How do we retain more members in our unions?

In early October, the Digital Lab met to discuss digital aspects of member retention. UK union membership fell overall in both 2021 and 2022, and now stands at the lowest level since records began in 1995. 

Colleagues from a dozen unions joined our  workshop to consider together why members might leave, and what unions can do to reduce their number. Here’s a note of what we discussed.

Why focus on retention?

We all know it’s great to recruit new people into unions, and that rightly forms a big part of our strategies. But it’s hard to recruit your way to growth when, you have an aging population where 3%+ of members retire every year, when you have a labour market where people have less security, change jobs more often, go freelance, emigrate, and all these before you get to the people who leave for reasons that can be avoided.

When you retain members, they progress in their careers, pay more in subs as their wages go up (supporting and subsidising the membership of younger, newer members) and they get more involved over time, recruiting and supporting others.

The issue is a classic one – negative compounding interest. A union with 100k members that’s losing 10% of them a year, while recruiting 7.5% has only a 2.5% gap right? Is that too bad? 

It turns out it is. That level of decline will find that union having just 50,000 members in seven years. It’ll be around 30,000 in ten. 

All membership organisations are leaky buckets. There’s lots of holes where members can fall out. We need to work out where the biggest holes are and plug them first.

Chart of dots against statements on retention

How are unions doing?

We started with an unscientific survey, asking the people in the room to anonymously map how their union was doing across five questions. 

1. Is your union growing, shrinking or staying the same? 

Most participants suggested their union is staying roughly the same, with a few others reporting growth

2. Are you more focused on recruitment or retention?

A handful reported a ‘balanced’ approach, but most thought they put more effort into recruitment.

3. How much does your union care about retaining a member?

No-one claimed they put “no effort” into retention, with most saying they put “some” or “quite a lot” of effort into keeping members)

4. Do you know why members leave?

We saw a very even distribution here, ranging between “not much” knowledge and “quite a lot”.

5. What was your member retention rate in 2022? 

One participant reported their unions’ rate being as low as 50%, while most clustered between 75-90%. We did note that several participants reported different rates for the same union, suggesting this metric is not widely used or known within unions). 

Quantifying retention.

Earlier this year, the Digital Lab presented a report on analytics for unions, with “churn” being one of the essential measures of a union’s (or any other membership organisation’s) health.

Churn rate is quite simple to calculate, deriving from just two numbers – the number of members at the start of the year, and the number at the end (of course it can also be calculated on a rolling basis).

Here’s how to calculate it:

Churn% = (Membersyear start – Membersyear end) / Membersyear start

If a union has 10000 members at the start of the year, and ends with 9000, the churn rate is 10% (if the union grows, the churn will be negative – a good thing!).

This number can be broken down in many ways:

  • What’s your churn rate among younger members?
  • What about in particular industries?
  • How about for newer versus established members?

There’s a second number that can be helpful to understand – the Annual Retention Rate

Written down, this calculation can look very similar to Churn, but rather than looking at how much the membership changes each year, it helps you understand how well you hold onto your current members.

ARR% = (Membersyear end – Membersnew) / Membersyear start

For example, you start the year with 10000 members and end the year with 10000 members (0% churn), but recruit 2000 members during the year. Your annual retention rate is 80%. 

Again, this number can be segmented – for example what happens if you strip out retiring members (or those approaching retirement)?

The point of these metrics isn’t that there’s necessarily a good or bad number (whereas obviously, when it comes to overall size of the union, there is), but each tells you how hard you have to work to maintain progress. Unions with high churn or low annual retention can grow much more easily if they are able to improve retention. And by segmenting these numbers, they can also much more easily identify the areas where improved retention will best support the overall health of the union.

What are good goals for union retention programmes?

Goals for retention programmes

In this section of the workshop, participants made a number of suggestions about possible goals for retention. These included:

  • Knowing why every member leaves
  • How members feel about the union
  • Having a plan for all eventualities

Practically, unions that successfully retain members will have accurate data, the right infrastructure to act, and buy in from the rest of the union on this strategic challenge. With these in mind, you can set a more quantitative goal:

“By the end of 2024, we will increase the number of retainable members by X percentage points, resulting in Y additional members.”

What would your union’s goal be?

Why do people leave unions?

The conversation then switched to trying to understand why people leave unions. There was a recognition that some people can’t be ‘retained’, because (for example) they’re leaving an industry or retiring. And not every reason for leaving is equal – “I don’t need a union” is cited much less frequently than “I’m struggling to afford it at the moment”. 

This led us to a simple 2×2 matrix which, when filled out, shows where unions can start to think about prioritising retention work (the top right quadrant – “can retain” + “a lot of people”).

Here are the examples cited during the workshop:

Few peopleA lot of people
Can retain“My employer is hostile to unions”“I don’t see the value”
“It’s too expensive”
Can’t retain“I joined the wrong union”“Retiring”
“Leaving a unionised workplace”
“Leaving the industry”

For your union, can you fill out this matrix, adding the correct number of people who left for each reason in the last 12 months?

What research is needed?

One of the things that emerged from the session is that we don’t always know what we want to, if we’re to act pragmatically on retention.

So we spent some time discussing the research agenda we’d like to pursue. Again, we can’t do everything, so we also tried to prioritise what we wanted to learn. 

By the time we finished, it looked something like this:

Qualitative researchQuantitative research
Very important

Less important
Understanding why people stay

Mapping the process of leaving the union

Understanding how long it takes people to decide to leave

How happy are members?
Segmenting members based on their likelihood to leave

Understanding why people joined in the first place

What else do they spend money on?

