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Effective Associations: Make Yours Hit The Mark

I’ve spent a lot of time working with association leaders and I’ve come to know what works and what doesn’t in order to grow membership and sustain organizations. The effective associations of 10 years ago are not the same today. Today, members are fast-paced, driven and they want information and access to exclusive information now.

I’ve spent a lot of time working with association leaders and I’ve come to know what works and what doesn’t in order to grow membership and sustain organizations. The effective associations of 10 years ago are not the same today. Today, members are fast-paced, driven and they want information and access to exclusive information now.

How do you reach your members? How do you take what used to work as a way to sustain your organization and turn it into something members new and old still want?

The truth is, you don’t.

With your association’s mission in hand, now is the time to think about how you will stand out and what new, innovative member benefits you can provide in order to grow and sustain your organization in the new era of membership–of life–as we know it.

In order to be an effective association, you need to think about communication, customization, technology, talent development and your association’s significant value.

Communication and customization

It doesn’t matter if you are doing everything well if no one knows about it. Your association members need to hear from you and understand the value you provide. Show your members that you value you them and give them private access to events and information. Make your association’s members genuinely feel a part of your organization–don’t provide the same services and information to nonmembers. Make it exclusive.

Customize your members’ experience and understand that communication is a two-way street. Encourage your members to provide feedback and talk with you. Use surveys, social media, focus groups or events as ways to communicate with your membership and listen to what they need.

Get hip to technology

Change happens. That’s life. And right now, shifts in technology and the way we communicate are big changes for associations. Work with it. Think about your current membership and those who will sustain your organization for the coming decades. Gen X and Gen Y want action. They want value. They want to know what’s in it for them. And they’re using technology to scope you out and figure out if you’re worth their time.

Use technology–social media, online communities, blogs, updated websites–or you will lose your chance with Gen X and Gen Y. This generation will simply disengage. Even if the majority of your membership is of Boomer age (and I can argue that these members are still using technology as well), think about your future. You won’t move forward if you don’t embrace the technology that will push you there.

Strong leadership and membership involvement

Effective associations find ways to brainstorm with staff and members to move to the next level; to grow membership. Create a developing leaders group, a community where current members and prospective members can participate in discussions that have an impact on the future of your association. Give your members ownership. Show your next generation of leaders that you support their quest for continued growth and learning. Provide the space for members to develop their talents.

Association committees provide learning opportunities for members and also help keep your executive team and Board focused on association goals and strategic planning. Create focused committees with clearly defined objectives and encourage your new members and young members to participate on committees. Get them involved right away so they can see the value and remain engaged. Gen Y can bring innovative ideas and new perspectives to your committees. Develop your association’s future leaders.

Know your value

The most effective organizations are innovators. They add value to members by going above and beyond what members could find elsewhere. Networking is NOT your association’s value proposition. What tangible item can you give to your members that no one else can give? What makes your association stand out? What brings members back for more?

Effective associations don’t happen over night; you need to work at it. And it’s not business as usual. Now is the time to be big. To be bold. To go where no association has gone before. Now is the time for change.

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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