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Generation Y

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.


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”)


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?


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.


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.

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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