Chillax, Bro: Attracting Young Members Is Just Common Sense

Or: How associations can learn to stop worrying and love generation Y.

Getting young people engaged in associations is tough these days. I read a blog post recently that I’m sure many association membership professionals can relate to. An excerpt:

“Attracting a cadre of young volunteers is one of the most serious issues facing the association community. New professionals often find it difficult to place volunteerism high on their priority list. But the social and economic problems facing our nation today demand a firm commitment to volunteer activity.

[…] Perceptions were different a decade ago. Belonging to organizations and participating in them was the norm. Just prior to my graduation from nursing school, I received an application for membership in the professional society. The expectation was that I would join—and I did. That expectation no longer exists.”

It’s clear that we’ve been fretting over generational doomsday for decades now.

Sorry, I lied. That’s not from a blog post. It’s from a magazine column from 1989. That’s why I didn’t link to it. (But if you have the August 1989 issue of Association Management lying around, flip to page 16 to read “Bring on the Younger Generation.”)

I see a lot of hand wringing over generation Y in my interactions with membership pros. If you believe the hype, the social media generation is a bunch of over-ambitious tech junkies who send text messages all day instead of joining associations like they should. Don’t buy it. To borrow a phrase from my fellow gen-Yers, “Chillax, bro.” Maybe we’re just still finding our place in the world, and maybe we’re just hesitant to plunk down a few hundred of our entry-level dollars until we feel a little more confident about our career choices. (Related question: When you turn 30, do you automatically forget what it’s like to be in your 20s? I’m getting close, so I’d like a fair warning, please.)

I found more than just this one column in ASAE’s archives, and it’s clear that we’ve been fretting over generational doomsday for decades now. But the world hasn’t ended yet, and the common-sense advice that helped associations attract the tail end of the baby boom generation and generation X stands the test of time:

Create specific opportunities for young-professional engagement: “At the meeting, [Independent Sector] members wear badges indicating a willingness to talk with or assist young people attending the meeting. … we also convened a concurrent session for young and emerging leaders to develop strategies for cultivating future leadership within IS and the independent sector at large.” (“Finding Future Leaders,” Association Management, April 1996)

Give young professionals a chance to test the waters with ad hoc volunteering: “Our younger members view giving back to their industry differently than our more senior members. For instance, they prefer ad hoc committees or committees that sunset so that they feel like they can participate in a way that will not require an all-consuming time commitment.” (“CEO to CEO,” Association Management, April 1997)

Offer price breaks on membership or meetings: “Some organizations assist new professionals by offering a break on dues. For example, the American Nurses Association, Kansas City, Missouri, offers new graduates half-price dues during their first year of membership.” (“Bring on the Younger Generation,” Association Management, August 1989)

Use current technology—whatever it is at the moment—to meet young professionals where they are: “We also need to leverage the best available technology (e-mail, fax, video-conferencing) to reach them and to allow them to work with committees.” (“CEO to CEO,” Association Management, April 1997) “When asked ‘Are there any additional benefits or services that SAE should offer?’ the biggest item on the under-37s’ ‘wish lists’ was an Internet connection with SAE.” (“Younger Members: Indifferent or Overloaded?” Chapter Relations, September/October 1996)

We all get old and become mystified by the people who come along after us. This is nothing new. You’re not the first, and you won’t be the last. It doesn’t mean that you can sit back, relax, and just wait a few years until your young potential members decide to join. Of course not. But it does mean that what might look like an impending revolution to you may just be the normal march of time. Follow your instincts as a membership professional: Get to know your target audience and be sensitive to their specific wants and needs. In the case of my fellow millennials, I’m pretty sure we’ll come around.


Joe Rominiecki

By Joe Rominiecki

Joe Rominiecki, manager of communications at the Entomological Society of America, is a former senior editor at Associations Now. MORE

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