Closely Affiliated

COVID-19 pushed associations to look at affiliate members in a new light.

By Sarah Rayne, RCE, AHWD, E-PRO, C2EX

When association offices across the country temporarily closed their doors in March 2020, the primary concern for association executives was obviously the safety of their staff and their members. Coming in at a close second was ensuring the relevancy of the association through continued membership benefits. How, they asked, do we maintain the same level of service to our members during a pandemic?

In terms of value, the affiliate membership class has taken the hardest hit. How do we replace or recreate the value of an in-person networking event when, for a period of time, we couldn’t legally gather in large groups? Even after restrictions were lifted, some members were (and still are) uncomfortable with in-person meetings.

Leaning on Technology

Many associations have leaned heavily on modern technology to maintain the value of the affiliate membership.

Marty Manion, RCE, CEO of the Naples Area Board of REALTORS® in Naples, Fla., says he and his team wanted to find a way to replace the face time that their affiliates got from pre-COVID-19 in-person events. The board of roughly 7,500 members, 260 of which are affiliates, has started offering each affiliate a custom promotional video that is produced in-house by an on-staff videographer.

“We had to figure out how to give something tangible to our affiliates when they couldn’t [network] at a meeting of 300 to 500 people,” Manion says. “We already had a videographer on staff, so it made sense to start offering our affiliates a short video, which we can push out to our REALTORS® and the affiliates can use to promote themselves anywhere else they’d like.”

The Howard County Association of REALTORS® in Columbia, Md., which uses the term “preferred partners” instead of affiliates, rebuilt its website last year and added an easily navigable preferred partner directory as a resource for its roughly 2,000 REALTOR® members and as a new benefit for its 160 preferred partners.

“We wanted to make sure our preferred partners had a place on our new website where they could still connect with REALTORS®, despite the temporary absence of in-person opportunities,” says HCAR CEO Jessica Coates, RCE. “We promote the directory heavily to our REALTORS® as a go-to resource when they need service providers.”

Pink, Blue & Yellow interconnecting circles with a person in each

© Artur Debat / Moment / Getty Images

Changing the Label

The shift from the name “affiliate” has become increasingly common as associations seek out ways to add member value.

“We wanted to better define HCAR’s relationship with its affiliates, while also relaying to our affiliates that they are valued members of our association,” Coates says. “We went through the lengthy process of changing our bylaws, as well as all of our internal and external marketing and other materials, to reflect the new name. It was well worth the effort, given the support we receive from our preferred partner members.”

Debbie Ashbrook, CEO of the Central Panhandle Association of REALTORS® in Florida, says her association shifted to the title “power partners.”

“They are true partners, and we wanted them to feel more special than just being called an affiliate,” Ashbrook says. “We wanted to elevate them because they are powerful in our association.”

A New Service Structure

The Northern Virginia Association of REALTORS®, which has about 13,000 members, also refers to its affiliates by a different name: “service providers.” NVAR is working to enhance value for its 300 service providers through an expanded onboarding experience and integration with its benefits access structure, which it calls “Shop REALTOR®.”

According to NVAR, it has reframed its products and services to create ease of access in a way that better aligns with the way REALTORS® do business. The products and services are split into two categories and eight subcategories. NVAR service providers are integrated into this model via personalized webpages that fall under one or more of the subcategories. For example, on the business marketing page, a REALTOR® will find not only helpful information and tools, but also NVAR service provider members who can help with marketing.

NVAR’s newly enhanced onboarding services will include a new service provider hub, a customized welcome video, a series of welcome emails, and monthly e-newsletters specifically designed for service providers.

“Our goal is to enrich the experience of the new service provider members as they are welcomed into the NVAR family, while adding value through an increased online presence designed to generate more connections with members and their spheres of influence,” says Ann Gutkin, RCE, NVAR’s vice president of communications.

