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Generation Y

How To Engage Gen Y In Advocacy Efforts

Based on our recent advocacy in association survey results, it seems that many associations are not being realistic about where things are headed. Although most are concerned about the lack of participation by members under the age of 40, most associations also believe that they will be sustaining or growing advocacy efforts in the next 5-10 years. If that is to happen, we need a new approach.

This is the fifth in a series of blog posts around the topic of “Advocacy and Associations” that XYZ University will publish during the month of November.

Based on our recent advocacy in association survey results, it seems that many associations are not being realistic about where things are headed. Although most are concerned about the lack of participation by members under the age of 40, most associations also believe that they will be sustaining or growing advocacy efforts in the next 5-10 years. If that is to happen, we need a new approach.

You need to engage Gen Y.

Develop an engagement plan

Spend time thinking about how to engage Generation Y in purpose. Develop your position for why they should care about your efforts, why they should join and why they should even pay attention. Ultimately, you need to answer the question: Why should your members pay for your advocacy efforts?

Now, how will you disseminate this information?

Get involved where they are. Post and ask for feedback on social media channels. Solicit input and committee volunteer projects from young leaders in your association.

Set advocacy goals

Showing benefits of advocacy can be very difficult when the process is slow and results can take years. It’s no wonder that the instant gratification-seeking Gen Ys don’t see value in advocacy. Millennials expect things to happen quickly.

Evaluate your current state of advocacy. With 74% of associations stating they struggling with determining advocacy success and results, you need guidelines and benchmarks. If you can’t circle back and prove the positive (or negative) effects your advocacy has, why do anything? Determine if your current advocacy initiatives should be different. Don’t change strategies to achieve the same outcome; change the outcomes you’re seeking.

Think about your advocacy goals as they relate to your members in each stage of life. What is good for the Baby Boomers may be completely different from what your Millennials and Xers want. Categorize and prioritize.

Develop a measurable outcome plan

Associations need to make the issues they are advocating for immediate. Keep the reason fresh and meaningful so that your audience doesn’t forget that something important is at stake.

What is the problem you are trying to solve? Because there is a problem you are trying to solve, and no doubt many of your members have a personal connection to it, remind them. Show real life real time situations regarding the issue to keep momentum going.

Think about the recent election. During an election cycle, the only thing that most participants do is vote on a one specific day, however, campaigns keep the issues immediate and in front of voters to keep them engaged and interested.

Minnesotans United asked supporters to participate by sending photos of themselves in “Vote No” t-shirts that they are selling. Even the least active supporters of the cause are seeing photos of supporters popping up in their Facebook feeds. This keeps the issue in front of people with testimonials from those affected and information on grassroots successes, photos, ways Gen Y likes to get information.

Learn from the past

Studies show that direct contact by a peer increases the likelihood that young people will participate in the political process by voting. If they are more likely to vote with peer contact, they may be more willing to speak out on a committee of volunteers as well.

If associations can reach out to one Gen Y member, perhaps seeking out a young ambassador for the cause will help recruit others.

Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008 was highly effective in getting younger generations involved in the political process. Associations could take some pointers from how he managed that.

The campaign didn’t just ask for volunteers, they made volunteers apply and go through an interview process. They required training before sending them out. This might sound like a lot of hassle, but Millennials want to be a part of the process, training appeals to them, requires them to buy in.

What the Obama campaign failed to do, however, is keep Gen Y participating after the election. If associations are going to continue to spend time and resources on advocacy and use it to recruit new members, they need to find a way to keep the momentum.

Not to be involved in the conversation, working collaboratively with an organization, maybe even government, goes against Gen Y values. And maybe this is a good sign. Gen Y wants to be listened to and taken seriously. For your associations to continue doing what it does, you need to show them that your association’s advocacy efforts are a viable way to do that.


A special thank you to Shannon Neeser, contributing researcher and Melissa Harrison, design, for their work on the 2012 Advocacy in Associations Survey report.

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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