Commentary: Everything Comes At A Price That Must Be Paid

Just Say No to Dues.

This definitive command to abandon a revenue stream topped the Tip Sheet of a March 2021 PTO Today blog. “It’s much better to let everyone know (widely, loudly, and repeatedly) that “parents and guardians of students at our school are all automatically members of our PTO” penned Tim Sullivan.

Automatic inclusion is aspirational. When you commune with people, you seek and deserve an unhindered ability to belong. Is it possible that once you belong you also connect into collective responsibility? I believe the right to experience the emotional need of acceptance is accompanied by equally distributed duties. Within our sector, belonging is undergirded by formal structures such as defined visions, missions, and activities, which are at jeopardy.

Belonging, like every right granted in America, comes at a cost. You can cancel dues. You can cancel membership fees. You can cancel annual organizational assessments.

You can’t cancel the costs associated with belonging. You can’t cancel the costs related to mission advancement. You can’t cancel the costs linked to the exchange of goods and services. To be or do anything in America requires access to coins. Cash moves, motivates, and manipulates every aspiration. 

Cancel culture has come to either awfully trash or positively transform the sector’s enduring love-hate relationship with money. Successful organizations often applaud accomplishments in annual reports, only made possible by riches and wealth while, all the while, signaling disgust with pay inequity and unresolved remnants of slavery which undeniably influences who has what to give and which contributors are most likely to belong.

“Cancellation is one of the most contested issues of the decade,” asserted Kian Bakhtiari, a contributor to Forbes. “What’s more, this is likely to be the start of an enduring battle to maintain or reshape the prevailing narrative through which we live our lives.”

“To better understand how the U.S. public views the concept of cancel culture, Pew Research Center asked Americans in September 2020 to share — in their own words — what they think the term means.” Some 49% of Americans familiar with “cancel culture” described it as actions people take to hold others accountable.

In more literal terms, the belief in accountability which formed purpose and popularity in 2016 on social media platforms now influences broader behavior to halt harmful practices. Nonprofit leaders and association members are starting to hold traditional business models, including annual membership dues, liable for inequity.

“The Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE) Operations Committee unanimously approved a shift to a sliding scale membership dues structure. With this new structure, members will self-select a membership dues amount based on income.” According to an April 1, 2020 announcement, “No proof of income or any other aspect of one’s status is required to select the membership rate that best represents your ability to pay.” 

The once balanced and equal concept of everyone with a desire to join pays the same set amount is now deemed hurtful to those with varying financial circumstances. For ATHE, individuals with incomes less than $75,000 are expected to pay annual dues of $75, while individuals earning more than $150,000 have an obligation of $295.

ATHE shares the shift is rooted in the “consideration of ability to pay and a logic of solidarity, as part of an ongoing effort to increase economic accessibility for current and future ATHE members.” This model doesn’t say no to dues, but it does cancel the traditional concept of sustaining an organization. 

Dues are also being canceled for institutions. In May 2018, The Hampshire Council of Governments (HCG) reduced annual membership dues to $1 in hopes of attracting more municipalities to join. “Reducing the HCG membership dues to $1 removes the financial barrier to participation,” remarked Todd Ford, executive director. Today, HCG is defunct and dissolved. 

Every decision has a tradeoff and carries the possibility of an unintended consequence. You certainly can cancel dues but weigh the decision against the probability of organizational death. Before you break up with the Benjamins, consider these three questions prior to the division of the dollars: 

* How will you pay expenses? Moral principles must coexist with sound business practice. Your core operating financial responsibilities such as rent and salaries, along with your non-operating costs of taxes must be paid. Build a diversified base of revenue that is not solely contingent upon dues. Monetize your strengths. Take goods and services to market. Remain less reliant on contributed income.

 * How will you form and maintain worth? People pay for what they value. Everyone wants to belong in places and spaces of benefit. The activities which form affinity come with a cost. Buy-in is hard to build without an economic exchange. Once you craft diversified sources of revenue, extend value beyond money. Don’t discount the unavoidable importance of dollars.

* How will you manage your love-hate relationship with money? Just like finances, you must reconcile the competing characteristics of currency. An attempt to be fair to one, can be unfair to another. A resolve to eliminate harm for an individual can unknowingly result in the demise of an institution. Challenge your thinking. Explore if a wrong can ever be right. Diversify your revenue, define a value proposition, and mitigate against the right decision which might yield the wrong outcome. 

The future can and must be more equitable. Elimination or reduction of dues will not create a culture that understands and values the needs of people from varying socio-economic backgrounds. Failure to pay might or might not be linked to financial ability. The financial model of the future must freely reduce power and privileges without discrediting the importance of money.


Tycely Williams, CFRE, is chief development officer of the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C.