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Traditional Benefits

Although not specifically tied to the pandemic, associations have continued to offer more traditional affiliate membership services, as permitted by government mandates and the comfort level of their boards of directors.

Ashbrook says CPAR offers an annual Power Partner Meet & Greet, consisting of association staff and power partners only. The event is a mixer with ample networking opportunities, as well as an educational opportunity for power partners and a fundraising opportunity for the association. Ashbrook gives a presentation at these events that clearly explains the purpose of a REALTOR® association, the value of legislative advocacy, and the importance of interacting with REALTORS® at events.

“I teach them how to work an event,” she says. “It’s not enough for the power partners to set up a table at our event and wait for the REALTORS® to walk up to the table. I teach them how to interact with members.”

Also during this event, which CPAR holds annually in early November, Ashbrook provides the power partners with a complete list of all sponsorship opportunities for the coming year. Power partners can sign up on the spot to sponsor these events and classes, thus locking in CPAR’s sponsorship income for almost the entire year.

“These opportunities are available first to the power partners who attend that event,” Ashbrook says. “We raise well over $100,000 every year in sponsorship money at that event alone.”

At the Prince George’s County Association of REALTORS® in Landover, Md., the association’s 81 affiliate members are also able to secure exposure to REALTORS® through an affordable, multilevel sponsorship program. PGCAR CEO Mike Graziano says the program was founded out of the frustration of needing to solicit for affiliate sponsors for every individual event.

“We were going to the well for every single event and continually asking our affiliates for support,” Graziano says. “We started this program, and we’ve offered varying levels of sponsorship so it’s affordable for the individual lender who is paying out of pocket for [marketing].”

Sara Waskuch, AE of the Lamoille Area Board of REALTORS® in Stowe, Vt., says her membership of 148 REALTORS® and 48 affiliates sees a lot of value in the association’s biannual buyer’s guide, a publication distributed to brokerages and other local businesses. The publication, she said, is an opportunity for affiliates to advertise their services and for REALTORS® to advertise their listings.

“The REALTORS® buy ads for their higher-priced listings as a service for their clients,” Waskuch says, adding that affiliates see value in being able to reach second-home owners who are not familiar with the area and need service providers.

Affiliate Memberships From 1874 to 2022

Why is so much effort put into maintaining and boosting the value of the affiliate membership when affiliates only pay a fraction of the dues paid by REALTORS®? Perhaps it is partly because the affiliate membership class has been a standard practice for local real estate associations since at least the 1870s, predating the founding of the National Association of Real Estate Exchanges, now the National Association of REALTORS®.

Frederik Heller, director of library operations for NAR, says that in the 1892 proceedings of the national association, there is a brief mention from one of the local associations stating it had “associate members” in place since 1874, and the model board bylaws in the same proceedings recommend an associate membership class to accommodate anyone not directly involved in real estate brokerage.

“Throughout history, local boards have sought to include not just real estate professionals, but anyone whose business interests align with the mission of the REALTOR® association,” Heller says, adding that the terms “affiliate member” and “associate member” were interchangeable to describe this class of membership until the 1970s.

In his 1925 manual for AEs, Herbert U. Nelson, NAR’s executive vice president from 1922 to 1955, wrote about affiliates: “In such activities as legislation and taxation, the interest and help of influential men is desirable.”

“In addition to added dues revenue, affiliate membership was seen as a way to foster goodwill in the local business community, educate business professionals and consumers, and build stronger membership and advocacy bases for the REALTOR® board,” Heller says.

The same holds true today, as many local REALTOR® associations rely heavily on affiliate support to offer maximum value and quality programming and events to REALTORS®.

Coates says HCAR’s preferred partners are dedicated volunteers and leaders. In fact, three preferred partners currently sit on the board of directors, which is an affiliate membership benefit that not all associations offer to this membership class.

“Our preferred partner board members, and really all of our preferred partners, provide HCAR with invaluable input and support,” she adds.

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