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Leverage Your Assets: Stem The Tide Of Declining Membership

The staff and volunteer leadership of today’s professional associations are faced with two related realities. One, Generation Y is on the cusp of taking over from the Boomers as the most significant cohort in the economy, making them the future of membership. And, two, there has been a slow and steady decline in the membership of many professional associations, with this decline disproportionately concentrated in professionals in the first 10 years of their career.

THE PROBLEM

The staff and volunteer leadership of today’s professional associations are faced with two related realities. One, Generation Y is on the cusp of taking over from the Boomers as the most significant cohort in the economy, making them the future of membership. And, two, there has been a slow and steady decline in the membership of many professional associations, with this decline disproportionately concentrated in professionals in the first 10 years of their career.

As early as 1996, Canadian Economist David Foot warned of the coming rise of (the yet to be moniker’ed) Generation Y in Boom Bust & Echo: How to Profit from the Coming Demographic Shift. What the association industry is now grappling with was an unforeseen rise in technology, job insecurity and shifting values, that has led to that same Echo generation’s failure to take out memberships on mass.

Side Note: As Generation Y and the Echo Generation are both defined as those born in and around 1980 or thereafter (although in defining Generation Y there is no definitive text) I intend to use these terms interchangeably, as I am also apt to do in conversation.

THE SOLUTION

With the constrained resources of many of today’s professional associations, intensified by declining memberships and the resulting decline in that revenue stream, no association can afford to ignore its greatest resources. In the case of the generational shift in memberships, professional associations must leverage their own staff to arrive at and implement a strategy to deal with the coming tide.

As with any issue involving generational issues, and a healthy dose of intergenerational tension, every solution must start with respect. In 1967 Aretha Franklin sung to a world divided by sexism and racism, R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me; in 2013 this same idea can be applied to addressing issues that are at times tinged with ageism. Gen Y Association staff understand what it “means to me” or rather what it “means to them” and how to demonstrate this respect.

A combination of the following strategies should be employed:

  1. Changes to internal processes to empower younger employees to innovate and meet the needs of others in their age cohort. While social media is increasingly relevant to all generations, it remains especially important as a means to recruit, engage and retain members in their first 10 years of their careers. Your organization should have clear policies in place to both empower and set boundaries for online engagement. Similar policies and procedures should also be considered, organizations that are unsure of what is needed should consult their own staff about changes that would assist them in reaching this key demographic.
  2. Succession planning for boards and committees where demographics are given due consideration. Allowing young people the opportunity to contribute to an organization in a meaningful way through leadership will allow your professional association to be more appealing, Generation Y isn’t looking for recognition but they are looking for meaningful ways to flesh out the ol’ resume and network. Staff in the same age cohort should be engaged in determining selection criteria to ensure that a short resume isn’t a handicap while still requiring the right mix of experience and enthusiasm to ensure that the organization’s needs are met.
  3. Peer-to-peer guidance, helping your staff to help volunteers in their same generation. Many young volunteers feel (rightly or wrongly) that they are not respected because of their age. While these same volunteers often need guidance to understand their responsibilities, particularly the fiduciary responsibilities associated with being a board member. Generation Y staff should be provided with the tools, resources and knowledge to provide empathetic support to your volunteers.
  4. Leverage your assets. This list could go on forever, each professional association is unique, and with those quirks come unique problems and equally unique solutions. Leadership of professional associations should be seeking advice from their younger employees on how best to appeal to younger members.

FINAL THOUGHTS

One of the keys to success will be an open mind, allowing Generation Y to engage their peers in meaningful ways will require the leadership of professional associations to let go of “the way we’ve always done it” thinking and to embrace change. In this shifting environment organizations will also do well to think beyond membership (as this trend is likely not fully reversible) and think about how revenue streams and claims to industry representation can be maintained.

The relationship between Generation Y employees and their peer group among members and volunteers will lead to strengthening of your association. However, another key component will be appropriate recognition of the efforts of volunteers of all age groups. As we celebrate Canada’s National Volunteer Week, I urge you to thank those who work so hard to make your association strong and vibrant.

Take the first step towards your future.

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