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The New Era Of Member Recruitment: Listening And Adaptation

Fighting for members. It is a common theme that every association is facing in this day and age. Having had a 26 year career in the association industry, I can tell you that finding members is really not a new a subject to the industry.

Fighting for members. It is a common theme that every association is facing in this day and age. Having had a 26 year career in the association industry, I can tell you that finding members is really not a new a subject to the industry.

What is different is how we find them and how we try to identify what our members look like and what they want.

I left the industry for eight years in 2003 to start my own business. When I entered back into the industry in 2011, it appeared that some things were drastically different and some things hadn’t changed for the last 100 years.

Baby Boomers verses Generations X & Y

Most of my career dealt with the Baby Boomers. It wasn’t until about 1998 that I could see the shift within the leadership with the younger generation coming up through the ranks. The Baby Boomers where on every committee, giving of time was not an issue, having the same venue of events for the past 100 years was the norm and association involvement was a priority.

The next generation had different ideas.

The new generation wanted more leadership roles, but less time to commit, no formal affairs, more family events. They wanted instant communication, short phone conversations if at all – email was the preferred method of communication (texting wasn’t invented yet) and more hands on involvement. And now, these generations are the future of our associations.

Associations must adapt; not the other way around.

Target for new blood

If your organization doesn’t have a student chapter program, make it a priority. Students are hungry for knowledge. Classroom education is great but no substitute for the hands on education.

Each year, the construction association I was a part of had a 3-day mock competition that involved four groups of 10 to 12 students each. The groups was assigned a project they had to bid. Each group was assigned a contractor mentor to help them with the process. At the end of the three days, each group presented the project to a panel of judges and awards were given to the winners.

The students learned how to communicate with their peers, obtained knowledge they would never have received in a class room, met potential employers and learned how to present a project. It was also a great learning experience for our seasoned members because they were able to see how different the younger generation approached a project with new methods.

Our contractors had a tremendous pool of candidates to select from as future employees; the students had advantage over other candidates and the association had new blood coming in to the leadership. This is just one example of how a student chapter program can work for your association as a new member recruitment tool.

Are you listening to your members?

In my humble opinion, that is one of the hardest tasks in the association industry and sometimes the one that is overlooked. Listening to the needs of your members is a sure-fire way to keep them engaged and renewing. Think about the following:

  • Once you have recruited new members are you listening to what they want from the association?
  • How is the best way to communicate, quantify and benchmark your results?
  • Does one member carry more power than other members? That’s a mind field!

Over the two decades that I was employed in the industry, getting members to speak up was always a difficult task. We would spend months sending out surveys, manually tabulating results, trying to figure out a system to rate the best ideas; who liked what idea the best and how to implement the ideas into the strategic plan.

Four to six months would pass before completion of this project and the ideas were already stale or obsolete. Associations are perceived as cutting edge in their industry; information has to be relevant and timely.

You know you need to talk with your members and listen to what they’re saying, so how can you do this easily and efficiently?

I recently launched MembersSpeak, a software system originally developed for Fortune 500 companies. The Innovation Engine of MembersSpeak allows you to hear what your members are saying, rate and score answers automatically. No more wasting time and energy trying to do things manually and being able to have results instantly instead of months later.

The point is, you must do something revolutionary to get into the minds of your members. What your association did 5, 10 or 25 years ago isn’t going to work anymore. Ask them what they want and deliver.

Members are out there

The members are out there, how we search and capture them is the million dollar question. With the rapid change of technology it is hard to keep up with the newest trends. Social media is the buzz of the industry this year; what’s in store for us next year?

There are numerous books out there pointing you in the right direction such as Sarah Sladek’s book The End of Membership As We Know It and another book I read that had great insight about changing associations behavior by Harrison Coerver and Mary Byers, CAE, “Race For Relevance”.

The point: It’s not business as usual anymore. We need to be creative in the ways to we market, look for and keep new members for our associations.

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.

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