The participation cost barrier of professional organizations — 2021 OA Week
Professional organizations provide invaluable access to peers, knowledge, and training. Membership in these societies is often required, or expected, by peers; serving on a committee a measure of prestige; presenting at their conferences a measure of validity. However, membership fees are often expensive, committee membership selective, and conferences unaffordable. Many of the United States’ most prominent professional organizations were formed “by white men for white men” and have struggled to change their culture and values to be more welcoming and inclusive. This has resulted in increased public debate, discussion, calls for action, and the creation of new organizations to supplement or replace organizations that are slow or resistant to address their own inequities.
Cost is one of the largest barriers facing participation in professional organizations and the events they sponsor. In my own profession, librarianship, it is not uncommon to see annual dues close to $100 and conference registrations over $400. These costs can be a significant expense for early career professionals, people who live far away from conference venues, who are in school or paying off student loans, have a high cost of living, and/or are people of color. While some members may have grants or an employer that can cover these costs, employees may have to pay out of pocket while waiting for reimbursement, have spending caps, or have inadequate funds to cover the full costs. Smaller, or less well-funded, organizations are also at a significant disadvantage and are often unable to provide adequate funding for professional development.
2021 Virtual Conference Registration Rates
Professional organizations that consider equity a core value often start with affordable fees because low participation cost barriers mean more members, greater attendance, and increased diversity in who can participate. Prioritizing an affordability goal also opens the door for further conversations about what the organization can do to increase equity, diversity, and inclusion within itself and the field. For example, when I chaired a sponsorship committee (e.g. fundraising) for a grassroots organization with a strong commitment to affordability, I was able to reframe the committee’s work from “asking for money” to “fighting inequity” because the sponsorship monies were primarily used to pay for conference overhead costs which reduced the cost of registration fees. This reframe did not change the committee's work but it changed the reason to do the work. It made it easier for committee members to talk about what we, as professionals, value and how to structure sponsorship opportunities that support and enforce those values.
Building equitable, inclusive, and diverse organizations requires a proactive approach to one's work, a willingness to have hard conversations, and to change. It also requires sacrifices. The professional organization I work most with is a non-profit with no full-time staff; it’s volunteer run and lead and is only successful because there is a dedicated leadership team. However, it’s also flexible and welcoming, in addition to being affordable. But perhaps the best part is that it’s sincere in wanting to support and advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion within its own ranks and within the field and this matters.
–Megan O’Donnell, Data Services Librarian and former chair and co-chair of the RDAP Sponsorship Action Committee