Youth and the Future of Associations

To survive and thrive, organizations need to bolster Millennial membership

Sarah Sladeck (pictured) of consulting firm XYZ University works with organizations to engage and retain Millennials.

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."

The Millennial Mindset
The Center for Exhibition Industry Research has released several papers illustrating young professionals' interests when it comes to attending meetings and exhibitions. According to CEIR's 2014 study, Young Professional Attendee Needs and Preferences, younger people see value in going to meetings and exhibitions, with 98 percent agreeing that the experience left them with one or more high-level takeaways. Other key findings from the report:

 Shopping and learning are the two main motivations for attending an exhibition; attending for the experience and finding an event that meets their logistical needs are less important.

 The top-ranked education objectives when attending a conference include learning about industry trends; professional networking; personal development, and improving job performance.

 The top-ranked reasons for not attending a convention tend to revolve around time and money and include being too busy at work; the event not being within budget; an inconvenient location, or the program not demonstrating enough value.

The full report can be found at

An event of their own
Another tactic is to launch a separate event specifically for young and emerging professionals. "We've seen associations that create a sub-group or standalone conference be very successful in engaging Millennials," says Diane Thiefoldt. "They get to design the agenda, find their own speakers and make their own decisions. They own it."

This was a lesson learned by the St. Louis-based National Association of Electrical Distributors, which has more than 730 company members. The association has long had its own youth-oriented division, formed in 1970 as the Under-40 Club and renamed in 1972 as the Young Executives of Today, which held its own standalone annual conference. But the YET event primarily catered to the children of industry executives who attended the NAED's larger annual conferences.  

In 2007 the recession hit, and attendance to the YET conference plummeted. "Family businesses didn't have the money to send their kids to the conference anymore," says Brian Peters, NAED senior regional manager and the conference's staff liaison. In 2008, YET was rebranded as the Leadership Enhancement and Development Committee and refocused its mission to "attract, develop and retain top emerging talent" in the electrical distribution industry. The committee took charge of all programming, education and content for its newly rebranded LEAD Conference.

Several years after rebranding the spinoff event, attendance numbers bounced back from a low of around 40 to 100. This year, the conference expects about 120 attendees, some 70 percent of whom are first-timers. The three-day event offers an informal alternative to NAED's business-oriented meetings, which are attended primarily by high-level executives. Many LEAD Conference activities center around networking and group discussion, offering participants action items that can be instituted from lower-level positions in the workplace, says Peters.

"We're hoping that the people who go to this conference will still be around five or 10 years from now," he adds. "They could be the potential board members of NAED down the road."

Events to grow by
If a standalone event isn't in the cards, an annual conference offers myriad opportunities for association leaders to get Millennials involved via special networking receptions, education sessions or more complex initiatives.

Event Garde's Aaron Wolowiec is working with the Association of Outdoor Recreation and Education to entice student leaders in the industry to attend a half-day training session before the official annual meeting kickoff. "We want to provide a safe space to talk about and do things they're not doing on campus so they will feel like outdoor recreation professionals, not just students," says Wolowiec.

The dedicated day for students is just one part of the association's two-part initiative to bolster engagement. On the following day, when the annual meeting officially kicks off, participating students are in charge of monitoring whiteboards stationed in prefunction areas, where they and other attendees can post topics they'd like to discuss that might not be addressed by the formal education sessions.

"During the first day of training, we will work with them to become good facilitators who know how to raise questions or concerns during these group discussions," says Wolowiec. "We want to leverage those skills to demonstrate to the community that they are the next generation of leaders. It's also a way to link this newer generation to the older generation and cross-pollinate ideas.

"If we can engage young professionals through involvement and experience," Wolowiec adds, "the likelihood that they'll come back to the conference, either now or at some future time and place, grows exponentially."

The event also will feature an on-site career center, playing to the fact that "Millennials need to grow and develop their career path," says Wolowiec. "We know they aren't staying employed by one organization for 30 or 40 years, so what can we do to support their trajectory?" The center will act as a job board and also host career-building events like a 30-minute session on resume writing.  

Making a Case for Action
Getting leadership's buy-in is vital to any outreach to Millennials. Here are some ways to start.

