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Bracken Killpack: It’s Time to Have a Serious Conversation About Dues

"At the 2023 House of Delegates, our board and staff led a conversation about increasing sources of non-dues revenue in order to significantly reduce or possibly entirely offset revenues collected from state and component dues."
Bracken KillpackBracken Killpack
Executive Director, WSDA

In the 1830s, French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville toured the United States and, based upon that experience, penned one of the seminal works in political science, “Democracy in America.” The two-volume tome covered many topics, including the role that associations played in civil society in America. In that time, individuals joined associations out of financial or societal necessity — associations were literally life and death for communities because they were the insurance policy, safety net, fire department, and providers of other sustaining services.

As time has progressed and alternatives have arisen, associations in America are not as necessary and relevant as they used to be. Mutual aid societies and safety net resources powered by volunteers have been replaced by commercial products and government professionals. Furthermore, items that members most value from modern associations, such as advocacy on their behalf, are benefits that cannot be limited only to those who voluntarily pay membership dues. 

Organized dentistry is facing existential crises. The current dues model has been in slow decline for several decades. When I first started working at WSDA in the mid-2000s, we had a market share of around 80%; in 2022 our market share dropped below 62%. Unfortunately, our membership declines are accelerating. The market shares of both Seattle-King County Dental Society (WSDA’s largest component society) and the American Dental Association are 57%. Across the nation, there are now several states with market shares below 50%. WSDA and ADA will be there quickly if we maintain the status quo. 

In past years, conversations on this topic would inevitably lead to challenges to call non-members, to send them a perfectly worded email, or offer promotional discounts to compel them to join. There’s no doubt that these efforts have helped on the margins in the short run. However, tweaking the current model or simply “working harder” have not and will not address the systemic problem that we face. 

The current dues model is a relic of a different era. Our value proposition is effectively broken. Many view the cost of membership to be too expensive and increasingly cost prohibitive for the perceived value. We do not provide enough “must have” benefits and instead provide too many “nice to have” benefits. Being “nice to have” inevitably means that dues cost too much for many, especially when trying to make ends meet or when multiple alternatives, including inferior ones, are available. 

At the 2023 House of Delegates, our board and staff led a conversation about increasing sources of non-dues revenue in order to significantly reduce or possibly entirely offset revenues collected from state and component dues. This included a proposal to utilize the proceeds that WSDA Retro receives from the Department of Labor & Industries to decrease member dues instead of the administratively expensive process of issuing refund checks. We also proposed a new business venture that will provide exceptional value to dental practice owners. Taken together, these efforts provide a pathway to significantly reduce the dues cost for membership. 

Conversations about sources of non-dues revenue prompt some to think about product and service endorsements. We will not be able to fundamentally change our business model by only being a part of the marketing budget of companies that provide value to dentists. Instead, we will have to own and build these services ourselves and use the profits from these endeavors to fully fund the mission and priorities of organized dentistry. Not only can we achieve this objective, but we will be able to make investments at levels that exceed what is practical within the current membership model. 

Organized dentistry is facing its moonshot moment. We need to be bold and make big changes to remain viable in any semblance of what the organization has been in the past. We must break away from the current, failing model and build the 21st century equivalent of associations that our members cannot thrive without.  

We hope you will join us in making this vision a reality.

This article originally appeared in Issue 3, 2023 of the WSDA News magazine.