by Steven Hacker | March 01, 2017

It has been said that millennials, the generation that is now 18 to 34 years old and numbers an astonishing 83 million individuals (according to the June 2015 census report), are different. Some say they are tough to manage, others suggest they are self-centered. I can agree they are different—but so have been all the generations that have preceded them. It is silly to describe an entire demographic cohort—in this case, one larger than the population of Germany—with common characteristics when generations have always been influenced by their historic events or circumstances. And I think we can agree that it is wrong to conclude that all members of any generation think and behave the same.

But the dominance of millennials entering or already established in the workplace means employers need to embrace them. And uniting this new group with their elders will likely require new and different methods. To wit: Many still believe that rookies should be polite and quiet, carefully take note of and then replicate how their elders achieved success and, most importantly, demonstrate patience as they wait their turns to take things over. But evidence is growing that in today’s fast-paced world, this may no longer be the best model. So how does a nonprofit association integrate the newcomers? By devoting time and resources to knowing them, valuing their input and preparing them for leadership roles.

The Smart Sector. Despite the criticism, millennials are America’s most-educated population segment ever. When the Pew Research Center conducted several studies of millennials in 2012, it discovered that one-third of the nation’s 25- to 29-year-olds held a bachelor’s degree and that college completion was at record highs for a key number of demographic groups including blacks, women, Hispanics and foreign-born Americans. In addition, 90 percent of this age group had finished high school and 63 percent had completed at least some college. This hardly sounds like a lost generation.

In fact, as if this kind of academic achievement is not laudable enough, many millennials are demonstrating a continuing hunger to learn even more, fueling the growth of non-traditional course offerings that award various industry credentials and digital badges upon completion. The irony is that while millennials clearly appreciate the value of learning as a means to power their career growth, many nonprofits don’t seem to realize that their group is overlooking a potentially awesome source of future growth. But there are refreshing exceptions.

Preparing for Leadership. In 2006, the American Society for Public Administration set up a Founders’ Fellows program designed to help its members understand the basic principles of association management and to prepare them for leadership roles. According to Janice LaChance, the organization’s president-elect, “Mainstreaming young professionals at ASPA is not a deliberate program but a way of life.” Rick Grimm, chief executive officer of the Institute for Public Procurement, shares that sentiment. “The first step in governance leadership is engagement, which is why our member council includes two seats for those under the age of 40,” he said.

The American Association for Clinical Chemistry is another group that believes in empowering younger generations. Beth Hampton, its vice-president of marketing and communications, said that the association established the Society for Young Clinical Laboratorians about 15 years ago to engage and develop leadership among its under-40 members. Today, younger membership is strong. Moreover, its member millennials are involved. “Among the results AACC has achieved is to carve a clear path to association leadership for dozens of young professionals who are intensely passionate about their work and this organization,” Hampton said.

Changing Bylaws for the Better. When Michael W. Johnson became president and CEO of the National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association in 2013, the organization embarked on a three-year, member-driven strategic plan called Rocks Build America with several goals: to enhance the association’s government affairs activities, to improve internal and external communications activities and to better demonstrate the association’s value to the aggregates industry.

While implementing the plan, board members realized that the group’s governance structure would require an overhaul. Among the changes made to the bylaws was the removal of a requirement stating that board members must hold decision-making roles within their employing organizations, something that substantially limited who could hold a leadership seat. Also significant was the decision to include the Young Leaders into its organizational leadership structure. The Young Leaders program is a forum for industry members of up to 40 years old to network, exchange ideas, discuss subjects of mutual interest and seek ways to promote the growth of the industry through education, research and legislative activities.

The incorporation of Young Leaders into the governance policies ensured that younger members would participate alongside industry veterans to determine the future of both the group and the industry. For instance, the Young Leaders’ chair and immediate past-chair were added to the NSSGA’s nominating and leadership-development committee, which identifies prospective board members—a very influential group. “The industry’s young men and women have incredible talent and energy, and as their perspective is unique to their generation, they are an untapped resource of valuable insight,” said Johnson.

Downsizing Traditional Tactics. I asked Maddie Grant, a founding partner of WorkXO and co-author of “When Millennials Take Over: Preparing for the Ridiculously Optimistic Future of Business,” what she would recommend to associations eager to engage with millennials. She suggested a “try-it-before-you-buy-it” approach. “Traditional methods often don’t resonate with millennials, so if you give them the opportunity to experience what it is like to be involved in bite-sized doses, you are likely to have more success,” she said.

I also solicited advice from Toby Cummings, executive director of the National Association for Campus Activities, an organization comprised almost entirely of millennials. When bringing aboard individuals from this demographic to serve as association leaders, he suggested that associations “make no assumptions about leadership skill levels. Start orientation and training from the ground up if you can.”

To meet this unique challenge, the NACA launched a year-long program called Leadership & Effectiveness in Association Practices. The program occurs every other year, and each class is limited to no more than 12 participants. Additionally, three former leaders of the NACA are appointed each year to non-voting board roles to provide sage advice; each of the organization’s four annual board meetings includes a mandatory board-development project; and every board agenda allows time for strategic discussions. Unsurprisingly, the NACA has successfully prepared millennials for leadership roles within their organization (or with other groups in the future).

So there you have it. Whether you shrink from or seek millennials, they are arriving in the workforce in large numbers. And the best way to create an association that can move forward with this new generation is to understand them, prepare them for leadership roles and value their efforts. Because they are, in fact, the future your group and your industry will rely upon.