ASK. Brian Peters of the National Association of Electric Distributors helped run a survey at a local college, asking students about their interests. "It was clear that we needed to become more innovative in the eyes of members and younger associates as well," says Peters of the outcome.

PROJECT. Offer some shock value by projecting membership numbers five years down the road, suggests Sarah Sladek of XYZ University. "That can be really influential," she says.

CONVERSE. Sladek recently led a focus group of 12 members of all ages to offer an association feedback. "We found that the two or three older people had one perception, while the others had a completely different idea," she notes, adding that the association learned from it.

EDUCATE. Diane Thiefoldt of the Learning Café and Brian Peters recently ran a session at the National Association of Wholesalers conference to help educate members and leaders about Millennials. "Our message: 'Bring younger people into our association, or we won't have one,'" Thiefoldt says.

Keeping Millennials engaged
Once they are involved in the association, the second step is to make sure Millennials continue to feel welcome and at home, says Sladek. Being able to speak their language is an important part of fostering engagement, and often that requires smart use of technology.

During ASAE's annual meeting in Atlanta in 2013, the association's Young Professionals Committee had the idea to take the meeting's massive brochure and distill it down to a one-page document with information of most interest to Millennials. The page also listed contact information and social media handles for committee leaders, should members want to connect on-site.

"We really wanted to help people navigate the annual meeting and connect with other young professionals," says Tammy Barnes, committee vice chair and also director of operations for the State Advocacy Office of the American Psychological Association. "Especially for those members who come alone, we wanted to help them find sessions that most pertain to them."

Once the guideline was created, the committee uploaded the document to Microsoft OneDrive, a cloud-storage application, and shared the link over social media channels. Color copies were printed and handed out at a preconference meeting of the Young Professionals Committee; extra copies were placed at booths of exhibitors the committee knew were specifically targeting young professionals.

The initiative proved a success and was repeated at the following year's conclave in Nashville. This time, they included the document in an email that the ASAE helped send to the association's younger members. This email included an introduction to a messaging app called GroupMe, which allows multiple users to simultaneously communicate via their smartphones. Recipients were encouraged to download the app and log into a dedicated chat room, where they could build relationships. By the end of the first day of the meeting, the messaging app had reached its capacity at 200 people.

By the time the Young Professionals Committee convened for its own reception during the annual meeting, engagement among the group was at "critical mass" and the reception was "busting at the seams," says Brandon Robinson, who believes the messaging app played a large role in generating buzz for the event. "Every year we did a little more to bring young professionals together, and this year we really felt a sense of community."

Technology can help foster that sense of belonging year-round, says Sladek, especially considering that Millennials have less time and money to travel and want to engage when and how they want. "This generation is asking, 'If I can't go to a program in person, can I access it or download it later? How can I ask questions or interact with the people I want to via online platforms? What is my association membership giving me when I'm not on-site?'"

In response to such questions, this past February, the Young Professionals Committee at ASAE launched its first foray into online content and produced a webcast focused on career paths for Millennials. The interest from members was overwhelming, and spots for the virtual event sold out, with a waiting list growing steadily. The one-hour session was held during lunch and offered a CAE credit for those attending.

Bestowing recognition
The last step in securing Millennial involvement is showing recognition and appreciation, says Sladek, who finds that this imperative comes from the notion that since grade school, Millennials have received accolades for just about every achievement imaginable, earning them an addition moniker of "The Trophy Generation." Last year, the Madison, Wis.-based Society of Wetland Scientists took that sentiment to heart by creating a Young Professional Award for outstanding work.

Recognition doesn't necessarily have to mean physical awards, notes Sladek. "The bottom line is that Millennials don't want their efforts to go unnoticed. Whenever they feel like they're just a number, that's a turn-off." A nod as "Member of the Month" or a mention in an e-newsletter is valuable to this demographic. Also much appreciated is a note of praise from association leadership to a young professional's boss, with thanks for the member's contributions.

The result is more than just an ego boost. Recognition helps young professionals reaffirm that they've found the right community. "Millennials really want to understand how their participation matters in the mission of the association," says Sladek. "Countless research says Millennials will engage if it's something they care about, in a place where they feel they belong."