By Noel Atzmiller | STC Senior Member
The End of Membership As We Know It
By Sarah L. Sladek
ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership (2011), Washington, DC
This is a book about change—societal and organizational—and what associations must do to deal with this.
Author Sarah Sladek is an experienced marketing and media professional who started researching demographic shifts in 2002. In this book, she uses her extensive experience and research to explain the drastic changes that are affecting associations. Her explanations are blunt and startling.
According to Sladek, until the year 2000, most associations benefited tremendously from the participation and activity of “Baby Boomers”—people who were born between 1946 and 1964. Boomers, the largest generation in American history, generated numerous associations with thriving memberships. Boomers were driven by the opportunity to serve and to “fix” whatever ailed associations. These individuals paid their association dues, says Sladek, “Because it was the right thing to do.” Boomers tolerated some internal association conflict, accepted (to a certain extent) bureaucracy, and worked within rigid organizational structures.
Things are changing, however.
Between 2001 and 2030, some 78 million Boomers will retire. This shift poses a great threat to associations; most are entirely governed and supported by the Baby Boomer generation. Very few associations have or are developing strategies to cushion themselves from this massive exodus of members, committee chairs, and dedicated volunteers.
Additional social changes within the last 20 years have also occurred. Concepts such as the importance of work-life balance and more emphasis on individuality rather than conformity have engendered people with dramatically different needs, values, wants, and expectations.
Technology has also challenged people to adapt and integrate new technological advancements into their lives. Access to networks and information is possible without the assistance of associations. Entire generations that have never known life without technology are entering—or are now in—the workplace.
This dual impact of societal changes and technology have fostered generations of people who question the value of membership in associations. The author flatly states, “Younger people seek and demand a return for membership, including tangible member services, high levels of accountability, identifiable career advantages, a sense of professional community, and opportunities to serve within associations.”
These younger individuals, called Generation X and Generation Y (Gen X, Gen Y), have completely different values, interests, needs, and wants than the Boomers. Gen X and Gen Y have different worldviews and priorities as a result of their social experiences. They will not respond to recruiting efforts of the past. An entirely new approach is required. Everything about membership in associations must change.
Sladek flatly declares, “Now, more than ever, associations need to be able to prove beyond a doubt that membership provides a return on investment to their members—especially its youngest members and prospects.”
A Game Plan
The author then outlines an approach that associations should follow. This approach involves an understanding of niche, culture, and value.
According to the author, the associations of the past focused on quantity—getting as many members as possible without alienating anyone. The result can be a generalized, watered-down explanation of the association’s value to members. In a world with more access to information and competition than ever before, an association must be the “go-to resource” for one audience. More specifically, an association must set itself apart as the “expert,” providing ample resources in its area of expertise to members. People looking for this expertise will find it and quickly ascertain the value of joining the association. In short, an association must seek to be meaningful to someone, not everyone.
Every association has a culture. Culture is the environment and experiences the association creates for its members. It’s the values, beliefs, underlying assumptions, experiences, and habits that create the association’s behavior and ways of working. The association’s website content, the interaction of board members in meetings, the attendance during association meetings, and the willingness of volunteers to participate and speak loudly about an association’s culture.
And why does this matter? The younger generations are driven by personal happiness. They refuse to engage in anything negative, challenging, or draining of their time and energy. They will also refuse to engage in a culture that is not open to them.
Here, the author focused on money—more specifically, the value that members receive for paying their association dues. Associations must now prove their worth. Associations must answer Gen X and Gen Y individuals when they ask, “What’s in it for me?” The author suggests that associations must respond to the younger generations’ desire to become involved with a cause. These people want to be inspired to make a difference.
At this point in the book, Sladek stressed that an association must never cite networking as a member benefit. Networking is an activity that may result from joining an association, but it is not exclusive to it. Thanks to technology, Gen X and Gen Y can easily find people with whom they want to network, and they do not need an association to do this.
The author states that associations must ask the members to describe what they value. Through the use of surveys, interviews, or focus groups, an association must determine what makes a difference in the lives of its members. In other words, the members (or potential members) tell the association what it must do to provide value.
Associations must produce and transmit a clear message of the return on investment (ROI) that paying members receive. An “ROI-driven association” is completely focused on delivering value and attending to the needs of its members. Members receive as a return on their dues access to valuable information, opportunities, and resources. Membership ROI also means delivering a variety of meaningful member benefits.
Providing Opportunities with Benefits
According to Sladek, associations must address the wants and needs of the under-45 crowd. Consequently, associations must focus on three primary objectives:
- The opportunity to lead.
- The opportunity to learn.
- The opportunity to make a difference.
Younger generations will invest in a membership if—and only if—membership benefits them personally and professionally, and if it benefits their community or industry.
The author then provides several suggestions and examples of how to fulfill these three objectives.
Gen X and Gen Y will lead if their leadership experience is enjoyable, rewarding, and has real outcomes. Recognition for their efforts is also crucial. Associations must provide leadership training, mentoring, short-term leadership opportunities, and recognition.
Young professionals actively seek the opportunity to learn new skills. They want to expand and hone their skill-sets in case they lose their jobs. In response, associations must expand their professional development offerings, but they must not limit them to in-person events. Associations must use technology and creativity: webinars that are recorded for download at a later time, video or audio recordings of association programs, podcasts that provide helpful information or tips, mentoring programs, and round-table small-group discussions.
Making a Difference
The ways Gen X and Gen Y want to work, and for whom they choose to work, carry over into their decision-making process with memberships. These generations want to know their participation in an association can literally make a difference in their personal and professional lives—and in the lives of others. Socially conscious member benefits might include organized fundraisers, a portion of dues being directed to community or industry needs, or service projects that enable members to engage, volunteer, and make a difference.
This book provides much more detail on these topics. It also provides more explanations of why associations must change to survive. The author includes specific steps an association should take to make this change.
Impact on STC
As I read this book, I naturally thought about our STC chapter. Perhaps we should follow these suggestions and approaches to ensure the success of our organization. At the very least, we need to consider how we are going to deal with the decline in membership.
I would be interested in responses to this book review. I would also appreciate ideas and feedback on how our chapter might meet the needs of our younger members.
This book is available on Amazon.com.
NOEL ATZMILLER (email@example.com) is the Manager of Technical Publications at Baker Hughes, a GE company. Noel began his 34-year career in technical communications in the petrochemical engineering and construction industry. During his career, he has produced many documents for other industries, including natural gas transmission, IT, and oil/gas. Noel has authored several articles that have been published in corporate and oil/gas trade publications. In 2010, his competition entry was awarded Best of Show at the STC Summit in Dallas, Texas. His award-winning document chronicled the first 75 years of Baker Atlas, a previous division of Baker Hughes. At Baker Hughes, Noel helps authors by providing many services, including document editing, leading training for writing conference abstracts and papers, and providing user support for the corporate document management system.