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5 Steps For Continued Association Growth In A Changing Market

For most associations, 1946 to 2000 were standout years. With the active support of the baby boomers–the largest generation in American history–membership associations thrived. Yet, as the saying goes, what goes up must come down.

An excerpt from Sarah Sladek‘s “The End of Membership As We Know It?” article in the January 2012 issue of Association News.

For most associations, 1946 to 2000 were standout years. With the active support of the baby boomers–the largest generation in American history–membership associations thrived. Yet, as the saying goes, what goes up must come down.

Since 2000, associations have experienced a barrage of challenges that have weakened their position in the marketplace. Financial decline. Demographic shifts. Technology. All have played a role in the altered business environments associations now face.

However, with the right vision and structure in place, your organization can evolve and realize its full potential once again. Here’s 5 steps for how your association can flip its fortune:

Step 1: Find your focus

Why does your association exist? Define, with absolute clarity, your association’s reason for being and its niche. Don’t try to be everything to everyone–you’ll become diluted, lose value and shrink your membership. If you’re diligent about focus, your association will continue to be competitive, productive and successful.

Step 2: Set significant goals

It’s easy to set short-term goals. What you need to do is set a stretch goal–something with significance. Meet with your leadership team and discuss where you want to take your association (think 5 years from now). Allow the team time to mull over this question until there is an established goal that excites everyone. You want your team to be really inspired. Mediocre goals are simply not worth the effort.

Step 3: Make the most of marketing

If you want to sell more membership, you’ve got to know exactly who benefits from being a part of your association and their motives behind their membership. Only with that information can you then begin marketing. Marketing success relies on a 4-step process:

  1. Determine what differentiates you from the competition. Survey members and request feedback from your membership sales team. What do your current members really like about your association? Why did they choose to join? Compile the answers, then use it to determine which three aspects of the association your members value most.
  2. Determine your guarantee. An example is Domino’s Pizza, which guarantees 30-minute delivery or your order is free. Meet with your leadership team and list what you believe to be the biggest frustrations, fears and worries of your members. List all possible guarantees you’d be willing to offer to put their concerns at ease.
  3. Identify your core benefits. What you offer is a critical selling tool. You must add value. Provide potential members ample information on what they will gain from these nenefits and include member testimonials or measurable data (such as 60% of our members observed an increase in business”) whenever possible.
  4. Determine your target market. These are your ideal members, the ones most likely to value a membership in your association. Put a lot of thought into your target market and develop a list based on members’ key characteristics: geography, industry, title, age range, etc. Then, develop a list of prospects within your target and start the relationship-building process.

Step 4: Troubleshooting

Here’s where you identify your association’s obstacles to growth. Do you need to introduce new technology or membership models? Should you target a younger audience? Whatever the case, your goal here is to eliminate negative influences and focus on your association’s potential.

Ask your team to identify obstacles the association is likely to face on the road to achieving its goals. List your challenges then whittle it down to your top three. Discuss what the real problem is behind your challenges. If you have an aging membership or declining revenues, it’s for a reason. Pinpoint what they are and then discuss possible solutions for resolving those challenges.

Step 5: Target your progress

After all the strategy, it’s time for plan implementation. Here’s how to implement a growth-oriented strategic plan:

  1. Set a 1-year goal. Meet with your team and determine the following goals for the association to achieve within the next year: a retnetion goal, a recruiting goal, a revenue goal and a profit goal.
  2. Set priorities. Revisit your 5-year goal (step 2). Decide on between 3 and 7 priorities that must be completed this year in order for your association to be on track with your 5-year goal.
  3. Set 90-day targets. Break the year into quarters with 90-day targets focused on the implementation of your priorities. Breaking down goals makes progress more manageable and possible.

It may be that we are in a period that is the end of membership as we know it, but that doesn’t have to mean it’s the end of your association. Now is the time to look at the best ways to flip the future of your organization and build a revenue-generation, membership-making machine.

Zs came of age in an era of disruption

In many ways, it’s symbolic that Generation Z is named after the last letter in the alphabet because their arrival marks the end of clearly defined roles, traditions, and experiences. After all, Gen Z is coming of age on the heels of what has been referred to as the most disruptive decade of the last century. America has become an increasingly changing and complex place.

For example:

  • ‍Zs were born into a “modern family era” in which highly involved dads help out at home, and the nuclear family model (two parents, married, with children) represent only 46% of American households.
  • ‍Zs are the first generation to be born into a world where everything physical, from people to places to pennies, has a digital equivalent.
  • From the time they were infants, Zs had access to mobile technology. As a result, their brains have been trained to absorb large amounts of information, and Zs are especially adept at shifting between skills and subject matter.
  • Zs tend to have crystal-clear memories of sitting up for the first time at six months old because they can easily and quickly reference the photos and videos their parents shared on social media or saved in the “cloud”. 