Understanding how likely people are to re-join in future

The focus on member happiness is relevant for what comes next, and we took the opportunity to discuss the relevance of “Net Promoter Scores” for unions’ understanding of this (it’s worth reading this post about Equity using it to measure member engagement). 

In short, unions can survey members regularly, ask how likely they are to recommend the union to a colleague, and focus retention efforts on those who give the union a low score. Like with the Churn and Annual Retention Rate, segmenting this number will help you prioritise, and develop appropriate retention strategies for different groups.

Where does retention begin?

For many private subscription services, retention begins as a customer is about to leave. Don’t like your broadband provider? Call them and await your transfer to the retention department, where glittering deals will be waved under your nose.

But for a union, the moment someone chooses to leave is often less obvious. They drift away, cancel their direct debit, leave a job. The first a union might know is when an expected subs payment doesn’t arrive, and by then the member is long gone. 

So the focus needs to be broader. To retain members, unions need to make sure they are happy, and to know, as early as possible, when they are not. 

The result is that better retention is a function of the quality of the members’ overall experience. How well are they onboarded into the union? What do they think of the outcomes they see happening, or get? How often do they access and enjoy member benefits? Do they hear good things from and about their union? 

Mapping retention opportunities across the entire membership journey

Together we looked across seven potential steps of a member journey, and mapped some of the interventions we hypothesised could have a positive impact on members’ happiness, and ultimately their likelihood of staying in the union. 

JoiningSetting expectations correctly.Being clear and transparent about the union’s offer, pricing and benefits.
OnboardingDelivering value early.Providing a welcome pack in a timely manner.
Offering a welcome webinar with Q&A.
Reps contacting members early by phone or email.
ParticipatingIncreasing member engagement.Offering access to training.
Asking members to sign up to campaigns.
Getting members to engage with member networks.
Staying in touchEnsuring contact details are up to date + listening.Listening to members.
Sending a “birthday card” or “membership anniversary” message.
RenewalSending timely renewal comms.Following up with non-renewals in a timely way.
RetainingUnderstanding and responding to issues in proven ways.Making sure people didn’t leave “by accident”.
Reminding people of the importance of continuous membership.
Offering options to people whose circumstances are changing (e.g. maternity leave).
Steering people towards other unions.
RejoiningProactively re-recruiting those whose circumstances have changed.Making it really easy to rejoin.

Case study: Prospect

To warm us up for developing our own retention programmes, Stuart Hill and Dan Barbato from Prospect shared the approach they’re taking at Prospect. The interventions start on Day Two of a new member’s time with the union, encompassing:

  • A welcome email including all pertinent information about membership, offers and common questions.
  • A message after a week, inviting the member to get active in the union, and soliciting feedback (with a chance to win a £100 voucher).
  • A Net Promoter Score survey after three and six months, with an opportunity to provide ideas and feedback

And if a member does leave, the union initially tries to re-engage them after a month, and again at six months, in the latter case with a special offer. 

The key thing is that each action has a defined owner, oversight and analysis to ensure ongoing performance. Every six months the Senior Management Team is updated on progress, and further improvements are made. 

Workshopping retention ideas

The four groups then spent the last section of the workshop thinking about specific retention problems and potential solutions, aiming to answer:

  • Who are you trying to retain? 
  • How will you reach them? Which tools and channels will you use?
  • What are you going to say to them? Why will that matter? What happens if they don’t respond?
  • What will you measure to know whether it has a positive impact? Which tools will you use?
  • How will you implement this within the union? Who needs to be involved? Sign off on the idea? 

The groups each picked a different challenge to explore, which they did as follows:

“Low engagement” membersDeveloping an understanding of typical levels of engagement. For those in the lower engagement segment, developing a broad programme to try and find an action that chimes with them (calls, training, webinars, texting). Making sure to celebrate union wins so they can see the value of membership.
Younger members not seeing value for moneyTesting to find the right messenger. Talking about longer term and collective value. 
People canceling because of the high cost of livingExplain the risks of canceling. Think about timing, as certain times of the year tend to be more costly than others. Talk about member offers as a way of saving money.
Members who are unhappy with the union due to a bad experienceDeveloping templated responses for common issues, sent from senior staff/GS. Following up with a call to try and rectify. Tracking the issue over time to see if it becomes less frequent.

Conclusion: There’s no silver bullet

Retention is a huge challenge for membership organisations, but unions, with their diverse membership and broad offer of solutions to the challenges of work, face particular challenges. Unlike a Netflix subscription, where the value exchange is clear, union membership is complex and nuanced.

The workshop exposed this complexity, and showed the need for significantly more research, ideas, collaboration and new service design if the movement is to understand the most productive initiatives to improve retention.

The key insight is to recognise that membership really has two phases. Before, where recruitment is everything, and during, where thinking about retention has to be a very high priority. Fortunately, retention largely results from giving people a good experience of membership, to increase its “stickiness” so it can’t simply be discarded when things get tough. 

This is a big job, with no single, simple answer, but unions who know why members leave, care about how they feel, and have a plan for most eventualities will ultimately keep more members, for longer.

What’s next?

We’re planning to stick with retention as a theme for the Digital Lab, and are looking to develop resources for unions to use in improving their own retention programmes.

If you’ve got a retention story to tell – something you’ve tried that works well for your union, or a script or process you’re willing to share with others – please get in touch.

And if there are things you’d like to get help in trying out, let us know.

Sam Jeffers (of Join Together and The Shop) is a consultant to the TUC Digital Lab, and facilitator for the Digital Lab workshop series.