VUWLSS and VSM: Working With Voluntary Student Membership

This is a guest post by Ben Land-Maycock, the President of the Vic Uni Law Students’ Society. Unlike some of the other student associations who are trying to rort , has done exactly what all the student associations should do do – make sure you are providing value to your members. Ben’s post:

The Victoria University of Wellington Law Students’ Society (VUWLSS) exists to support and enhance the legal education of our members. We do this through a number of channels – representation and advocacy, organising educational and social activities, and running legal competitions.

The introduction of voluntary student membership (VSM) posed a significant challenge for our organisation – one that took weeks of thought to properly deconstruct, analyse and solve. We had to restructure our operations to ensure that we could continue to exist as a going-concern. But, despite the intensive workload, I believe VSM has been a good thing for our organisation.

Our pre-VSM structure leaned heavily on the Victoria University of Wellington Students’ Association (). In fact, 30% of our total revenue in 2011 was a grant from VUWSA from their membership levies. The remainder of our revenue comprised ticket sales (50%) and sponsorship (20%).

Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with this structure. It isn’t evil in and of itself. It certainly made life easier for Executives – as any large, guaranteed annual revenue stream would do. However, in my opinion, it didn’t incentivise accountability nor innovation – two factors I consider very important to all organisations.

Having an accountable organisation under this structure relied only on individual Executives agreeing to run the organisation accountably and responsibly. If they failed to, members had little recourse. They could choose not to come to our events, but their money would still finance our operations, through the VUWSA grant, as long as they remained at University.

Additionally, though I am incredibly proud of the achievements of past Executives, innovation relied solely on individual motivation. As an organisation, we didn’t have to innovate – revenue would flow in regardless.

Innovation and accountability should be incentivised. They should be necessary. For all its ease and security, our pre-VSM structure didn’t incentivise accountability to our members and innovation in our operations and opportunities to the extent that a proper structure should.

In 2012, by virtue of the introduction of VSM, VUWSA no longer charges a membership fee. For our purposes, this meant that the grant that formerly made up 30% of our total revenue was gone. We could apply for club funding through the University, but this was capped at $3,500.

We were now at a juncture. We could spend our time railing against the lost funding and not seize the opportunity to change our organisation for the better, or we could get busy coming up with a viable model for operating in the new environment. We chose the latter.

After considering a number of options, we moved to a tiered membership model. We will continue to, and should always, represent and advocate on behalf of all law students at Victoria University of Wellington. But we have also sliced out a tier of membership that if our members see real value in, they can choose to purchase. In 2012, $20 entitles you to a membership card that gets you discounts at business around the law school, cheaper entry into our events, and preferential ticket purchasing.

There is nothing revolutionary in how we have restructured. I’m no visionary and these are all very simple ideas and standard models of how other organisations currently function. But, the real change has been that our new model incentivises accountability and innovation where our previous one did not.

Our projected revenue for 2012 comprises: membership fees (40%), ticket sales (40%), and sponsorship (20%).

Importantly, our members now directly control 80% of our revenue. If the organisation is not run accountably, members can punish us – as they should be able to. It’s their money we’re spending after all. VUWLSS now either spends our members’ funds responsibly and valuably, or it dies. We exist to support and enhance the legal education of our members, and now they can actually properly hold us to account for that.

Finally, the post-VSM structure encourages us to be innovative as an organisation. We have to demonstrate real value to our members to earn their funds. Re-inventing the wheel annually isn’t going to cut it. This year alone we have launched a new website where we can retain institutional knowledge for our members, and expanded our activities in both the educational and social rubric. These were ideas that the new environment forced out of us, and not something it should apologise for. Innovative ideas and individuals will always exist in organisations. Our new structure, though, means that we are encouraged to find and support them.

VSM meant a summer of hard work. It took us out of our comfort zone. But VSM also provided the impetus for us to move to a model that extracted more out of us as an organisation. We have better empowered our members with control over our future and we will have to continue to offer them real value in supporting and enhancing their legal education. I think that is a reality to be welcomed.

VUWSA itself, and other student associations, should follow the lead of VUWLSS. By going for a zero fee, and scrounging off VUW, they are saying we do not wish our income to be linked to the quality of the services we provide to students.

I hope VUWLSS is successful, and that many law students join up as members if they do a good job.

UPDATE: One negative for VUWLSS though. A law student tells me that their constitution claims all law students are members, regardless of whether they pay to be “full” members. This is wrong, and I suspect illegal. I have another post coming on this practice. But still kudos on everything else they are doing.

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