Motivating members

The BSA published a report into member engagement at building societies earlier this year. This blog adds to this by summarising research from behavioural sciences into what might motivate members to participate in the running of the building society that they own.

In May this year the BSA published a report into member engagement at building societies. This blog adds to this by summarising research from behavioural sciences into what might motivate members to participate in the running of the building society that they own. 

This summary is drawn from research and analysis in Finance in an Age of Austerity, by Johnston Birchall, Professor of Social Policy at Sterling University.

The BSA is also hosting a seminar in September where several societies will share what they are doing to support member engagement.

Enabling participation

Firstly, the member and their building society need the requisite resources and arrangements to enable participation.

The member needs to have the personal resources (eg time, money, confidence) ready to commit.

The building society needs to present issues that can be addressed by members, provide opportunities for their participation and make attempts to mobilise them to act.


With these in place, we can look at what might motivate a member to participate in the governance of a building society. The research suggests two types of motivation for a member.

Individualistic motivations are based on how much the member values what they get out of participating, net of any costs. The gains might be material factors like meeting other members or developing skills (eg on a member panel), but possibly more important are softer or more emotional gains such as a sense of achievement, enjoyment or satisfaction, or having one’s say. Participating can become a habit which encourages continued participation. Overall, the more benefits that people get from participating and the higher the value they place on these benefits, the more likely they are to participate.

Collectivistic motivations arise from the individual’s sense of being part of a group. This assumes participation can be motivated by three mutually reinforcing variables:
  • Shared goals: common needs translate into shared goals
  • Shared values: can lead to a sense of duty to participate
  • A sense of community: caring about people who are like them in some respect
The greater the presence of each of these variables, the more likely people are to participate.

Different types of participant

Within a building societies membership, there may be the following broad groups of members based on how active participants they are:

  • Campaigners: Highly committed and active, taking roles on panels and forums, seeking change and strongly proposing opinions.
  • Footsoldiers: Quite active, but offer general support rather than taking on roles.
  • Marginal participants: Relatively uncommitted and inactive, but with little collectivistic motivations. Would take little to make them stop participating (eg if felt disappointed, neglected or unfairly treated).
  • Unmotivated people: Perceive the costs of participating to be high and the gains low, and are likely to be negative about joining a group.
  • Marginal non-participants: Less negative and do not perceive costs of participating to be high, but currently lack strong positive motivations, but with the right encouragement could be persuaded.


Based on a study at co-operatives, the research suggests the following recommendations:

Reduce or offset the costs of participating: Convince non-participants that their costs will be met, and compensate the most active participants more generously

Help to develop a habit by making participation regular and predictable

Try to strengthen the collective incentives through developing
  • A sense of community, such as through events and conferences
  • Shared values by emphasising how the organisation’s values differentiate them from competitors
  • Shared goals by involving members in governance in a way that is clear about the limitations but that convinces members that their views will be taken into account.
Try to foster internal benefits to members, over material gains: Emphasise learning experiences, a sense of achievement, a chance to have their say, even enjoyment.

Develop the confidence of members to participate through education and training programmes

Encourage members to act via face-to-face recruitment methods, that is, through customer facing staff.