Members of this generation have undoubtedly been shaped by crisis and disruption. This generation will largely be responsible for confronting the aftermath of the Great Recession, high youth unemployment, the effects of climate change, terrorism, energy sustainability, and more. These dark events have undoubtedly made this generation more cautious and pragmatic, but they have also provided this generation with the inspiration to change the world – and their grit will likely allow them to do it.

Coming of age during disruption means that most Zs will be comfortable being the disruptors. While Millennials tend to be collaborative and innovative, this generation tends to be sincere, reflective, thick-skinned, and self-directed, and will likely approach work in much the same way.

Zs were raised to be competitive

In the era following World War II, Boomers (1946-1964) were born and eventually became the wealthiest, most prosperous generation in history. Raised to aspire for the American Dream, this very large generation moved into positions of power and influence, and served as the workforce majority for 34 years.

With the American Dream alive and well, Boomers had no reason to teach their children, mostly Millennials, about competition. Instead, they taught them to focus on academic achievement and to be team players because if everyone works hard, everyone can win.

Enter Generation X (1965-1981). In contrast Boomers, Xers came of age during a time when change and economic and political uncertainty began to take root. They have lived through four recessions, struggled with debt and economic decline most of their lives, and watched the best educated and accomplished generation of all time (Millennials) graduate during the Great Recession and become the most debt-ridden generation in history.

Gen Xers can be defined by their independence and anti-status quo approach to life, and they have taught their Gen Z children to be competitive, believing only the best can win. They have encouraged their children to be realists, finding something they are good at and aggressively pursuing it.

Xers have raised their Zs with an intense focus on competitiveness -- in academics, sports, and other activities. This approach to parenting has many implications, but one stands out in terms of business: Gen Z is likely to lead.

Millennials in the workplace created and aggressively advocated for collaborative work environments. In fact, their aversion to leadership has been so strong, some Millennials sought out companies that boasted boss-free or team-managed workplaces.

In contrast, Zs have been raised with an individualistic, realistic, and competitive nature. They have been taught the skills to successfully defy the norm. This means we’re going to see the pendulum shift away from collaborative workplaces towards a widespread demand for, and pursuit of, leadership development.

Zs are career-focused.

While Millennials have been criticized for their “delayed adulthood”, Gen Z is showing signs of “early adulthood”. Educators and parents often describe this generation as being more serious and contemplative about the world. Zs are thinking about their career paths and exposing themselves to career training at an earlier age than Millennials. It’s probable that some of this early onset of adulthood is caused by parents, who are pressuring their children to be competitive and successful and to avoid the debt that plagued both the Gen Xers and Millennials.

The numbers from our global research found 46% of Gen Z said they know what career to pursue and 51% have taken a class at school focused on their career interests. Forty percent joined an extracurricular program (team, club) based on their career interests.

Zs are seeking financial security. 

Zs have been shaped by the aftermath of the Great Recession. They watched Millennials become debt-ridden and are concerned about falling into the same trap. XYZ University’s survey results show 66% of Zs said financial stability is more important than doing work they enjoy, which is the exact opposite of Millennial survey results.  Also, 71% of survey-takers have a paying job.

Zs value leaders who are positive and trustworthy.

When presented a list of leadership traits, Zs ranked positive and trustworthy the highest. While Millennials and Gen Zs both value trust in a leader, Millennials usually cite collaboration and vision as most important. In other words, Millennials focus on the outcomes leaders inspire, whereas Zs are more likely to consider leaders’ attitudes and personalities. To Z, what leaders encourage others to do isn’t as valuable as how they make them feel.


Zs want to be challenged.

Both Millennials and Gen Zs place a very high value on feeling challenged and appreciated in the workplace. However, according to our survey results Millennials rank appreciation slightly higher than challenge, whereas Zs rank feeling challenged slightly higher than appreciation.

Time will tell how Zs go down in history, but we know this generation’s influence on history will be unlike any other.


Does your organization have what it takes to engage the next generation? Take this quiz to find out.


Sarah Sladek is CEO of XYZ University. Our generational intelligence can assist you with engaging and retaining young talent and members.

Sarah Sladek

Concerned about declining engagement in our nation’s membership associations, non-profits, and workplaces, Sarah Sladek founded XYZ University, the nation’s first and only generations-focused training and engagement strategy company, in 2002.

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