SHRM Membership Numbers Raise Mixed Concerns

From the HR blog at TLNT.
From the HR blog at TLNT.

When John Hollon reported from the 2010 Society for Human Resource Management Annual Conference that membership held steady in 2009, I was admittedly a bit surprised.

With the amount of SHRM memberships that are often company-sponsored, it seems like it would be an easy place to cut with the recession in full force. However, it looks as though SHRM weathered the recession better than some other professional associations as companies chose either to not cut membership, members chose to renewed on their own, or they added more members.

Even with the “good” news that membership had stayed flat, there continues to be a growing concern at SHRM about longer term issues that could impact the organization’s stability.

Marketing SHRM is a challenge

SHRM is well known among HR and other talent professionals, so you’d think attraction would be much easier. But even with name recognition and recent TV spots, SHRM hasn’t hit the year-over-year growth spurts of years past. Other HR and business organizations compete for their most highly prized members (C-Suite human resource professionals in Fortune 1000 companies) especially in the top metropolitan areas of the country. Even local SHRM chapters don’t necessarily require national SHRM membership, so there is some cannibalization there.

Recently, the organization trotted out a more word-of-mouth approach according to Pamela Green, Chief Membership Officer for SHRM. The promotion called “Member get a Member” awards current SHRM members for recruiting friends and colleagues to the organization with a $10 gift card. While Green didn’t expect a large spike in new members, she said it was a way to reward their best source for new members: other members.

Uncertainty about legacy members

While SHRM has relied heavily on legacy members (those with 10 years or more in the organization), there are whispers of uncertainty as to how long they can continue to do that. Many of those members are near or at retirement age. While the recession may have put some of those plans on hold, there is concern about the other shoe dropping. SHRM puts much of its organizational weight on the thousands of volunteer leaders throughout the world. Replacing a legacy member in a leadership role is a lot different than replacing shorter term memberships.

According to Green, SHRM has encouraged local chapters to push mentor programs and they have seen positive results from that. Still, even with mentor programs, a large scale movement of legacy members to retirement could leave weaker local chapters even more crippled.

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The fickle youth

I asked Green about how SHRM is reaching out to future leaders of their organization. Based on my experience, there was no student SHRM chapter and there was no outreach done to me as a young HR professional. That made it difficult for me, both to commit to SHRM and to commit to the profession.

“That’s the million dollar question,” laughed Green. She talked about some of the outreach efforts they’ve been doing with young professionals in the Washington, DC area to give local SHRM chapters a framework for reaching those fickle folks in the under 35 category.

What is known from outside observation is that much of SHRM’s base of volunteer leaders and reliable members aren’t in that under 35 category. Given the template of other associations, recruiting younger folks into the organization is no picnic. Even if SHRM is simply looking to replace retiring members, they will have to recruit anywhere from two to five times the number of members they lose to even maintain their membership.

As SHRM continues into the next decade, it will be interesting to monitor how it continues to respond to membership challenges it faces. I’ll be looking personally at how they answer the question of bringing new leaders into the organization.


11 Comments on “SHRM Membership Numbers Raise Mixed Concerns

  1. Lance,

    Good points.

    A couple things to mention:
    1. The gap between “at-large” members and chapter members continues to grow. More than 2/3 of SHRM members do not belong to a professional chapter. It becomes that much tougher to find SHRM volunteer leaders when they are not joining the chapter.

    2. The economy has put a strain on those choosing to volunteer. The time demands of their actual job mean fewer and fewer are willing to step up and take a leadership role.

    Even the SHRM volunteer leader is a dying breed. I hear from more and more

  2. This is interesting. What could SHRM do to make the volunteer experience more rewarding? Was being a volunteer more rewarding in the past and now it has changed?

  3. I think there are two reasons. 1) The role of the volunteer has become more time consuming. In part because of 2) Everyone is looking for something different. Why one person gets involved is different than someone else so the definition of value changes. It's hard to be all things to all people.

  4. Good point Matthew. I wonder if name recognition and national advertising has given SHRM a higher membership number but a new group of folks that are significantly less engaged on the local level? That would make those legacy folks at local and regional chapters that much more critical. That or SHRM is going to have to rethink how they cultivate national volunteer leaders to get the best and the brightest.

  5. I've always questioned exactly what the spending on an national advertising & marketing campaign really does for SHRM. I'd be surprised to hear that it really has done much for their membership numbers.

    What would be really interesting is to find out how many volunteers SHRM had for San Diego 2010 vs. San Diego 2005. The SHRM annual conference really runs on volunteers, and the numbers really vary from city to city. Still, I think you could get some good information comparing the number of volunteers from the last two San Diego conferences since they were relatively close together and drawing from the same volunteer pool. It's an apples-to-apples comparison that might tell you something about the state of volunteerism in SHRM.

  6. I have been wondering recently if SHRM is dealing with a new and developing form of competition, outside of the effects of the economy. I wonder if they are “losing” the battle for membership dollars to organizations like ERE, or conferences such as HRevolution, which offer a more personal and customized type of learning and development opportunity.

  7. Great post Lance !! I think that SHRM is something to still be “proud of” because too many Associations don't have a true professional representation as SHRM does. They are fairly effective as a political voice for the profession and for employees.

    I agree with your points and the issue continues to be engagement. SHRM feels they “engage” as long as you follow the parameters of their system. It's good to have structure, but it rarely gives a volunteer a personal attachment with the “just because” approach. “You should volunteer . . . just because.”

    There is a social community shift that SHRM talks about, but is only taking baby steps in. There are more and more grass roots HR leadership movements (i.e. HRevolution) as well as a Social Community where HR people are engaging each other and moving the profession forward. It stuns me that you still can't get the e-mail addresses of fellow HR professionals who are fellow members.

    We are striving to become businesspeople who practice HR more than HR professionals only. SHRM recognizes this, but could leverage it as well to be on the Next Practices stage vs. trying to continue with the same model.

  8. I think it is worth keeping in mind that many and probably most associations are facing the same problem: how to attract, retain, and engage Gen Y. Just like the Rotary Club and other fraternal organizations have declined over the decades, so too might associations like SHRM unless they find a way of transforming so they are relevant to a generation which doesn't need to read magazines or attend conferences in order to gain knowledge.

  9. Lance,
    This is some good perspective. The organization provides, in my opinion, some excellent pragmatic educational opportunities that help drive the discipline, and in my recent experience at SHRM San Diego, I observed plenty of more aggressive and forward-thinking sessions that seemed to be oriented toward moving the discipline in the appropriate direction. (More of my thoughts on that here:…)

    That said, I would agree with the need to evaluate the current demo and the shifting landscape that workforce professionals are facing. Consider, for instance, the Twitter traffic for “recruiting” ( The term consistently garners a .01% share of all traffic, which is actually quite significant if it is considered in context against one of the more active big brands on Twitter, Ford ( Clearly, the recruiting discipline is being significantly impacted by the availability and growing ubiquity of evolving digital communications.

    There is opportunity here for SHRM to embrace such trends and add to its ranks Generation Y and the Millennials who will have grown up with these tools. Competition for this audience is perhaps more fierce than ever before; they are much more likely to immerse themselves in Web 2.0 learning organizations rather than dedicate their educational opportunities around a single discipline. It will be interesting to see how things shape up for SHRM.

    Joel Capperella,

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