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Exit and Participation: Responses to Declining Membership in Small Civil Society Organizations


EXIT AND PARTICIPATION: RESPONSES TO DECLINING MEMBERSHIP IN SMALL CIVIL SOCIETY ORGANIZATIONS

Roger R. Betancourt

In a classic work titled ‘Exit, Voice and Loyalty: Responses To Declining Membership in Firms, Organizations and States’, Albert O. Hirschman suggested that there was a third factor linking exit (leaving the firm organization or state) to voice (acting in a number of ways to improve the situation). That is, loyalty is a mechanism that affects both alternatives. This work underlies analysis of a number of social science phenomena affecting large firms, organizations and states. It attracts support, critiques and, thus, controversy. Brian Barry’s review in the British Journal of Political Science (A review of Exit Voice and Loyalty, BJPS 1974 Volume 4(1) p.79-107.) is quite insightful outlining its merits and demerits. Among the main demerits are that exit and voice need not be mutually exclusive alternatives. For instance, when applied to migration exit is hard to reconcile with return migration or sending of remittances. Both of which can be viewed as mechanisms to exercise voice induced by either loyalty to country and/or family. Similarly, loyalty or its lack can manifest themselves in more than one way, e.g., silent disapproval or denouncing disapproval at various decibel levels. In applying these concepts to large firms, organizations or states, as in Hirschman’s analyses, issues that affect collective action by individuals can play a dominant role and the difficulty in addressing them often underlies controversies.

In applying these concepts to small membership organizations such as many civil society organizations, collective action issues play a much smaller role for two reasons. The costs of collective action for individual members are smaller due to the smaller size of the organization and the benefits to individual members are more concentrated on them than in larger settings due to the narrower focus of the objectives. That is, members by joining signal agreement on a much narrower set of objectives. Furthermore, in these settings it becomes easier to address one of the major shortcomings in Hirschman analysis, at least at the conceptual level. That is, the criticism that his basic definitional categories are not mutually exclusive is easy to address conceptually and in practice as I illustrate below using the Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy (ASCE) as an example.

In the case of a civil society organization such as ASCE, exit means not paying your membership dues in any given year and that is a clear-cut category. If you do so one year, you are a member and entitled to the benefits of membership; if you fail to pay dues one year, you are not a member and not entitled to those benefits that year. How about the other two categories: Voice and Loyalty. The distinctions within and between those two concepts in Hirschman’s analysis are slippery and what makes his framework difficult to use or apply. In the context of small civil society organizations with well- defined narrow objectives such as ASCE, however, one can replace both by a single concept: Participation. Hence, we can think of a dichotomy. Exit and Participation. Either you are a member or you are not. If you are a member that entitles you to participate in various ways. The latter takes various forms that correspond to various levels of intensity of participation. If described from less active or passive to more active or intensive, for example, it can have numerical values reflecting an ordinal scale of the degree of activity.

In ASCE’s case, for example, it would range as follows: 0) doing nothing other than paying dues. 1) News-clippings reading sometime (1.1) blog postings reading sometime (1.2); webinar listening sometime (1.3). 2) Voting every two years. 3) Attending the annual conference once a year, 3.1) participating in the annual conference as a (3.1) discussant, (3.2) paper presenter or (3.3) session organizer. 4A) Participating in ASCE’s blog by (4.A1) commenting on a post, or (4.A2) writing a post, or (4.A3) editing the blog. 4B) Participating in a webinar as a presenter (4.B1) organizer (4.B2). 5) Being a member of an ASCE Committee (5.1) Temporary or (5.2) Standing. 6) Being Chair of a Committee (6.1) Temporary or (6.2) Standing. 7) Being an ASCE Board member. 8) Being an ASCE Executive Officer.  While there can be differences of opinion on the intensity of activity involved (or its non-monetary reward) between the 8 adjacent scales or even within scales, the ordinal point is clear. Moreover, one can use a simple metric such as time employed in an activity to assess intensity of participation or the nature of non-monetary rewards to resolve differences of opinion if you want to go into that level of detail, which I find unattractive at this point. Incidentally, if one were to ask – why would anyone pay dues in a year and opt for a 0 level of participation? Most economists would answer that there is an option value of being eligible to participate in the other 8 levels of activity as a member.

This conceptualization is useful to understand the nature of ASCE’s membership and the role of participation in different activities in their attractiveness to its members.  It is also useful to clarify what attracts different members to ASCE in facing current and future challenges. Our membership consists of accomplished professionals falling in three broad categories. Those who specialize on Cuba as their main specialty or one of a couple primary specialties. Those who specialize in other areas as their main specialties but think their professional expertise can contribute to understanding some aspects of Cuba’s past, present or future. Finally, those who have no professional interest on Cuba per se but have intellectual curiosity about the island for a broad variety of personal reasons, including some wiling to contribute their non-Cuba professional expertise to the functioning of the Association. This implies that the costs and benefits of exit and participation vary widely among the three types of members. Exit is simple. You lose the benefits of participation and you gain the savings in membership cost. Participation is more complicated as there are many different ways to participate as indicated above, entailing different costs and benefits for each of the three different types of members.

To conclude, understanding the nature of its membership might also help ASCE think about how it incorporates virtual technology into its activities, which is likely to be a necessity due to the permanent impact of the pandemic on society’s way of life. Namely, what benefits would different forms of virtual technology participation provide to different types of members? A useful starting point might be to ask them –Where would they place different virtual activities in the scale provided above? For example, would it attract their participation adding to the scale above as item 4C) virtual technology activities other than webinars (4.C1) Participating as interviewee, (4.C2) as interviewer, (4.C3) as panelist (4.C4) as panel organizer, (4.C5) as virtual technology activities organizer. It is also implicit that there would have to be members and a Chair of a Virtual Technology Standing Committee supporting these activities, just as there is now for the Annual Conference program.

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