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The State Of Advocacy For Associations: What Does It All Mean?

Luckily, by now, the robocalls have stopped and I’m sure you’ve all gotten out and voted. I doubt anyone is missing the relentless television and Web ads promoting one or another candidate or cause. But, just because the election is over doesn’t mean it’s time to stop talking politics.

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

Luckily, by now, the robocalls have stopped and I’m sure you’ve all gotten out and voted. I doubt anyone is missing the relentless television and Web ads promoting one or another candidate or cause. But, just because the election is over doesn’t mean it’s time to stop talking politics.

In fact, we think it’s the perfect time to keep the conversation going. That’s why we’re putting together a blog series this November about advocacy in associations.

Here at XYZ University, we recently conducted a study of more than 125 association executives because we wanted to know the state of advocacy in associations today. What we found may surprise you.

IS ADVOCACY A MEMBER BENEFIT?

During our study, we found that nearly 83% of associations promote advocacy as a member benefit.

I challenge you to sit for a moment and think about the value your association’s advocacy efforts provide for your members. How is this value different than if someone chose not to join your association? Could you specifically and succinctly explain the difference?

If you can’t, your advocacy efforts may not, in fact, be of value specific to your members.

Through our study, we found that 74.6% of association executives said they receive feedback from members that advocacy holds minimal value. 74.6%! (note: this is a combined stats of “yes, often, at least once a month” and “yes, sometimes”)

DOES ADVOCACY ENGAGE EVERYONE?

Not a single association surveyed said they had great participation and interest in advocacy from younger members. In fact, only 12.5% said they had good participation; 45.2% said they’re “working on it” or it’s “off the radar” because the association isn’t sure what to do to engage these young members.

Only 10.7% are “very concerned” about the lack of participation or interest of younger members (under the age of 40). 32.1% are not concerned at all! Yet, 38.7% of those same association leaders think that in 5-10 years the state of advocacy in their associations will be growing. Who’s going to make that happen?

WHO’S ADVOCATING WITHIN ASSOCIATIONS?

Seventy-one percent of our survey participants stated they use volunteer government task forces or committees comprised of members to carry out their association’s advocacy efforts. Fast forward 5 or 10 years: Do you think 71% of these same associations will still have members carrying out their advocacy efforts? Do you think all of these same associations will still be around?

We’re not placing any bets.

The fact is, 5–10 years from now puts us between 2017 and 2022. That fresh-out-of-college graduate that joined your association a few years ago as a student member will now be somewhere in his or her mid-30s. In the same vein, your veteran member numbers have started dwindling as they move into retirement. Your veteran members are the ones you have been leaning on for advocacy efforts.

Now are you concerned that Gen X and Gen Y are not involved? Do you still think that in 5-10 years your advocacy efforts will be growing?

If associations want to continue advocacy efforts, they need to involved the younger generation.

Associations need to understand they are not selling advocacy to the younger generation, at the very best, they are not selling it well. Advocacy efforts are not going to attract new members because they don’t value it. Even if they did value it, they don’t need to be members to benefit from it.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR YOUR ASSOCIATION?

Associations need to attract Gen X and Y to their ranks or they will not survive to continue adding any value for their industries.

According to the American Psychological Association, the last 15 years shows a significant decline among young Americans in interest and participation in politics.

The democratic process requires participation. Are you really doing it well if you don’t have buy in from all your members? And if you are not doing it well, is it something you have resources to continue focusing on?

Associations will not be able to use advocacy as a way to recruit new young members. Without members, how will associations pay to hire lobbyist and continue to be involved in politics in any meaningful way? Associations will not be able to fill volunteer boards to continue advocating for their causes. Who is going to advocate then?

Associations cannot take something that members don’t care about and change it to make them care. This is not business as usual. Your prospective members have a new set of values and you need to appeal to those values.

If your association is going to survive, you need to be open to new ideas. Your potential members are not motivated by advocacy. If you want to keep your association’s voice in the legislature, you need to find a way to involve everyone and show value in your efforts. 

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

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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