The psychology of belonging: lessons for professional membership organisations

Amy Nield By Amy Nield

Consider's Strategist Amy Nield and and Account Director Emily Leefe have joined forces to explore how offering a sense of belonging can be a powerful tool for membership organisations.

Tens of thousands of years ago, being part of a group was a simple matter of survival: if you had the protection of a community, you would have a greater chance of standing up to predators and passing on your genes.

As our society has evolved, so have many of our communities. But the impulse to belong to something larger than ourselves remains. And seeking a sense of belonging is an enormous part of what makes us human.

Membership organisations – particularly those connected to our professional identities – are a modern way of providing people this connection. The concept of ‘sense of belonging’ is a powerful psychological lever that member-centric organisations can use to strengthen the bond their members have with them – in particular, through social connection and inclusivity.

Create social connections

A sense of belonging can help make your members internalise the goals and motivations of other members, thereby helping them to think of themselves as part of a whole and really live your organisation’s values. But to get there, they need to feel socially connected to others in your organisation.

To start building this social connection, members need to engage in bonding and shaping their own community. This bonding should be enjoyable - social relationships are built through fun and humour, so don’t forget to provide opportunities for this to happen! Effective professional membership organisations will ensure that this isn’t a one-time thing, and as your membership grows you’ll need to provide opportunities for new members to come in and do the same. Fun events (physical or digital) for new or junior members will help create these bonds early on to help people build their own micro-communities within membership.

To ensure members feel as though they are part of a community, it’s important that they have multiple positive interactions with others. These interactions shouldn’t be random, but should be part of stable, long-lasting relationships that develop and are cultivated over time.

Professional networks are, by their nature, geared towards success, and so vulnerability may seem like an odd tactic. However, people bond over moments of vulnerability. By allowing members to share their challenges, opening themselves up to be vulnerable, and empowering them to help each other, you can build emotional bonds and foster a sense of belonging amongst members.

Talking about failure also opens people up to bonding over shared experiences. As humans we seek to find a sense of belonging in others, and are conditioned to provide the same back. A membership organisation looking to help its members bond will provide these opportunities, either through events, or giving their members the opportunity to share their experiences through mentoring or other professional networking.

Feeling included and valued

As with our hunter-gatherer days, being part of a group protects us when we experience a personal setback, as we can focus on our membership of a prestigious group as a whole, rather than on our own individual hurt. This is where the real psychological power of belonging to a professional membership organisation lies: when times are tough, members can protect themselves simply through their identity as part of a membership. So it’s important for membership organisations to use their comms to reinforce this identity as part of a larger professional body.

To do this, membership organisations should focus on inclusivity in your communications, don’t use alienating language or concepts, and take care to provide explanations for any specialist terminology or knowledge. Not doing this says to people who are newer to your profession, or those from non-traditional backgrounds that this information does not relate to them, and that they do not belong as a member.

Studies have shown that small nudges that reinforce being part of a group have lasting positive effects on helping people fulfil their potential, particularly for those who are minorities within that group. A membership organisation should look for small ways to regularly reinforce that a member is appreciated and an important member of their organisation.

In difficult times ahead for many, professional membership organisations have a key role to play in helping their members maintain a sense of belonging. By using some of these principles, you can help foster deeper and more meaningful relationships between your members, and their relationship to your organisation as a whole.

Amy Nield

Amy Nield

Senior Strategist

A pin sharp planner with a passion for people, Amy is a digital strategy expert with a range of big brand experience. They were named one of Campaign’s Faces to Watch in 2017 for their work with Digitas’s LGBT+ network and they’re fascinated by communities and conversation – we reckon you’ll enjoy chatting.