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The Value of a Membership Organization

As CEO of a non-profit Membership organization, I continually focus on what uniquely sets Merit apart. It’s essential that we understand our value proposition as we strive for success within a hyper-competitive environment. As one part of our mission we provide network services, acting as a communications provider. Because of this, sometimes people compare us to ISPs at a very basic level. Now and again, we’re asked to justify our per-bit fees, as we’re not always the lowest cost provider (though, many times, we are).


Networking involves significant physical plant infrastructure and requires foundational capital investments. The communications industry is all about geography, fiber routes and real capital investments. Where we’ve already built, costs are lower. Where we haven’t, startup costs are naturally higher. This is true for any network service provider. Regardless, we believe that Merit’s role as a Membership organization provides overall value that is important to our community, and should be viewed holistically rather than discretely.

According to Wikipedia, “Membership organizations typically have a particular purpose, which involves connecting people together around a particular profession, industry, activity, interest, mission or geographical location. This might simply be to encourage or facilitate interaction and collaboration, but it also often involves promoting and enhancing the purpose itself.”

Consistent with the Wikipedia definition, Merit’s mission involves “connecting organizations and building community.” Though many think of Merit as a networking organization, I believe that Merit is fundamentally a community-building organization that just happens to use networking and other technology services to help advance that mission. If there is a single thing that sets Membership organizations apart, I believe it is that we exist to make our community stronger and successful. As a non-profit member organization, we don’t extract value to transfer it to owners or shareholders as an overarching bottom-line goal. Instead, we endeavor to bring organizations together to collaborate, learn and experiment in a high-performance, flexible, private and secure environment—so they can become stronger as they work to advance society.

So, where specifically is Merit’s additional value? I challenged my team to answer this question recently, and after thoughtful review informed by myriad Member conversations across the state, here is what we believe sets us apart as a membership organization in a real way:
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  • Trust – Think of traditional technology vendors with whom you’ve worked in the past. Is trust the first thing that comes to mind? Is there real value in a trusted relationship? Has a lack of trust—a rather ethereal thing—caused real problems in the past?
  • Community (and now digital community) – Merit is known for convening community and furthering collaboration within that community. Last year, we launched a private social network called the Merit Commons. We believe that this will help develop an online community that will work together in-between face-to-face events. Can you think of any other providers that offer digital inclusion in an active and expert community as a fundamental benefit?
  • Superior network – Merit has been developing and running networks longer than nearly anyone else in Michigan (or in the nation, for that matter). We support demanding organizations like Michigan State University, University of Michigan and Wayne State University, among hundreds of others, as they experiment and push the boundaries of knowledge for the benefit of our shared community.
  • Hyper-local expert support – Our network operations center is staffed with expert Michigan citizens who understand the community’s needs. In fact, they consider themselves contributing members of that very community and have a personal stake in its success.
  • Cybersecurity – Merit strongly believes that we have an obligation to our non-profit community to not only deliver advanced network services… but also to do everything we can to improve security and to enhance the cyber knowledge within that community.

Whether we’re building an advanced network to ensure underserved communities can fully-participate in our 21st century digital society; or helping transfer large datasets so scientists can analyze them as they search for the cure to cancer; or bringing together cybersecurity professionals to share real-world defense techniques to protect their students; or implementing DDoS protection at our core to protect our community from global threats; or implementing a private social network where everyday collaboration can occur across the state, Merit strives to make our community stronger.

We will continue to assist our higher education, k-12, library, government, healthcare and public sector Members by providing networking, security and educational services that uphold free expression, promote positive learning opportunities, facilitate economic development and grow their individual organizations—for the next fifty years and beyond. That’s paramount for us, because we live, learn and work in that community—along with our Members—every day.

I invite your comments on what a Membership organization means to you.