The term membership organization can be applied to any group, club, association, or other organization for which explicit procedures, criteria or processes of recognizing or designating members are in effect. In a certain sense, of course, all human organizations are membership organizations in that they involve two or more participants. However, the qualifying term membership is usually reserved for those organizations that enforce additional conditions upon participation (e.g., joining, initiation rites, dues, membership requirements or qualifications, for example.)
Ordinarily, crowds, audiences, and families of origin, are not considered membership organizations, even when - as in the case of audiences - explicit conditions (e.g. ticket purchases) are set for participation. Religious organizations are often a marginal type - many religious organizations are multigenerational and one can be (involuntarily) born into membership in the organization. Nevertheless, in such cases, membership can be highlighted with rites of passage such as baptism, confirmation, first communion, Bar (and Bat) Mitzvah ceremonies, and other similar occasions offering varying levels of membership choice.
Conditions of membership
Membership in an organization may be conditional upon election, in which existing members decide upon the admission of new members who are then invited to join and in turn may qualify, immediately or at a later date, as electors of still other new members. Election to membership as a representative by an electorate to a legislative, congressional or parliamentary seat is a special case of such election.
Under the assumption that such organizations are self-governing, organizations have wide latitude in defining and enforcing their own precise conditions of membership, subject only to broad provisions of tax, contract, and other law. For example, in business corporations, a distinct type of membership is associated with stock ownership and voting rights (a common membership characteristic) are apportioned on a proportionate basis to the value of stock owned. In many civil society organizations, particularly those with strong commitments to democracy, principles of "one person, one vote" are more likely to be the rule.
In some membership organizations, membership is fully the exclusive choice of the prospective member, with the organization accepting anyone willing to join. In such choices, willingness to pay membership dues is often a primary criterion of membership, although other conditions, such as willingness to participate or to work on behalf of the organization may also be de facto conditions of membership.
In other cases, minimal membership criteria may be established. For example, anyone over the age of 55 holding citizenship or residing in the U.S. is eligible to join AARP, the American Association of Retired Persons, and millions have merely by sending in their dues.
In theory, many organizations invite new members to join, and in reality some do operate this way. Phi Beta Kappa, for example, is the oldest scholarly society in the U.S. and membership is extended only by invitation. College fraternities and sororities customarily extend invitations to prospective members, who then become pledges expressing their interest in joining the organization. Following a period of provisional or probationary membership and initiation rituals and a vote by the full, active membership, pledges may be accepted into full membership.
Some membership organizations operate with multiple levels of membership. In many instances, The must rudimentary form of this is the distinction between regular, or ordinary, members and member-elected trustees or board members. Within Citizendium organization, a three-level hierarchy of this type exists in the distinction of authors, editors and constables. In many organizations, Perhaps the most elaborate form of this are organizations of the Masonic rite, which are said to have at least 33 degrees of membership distinction. Many organizations develop a membership through the developmental efforts of a small, core group of founders. Religious and social movements typically develop in this way.
Advantages of membership
Established conditions or qualifications of membership often do not explain why someone might wish to join an organization. For this, we often have to look to the advantages, benefits, or in contemporary argot "perks" of membership. Identifying or expanding member benefits is a major consideration in many types of new and start-up organizations.
Financial advantage or gain, for example, may be a major member benefit in numerous types of organizations. Members of professional or trade associations may signal their suitability or expertise in this way. Thus, physicians, lawyers, accountants, realtors and members of numerous other professions and occupations may indicate their qualifications (and gain paying patients, clients and customers) in this way. At the same time, occupationally based membership organizations may also act to limit or regulate competition through this same avenue. This aspect of medieval guilds has been well-documented, for example.
Status and power are other widely perceived member benefits dispensed by certain types of membership organizations. Social clubs, fraternal organizations, country clubs, and hunt clubs are just some of the many different types of membership organizations that dispense high or elite social status as member benefits. In most cases, gains in power resulting from membership result from the social capital, trust and networks of relations that grow out of membership. It was this type of organization Groucho Marx pointed to with his famous quip: "I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member!"