. My selling point is always that the education they will get (earlier than their peers) and the connections they will make will be golden for their career. Second, we need to inject those young, fresh ideas and energy into our chapters. God forbid, do something different.

    3rd, we are absolutely ignoring some huge market sectors that, dare I say, need CSI even more than the Architects (i.e. Engineers, Owners, Contractors.) That doesn't even make sense to me.

    While I am pretty new to CSI, I have been in the industry for 30 years (which, of course, makes me only 33). The solution, in my opinion, is pretty simple. It's time for our members to re-inject some passion into this organization. If you are bored, tired, frustrated, whatever - change it up. Do something different. Step outside the proverbial box.

    Most important - be a preacher. CSI has more to offer and the most experienced, intelligent, giving people that I have seen anywhere. Everybody you know should know that as well.

    Passion is infectious. Set your somewhat introverted selves aside, get excited again and share what this organization is about with everyone you meet. Trust me, it works :)

    OK, so maybe that was 25 cents but you asked!

  2. Great observation by Sheldon. I had no idea the Chapter continued to grow during earlier recessions.

    I personally think some of the decline has to do with technology and the means by which younger professionals can access information. They don’t need the level of personal interaction that was once commonplace prior to the Internet Age. I am not an architect or spec writer by trade, but it seems some architectural firms are slowly getting away from dedicated spec writers for various reasons. We have several members in our Chapter who were once prominent spec writers who are now independent contractors, unemployed, retired, or who have left the industry altogether.

    But CSI is an organization with optimistic members and there are still people who see value in networking and professional development. Perhaps we need to exhibit at some engineering and contractor related tradeshows? Or exhibit at career fairs to attract young professionals just entering the workforce? The comment about advertising to only our members does hit home. We need to dip our toes in other pools to see who wants to swim with CSI.

    Ryan Hallesy

  3. From Bryan Varner, part 1:

    First, I'm surprised that the graph appears to show that CSI peaked around 2000. I thought is was circa 1991 at about 18,800-ish.

    I can only answer the question from my personal experience over the last 22 years. I only have "heresay knowledge" from before that. I'll start there.

    Before 1992, going way back, CSI was an excellent forum to meet and develop valuable business connections. It was described to me like a Rotary or Kiwanis club. There also was not nearly as many industry trade associations to pick from, hence less competition. Growth naturally occurred; it wasn't necessary to actively promote the organization, other than through word of mouth.

    Since the early 1990s there has been growth in the number of industry trade associations, more two-income earning parented families, more single working heads of families, and the internet, the number one time competitor to nearly everything in life today. So, since then membership has, rather predictably, not grown "naturally."

    I happened to have a conversation about this next point just yesterday with a CSI colleague I met at my gate waiting from my plane ride . Every successful business today does not rely simply on producing good to excellent products or services. Rather, maintenance of and increase in sales and market share also requires concentrated effort in business development. Competition is wide and fierce. Look no further than what all the product representatives in CSI do, as well as all business owners and principals and mangement level employees.

    When we look honestly and objectively at how our CSI chapters are operated, we will generally observe two things. Our volunteer culture is hard wired through embedded DNA to produce and attend monthly meetings with technical programs, with next to zero failure over years, even decades. When was the last time your chapter did not have a monthly member meeting with a program?

    On the other hand, how well does your chapter do at business development, and membership? And consistently? What effort is put into identying prospects, developing prospects, converting them into members? How are you doing at welcoming, orienting, and connecting with your new members? How many times in the last 5 years, and 10 years, has your chapter grown? How long has it declined in members? I've been watching the numbers out here in the west for about 20 years, and it's very sad.

    Does your board review monthly financial reports? Discuss them? Do you get monthly reports on who the new members are, how many up or down you are from the beginning of the year, and the progress of planned activities to develop prospects and recruit members? Frankly, let's face it. It is simply not - currently - in our volunteer culture to make damn sure we grow this organization, like making sure we have monthly member meetings with a technical program, and monthly financial reports. Just imagine for a moment, what if our volunteer culture was just as tuned into making sure the chapters grew every year like they are in having a monthly member meeting with a technical program?

  4. From Bryan Varner, part 2:

    I've always believed that effort defines performance and that performance reflects effort. Look at every success in your chapter. Somebody made the time and put the energy and effort into making it happen. And, if we're brutally honest with ourselves, aren't most or all of our disappointing experiences due to zero to lackluster effort?

    I speak from a personal experience of having been heavily involved in doing membership in my home chapter since the year I joined CSI. Since 1992, it's grown more than 30%. Not one other chapter in the west region that was in existence in 1992 is larger today. And the net drops (and relative number comparisons) are just scary and staggering. I'm also a member of a few other chapters, and observe a lot and ask a lot of questions. The difference in our performances is very simply the effort that's put into membership and business development. When the right amount of effort is put into it, a chapter will grow. When the effort is lacking, well, let's never be surprised with the results.

    Signs of the times? . .Chapters used to get monthly statistics with the number of new members for the year, number up or down of total and home members, and the rolling retention rate. No mas. We now have to track, save, and compute all of this data ourselves. Is anybody busy out there? Really busy? We now get a different report with useful information, but I think we should still getthe same and equally useful "old school" data.

    My region used to consistently have conference workshops devoted to membership. No mas.

    Sheldon, you noted that CSI has something like 43 committees and task teams. Can anyone guess which one has just one single member (excluding the board liaison and staff employee)? The proverbial Committee of One? You guessed it. The Membership Committee. Our top brass leadership decided that was the best way to go this year.

    Every time I say that we need to honestly and objectively assess our personal and collective/team shortcomings, and how they are affecting the quality of our chapters' member services and results, I get blow back. But when we look at everything that so many chapters do well, we see the tremendous amount of volunteer effort so, so many caring and dedicated members put out. So I know that we can grow CSI if we put our minds to it and get off our rear ends. The proof is right at the end of our noses.

    CSI is a gift and it's not just for us. It's for us to share. And it's free and a pure joy. True leaders share the gift of CSI.