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Raising Membership Roi: 3 Threats Challenge Future Of Associations

Last week, XYZ University hosted a workshop for membership associations on how to increase ROI. Now, more than ever, associations need to be able to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that membership provides a return on investment to their members.

Last week, XYZ University hosted a workshop for membership associations on how to increase ROI. Now, more than ever, associations need to be able to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that membership provides a return on investment to their members.

Demographic shifts, changes in technology, and a declining economy have merged to create a relentless three-headed monster for membership associations to combat. What members held valuable yesterday doesn’t necessarily hold any value today. As a result, trade associations, chambers of commerce, and civic organizations, are experiencing declining revenues and memberships and struggling to navigate this uncharted territory.

Indeed, this three-headed monster (demographic shifts, technology, economy) seriously threatens the future of associations, yet just one of these traits stands alone as the greatest threat of all: the demographic shift.

For the past 10 years, I’ve been talking with associations about the approaching demographic shift. While most associations have been aware of the shift all along, few have done nothing about it.

Unfortunately, the declining economy did nothing but prolong the inevitable and perhaps set associations up for an even greater fall. Alas, Baby Boomers are finally starting to exit the workforce–albeit slowly at first. Like a hole in a dam, we can expect this trickle to burst sooner than later.

This shift in human capital — the largest shift in our country’s history–poses the greatest threat to associations because most remain entirely governed and supported by the Baby Boomer generation, and few have or are developing plans and strategies to cushion themselves from this massive exodus of board members, committee chairs, and dedicated volunteers.

For more than two centuries, the inner workings and overall purposes of membership associations remained the same. Technology dramatically changed the existence of membership associations in the 1990s, but that hurdle pales in comparison to the generational shift that’s about to take place in the twenty-first century.

The passage of the Baby Boomers will mark the end of an era, the end of the membership association as we know it. Even now, most membership associations believe they have approximately 20 years to coast until all the Baby Boomers have retired. But that’s being overly optimistic. Membership associations that refuse to implement change and interest younger members have a 10-year life-span–at most.

So what’s an association to do?

Here’s a ‘cheat sheet’ of what I covered in the Amplify Association ROI workshop last week:

  1. Focus on giving.When the market starts to decline, the first reaction is often to increase dues or cut expenses which often means cutting member benefits. This is a mistake. Rather than cutting back, your association needs to be concentrating on adding more value. The members need to know your association is investing in them and helping them through a very difficult economy–and you need to keep these members from jumping ship. The market is more demanding because it is more needy right now, and your association has to meet these expectations. Your association has to give more than it takes right now to prove its a worthwhile and meaningful investment.
  2. Consider your purpose.Does your association offer a really compelling reason for members to join? Because all members–especially younger audiences–are very selective right now about where they spend their time and money. Younger generations can create networks and access information on-line and often struggle to see what additional benefit an association membership can provide. Identify what makes your association unique and the ROI of becoming a member — what unique, exclusive, relevant benefits a member stands to gain in return for paying dues– and your association will have an easier time retaining and recruiting members.
  3. Focus on the future.In today’s society there’s a fine line between honoring traditions and getting stuck in the past. If your association is doing things the exact same way they’ve been done for the past 20, 10, or even 5 years — it’s probably time to start thinking about things in the present tense. Keep in mind that to a 20-something raised on technology, today is practically history. This is a generation that is always thinking about what’s next and wants access to things that are relevant to their lives, especially things that are new and cutting-edge. If you’re keeping certain traditions in place, make sure you also introduce some new, hip programming that appeals to the next generation. The same old bags of tricks aren’t going to entice this crowd.

There are three major challenges that associations must overcome right now. The economy is on the path to recovery, technology is here to stay, and the demographic shift is just beginning. From now until 2030, every 8 seconds someone will turn 65.

Members of all ages are questioning the value an association membership brings right now, but the youngest will continue to pose this question for the next 19 years. They will demand a return on investment unlike any other generation that has come before them.

Borrowing an excerpt from my book, The New Recruit: What Your Association Needs to Know About X, Y, & Z:

The Boomer-centric associations still think they can launch something new and it will resolve all their recruiting woes. These associations have overlooked the simple fact that the vast majority of their membership will retire in the next decade or two—and the generations to follow are radically different from the generations of the past two centuries.

Membership associations have not experienced anything like this before. Generations X and Y have completely different values, interests, needs, and wants from the generations before them. Their worldview, their priorities—everything about them is different as a result of their social experiences.

Generations X and Y will not respond to the recruiting efforts of the past. An entirely new approach is required. Everything about the membership association has to change. …

The Boomer-centric associations will refuse to change or fear change. These are the associations that are considered endangered species and likely will be extinct by the year 2020. The New Recruit associations realize the need to recruit and retain younger members and invites younger generations in to help them make the change. These are the associations that will succeed and survive.

Which association do you want to be?”

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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