What Associations Need to Know About Attracting Young Members

Professionals associations large and small are facing new challenges. Longtime members are retiring and replacing them with younger members is becoming more and more difficult. According to the groundbreaking analysis in the book Bowling Alone, in the past several decades civic organizations, community groups have disappeared by the thousands and many professional associations are struggling to grow membership and remain relevant.

The author explored various factors that may be contributing to this phenonomenon from time pressures, suburbanization, commuting and urban sprawl to what he referred to as the “privatization of our leisure time.” But the biggest influence by far, is generational change – the slow, steady and relentless replacement of the older membership-driven, civically involved generation with their less involved children and grandchildren.

The book raises an intriguing question. Do people of different ages behave differently because they are momentarily at different points in a common life cycle or because they enduringly belong to a different generation? To illustrate the point, at the end of the 20th century, American males in their 60s and 70s had much worse eyesight than their grandsons in their 20s and 30s, and the older men were also much more likely to have served in the military. Obviously, these two related age patterns have different origins. The eyesight effect is due entirely to life cycle. As we age, our vision deteriorates. On the other hand, the difference in military service are attributable to the generational change in world affairs and policies toward the draft. When the grandsons reach the grandfather’s age, their vision too will blur, but they will never share their grandfather’s military service.

The question for professional and other associations is will the younger generation eventually have the same joining behavior as previous generations? The data, and our experience, suggest that they will not. The incoming generation of young professionals have extensive professional networks right out of school and who don’t use the word “join” the way previous generations do. Yet the strength of social media demonstrates that today’s young professionals still see the value in connection and networking. The challenge for Associations to provide an experience that potential members can’t get elsewhere in the real or online world and to find a business model that aligns with the way these members choose to interact.

In the meantime, to continue the work of the Association, many groups are relying more and more on non-dues revenue. A recent Association Adviser poll shows that accounts for at least 25% of total revenue at the vast majority of associations (86%) and for more than half of revenue at 22% of associations.

One area often overlooked is in helping members with individual challenges they are facing in their lives outside of the association. The ASAE study, The Decision to Join, found that although collective benefits such as those that support the industry or field as a whole are the primary appeal of membership. Yet interestingly, a variety of personal benefits such as educational opportunities, networking, access to products, services and suppliers were rated almost equal in importance. Despite this some associations offer such minimal personal benefits that they appear to be overly focused on acting as an advocate for an industry and underestimating the need to advocate for their members as individuals. Other associations offer a robust package of personal benefits but they are so underutilized it would appear the offerings are out of sync with what members want and need.

Can your association advocate for its members on a more personally meaningful level? What impression do your benefits-related communications give your members about the association and the value it is providing them? Are your benefit programs generic or tailored to the needs, interests and input received from members? Are your benefit programs delivering a sustainable level of non-dues revenue?

At Bodden Partners, we specialize in member marketing. If you would like to improve the effectiveness of your member acquisition, onboarding and retention efforts, contact us for a free consultation.