by Michael C. Lowe | August 01, 2015
Sarah Sladeck (pictured) of consulting firm XYZ University works with organizations to engage and retain Millennials.
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During the annual meeting of an international association of health-care professionals last fall, nearly a dozen members were honored for their 40 or more years of membership. While the recognition was bestowed, Aaron Wolowiec, founder of Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Event Garde and the association's event manager, found himself wondering if today's younger professionals would have such staying power. "I just don't know if that kind of engagement will exist in this next generation," he says, recalling the moment.

Wolowiec's concerns are common within the association world. As baby boomers (born from 1946 through 1964) reach retirement age, and with the habits of Generation X (1965-1981) well formed, associations are turning to Millennials (1982-2000) to help replenish and build membership numbers. However, attracting and engaging members of that demographic has been puzzling and disappointing for many professional societies.

According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation Millennial Research Review, 45 percent of associations were seeing flat or declining membership in 2012 (the most recent stats available). Unless that changes, the industry could be facing a troubling future.

"The next five years are going to be the defining years for associations," says Sarah Sladek, CEO and founder of XYZ University, a management and consulting company that specializes in Millennial recruitment. "Either they're going to swim or they're going to sink."

The new face of membership
New membership models already are emerging as groups struggle to entice Millennials into their industry communities. About four years ago, the Virginia Society of Association Executives created a program allowing organizations with two VSAE members to add a third or fourth member at a discounted rate. "The goal was to grow vertically in order to begin touching those down the hierarchical ladder," says Brandon Robinson, vice president of professional development and communications at the association.

Other associations are making membership free altogether for younger demographics. In April, the American Bar Association, the society for legal professionals, announced it would give all students at ABA-approved law schools free membership, with the hope that they will see enough value in membership to pay once they enter the workforce.

While some groups have found success with such models, others are finding that Millennials spend their money and time differently than previous generations, and it might take more than reduced or free membership rates to entice them to commit.

"This is a generation coming of age during or following the worst recession in 75 years, so they scrutinize costs and benefits in greater detail," notes Sladek. "Boomers came of age during one of the wealthiest and most prosperous times and were able to buy into the American Dream, acquiring 'stuff' like homes, stock and association memberships. Millennials don't value acquisition so much because they can't afford stuff. Their value system is different."

For membership to be meaningful, Millennials seek three things that must all work in tandem, according to Sladek. "They need to be invited to get involved, feel like they belong once they're there and then be recognized for their participation," she says. "If at any point one of these cogs breaks down, Millennials will disengage."

Putting out the welcome mat
The first step in recruiting is simple, says Sladek: "Just invite Millennials to have a seat at the table and be a part of the decision-making process." Sladek cites the case of the American College of Sports Medicine, which was seeing steep membership decline a decade ago, with the sharpest drops among the young. The ACSM sought help from Sladek, who recommended involving young people in leadership discussions and creating a committee to give them a voice. The association did so, and within a year it saw a 13.5 percent increase in membership and hosted its largest conference ever.

Creating a committee of younger members is especially effective for learning what Millennials might want out of their membership, says Diane Thiefoldt, co-founder of the Learning Café, which specializes in multigenerational workforce development. Several years ago, ASAE, The Center for Association Leadership, launched its own Young Professionals Committee, which now numbers 16, all age 35 or under, who have plenty of opportunities to impact the direction of the larger association, from pitching educational sessions to holding their own networking events at the annual meeting or voicing their interests in a variety of forums.

When ASAE's board of directors and staff leadership convene for a yearly leadership summit, two members of the Young Professionals Committee are invited to have a seat at the table. "Our voice is in the conversation, and it's a chance for the board to hear what we have to say," says Brandon Robinson, 35, who serves as the Young Professionals Committee Chair.

Inviting such input is a step toward an important mental shift for an association's leadership, adds Robinson. Creating initiatives for Millennials without their representation or input can lead to an "us and them" mentality, he notes.  "It leads to people viewing Millennials as an outside group that they need to appease in  order to sustain their membership. But you can't just toss them a bone and be done. You need to bring their voice into the room."