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Save the Associations

Being Future-Focused: Generational consideration with every foundational change

National Watermelon Association – Save the Associations Vol. 7

The National Watermelon Association is the oldest single fruit commodity association in the U.S., and for nearly a century it was run solely by volunteers. In 2005, the association realized that to overcome stagnant membership and the impending workforce crisis, it had to bring in professional staff. That year, Bob Morrissey joined as Executive Director and has not only created new programs for the younger generations, but he has been considering those generations with every foundational change that has been made.

Future Watermelon Farm Leaders

“I started by reading as much on Gen X and Gen Y as possible,” shared Morrissey. He first read Sarah Sladek’s book titled The End of Membership As We Know It. “The topic launched us to focus on the near future, and how we could transform an association with four generations involved into something renewed that would be viable, sustainable, and growing into the next couple of decades,” stated Morrissey. He didn’t want to be too aggressive as he didn’t want to scare people off, but he also knew the association needed to evolve fairly quickly.   

One result of this effort was the creation of the Future Watermelon Farm Leaders  (FWFL) program. This young professional program is focused on giving members the opportunities they crave to further their careers and their industry. These future leaders speak and work at the national convention, take part in the association’s varied committees, and network with industry professionals. “They are the future and they are engaged,” said Morrissey.  

The program has been well received, which is why it is about to enter into a new phase. Recognizing farming’s crucial role in feeding the world, Morrissey shared that “with the average age of farmers today [being] over 58 years old, it is vital for us to embrace the younger generations to continue that respected trade and to lead our association.” In the new version of the FWFL, members are going to have the opportunity to engage with the industry on every level. Proposed plans include:

  • ‍An annual trip to Washington, D.C., to learn about lobbying.
  • Visits to companies along the industry supply line to understand the behind-the-scenes work.
  • Invitations to attend the bi-annual board meetings.

Innovation at Every Level

For the last decade, the National Watermelon Association has focused on enhancing its member and potential member offerings. In addition to the creation of the FWFL, the association has increased food safety initiatives; its Washington, D.C., involvement; and member education opportunities.

It has also opened communication channels by adding a wide array of digital media offerings. The association now has a digital magazine, social media channels, and a convention-specific website and app.

The National Watermelon Association knows the importance of listening to its members. Starting in 2019, membership will no longer consist of regional and national joint membership. A two-year study found that 55-60% of national members were not engaged on a national level because they owned local businesses. By separating the memberships, local members who want to stay local will feel that local relevance; members who want a national involvement will benefit from their national engagement. “Choice is a good thing, and people like to make their own choices when they can,” shared Morrissey. The study also revealed that while this change will decrease the number of national members, revenue is expected to increase through its engaged members. “We are not worried about total membership numbers per se, as our research shows that our national effort will actually increase revenue, which is a huge positive.”   

Advice for Other Associations

If you want to bring change to your association, Morrissey suggests looking internally for help. “You cannot, and should not, go it alone. You will need partners,” shared Morrissey. He suggests identifying board leaders who are willing to speak up and who have the necessary patience to work through the process. “Rome was not built in a day; it will be a slow process.” Taking your time to gain partners and to follow a methodical process of listening and learning will position your association for future success. Morrissey exclaims, “Your association will be so much better for the effort.  All the Best!”

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.

XYZ University - Save the Associations Blog Series

All summer long XYZ University will be sharing inspiring stories of associations that are doing something exceptional to 'save' their association and their industry from an untimely demise. XYZ U exists to help organizations engage younger generations of members, talent, and marketshare. We offer unparalleled generational expertise, coupled with an in-depth knowledge of future economic, membership, and marketing trends, to advise clients on the best strategies for long-term growth, relevance, and market engagement.

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