The Mystery of Attracting Young Professionals

A study of one association's members bucks conventional wisdom and shows that young professionals seek the symbolic benefits of membership.

The mind of the young association member: a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. In a newly published survey of one association’s members, a surprising finding about its young professionals only serves to further the conunudrum.

Professional Associations and Members’ Benefits: What’s in It for Me?” [paywall], published this month in the journal Nonprofit Management and Leadership, studied the link between tangible association benefits, customer-service quality, and member satisfaction through a survey of about 2,000 members of “a large international accounting association.” The researchers predicted young professionals would show a stronger link between benefits satisfaction and member satisfaction than older professionals, but the results came out differently.

The study supports the idea that associations can help young professionals find their place in the world, make connections, learn about their careers, and develop their sense of self.

“Opposite to the prediction, we found that younger professionals are less concerned with the value of benefits in determining their membership satisfaction than older professionals,” they wrote.

So, what gives? The authors based their hypothesis on past research that has shown younger generations seeking greater tangible return on investment, a perspective that has established itself more or less as conventional wisdom in the association world. But the authors also pointed to social identity theory (how people “classify themselves and others”) and organizational identification (how people “define their identities and feel intertwined with the organization’s values”) in their discussion of symbolic benefits that professional associations offer, and they suggest these dynamics might be taking the lead in young professionals’ motivations:

“This discrepancy can be explained by the relative value placed by each group on tangible versus symbolic benefits. Younger people may look to the profession to help them define who they are to both themselves and their employers. Older, more established members seek tangible benefits to justify the membership dues.”

This idea rings true to me, and it immediately reminded me of something I wrote on this topic, in this space, a few months ago: “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.”

That was just my opinion, but this study offers some support to the idea that associations can help young professionals find their place in the world, make connections, learn about their careers, and develop their sense of self.

It also suggests, however, that older professionals may have already developed their networks and sense of identity, meaning tangible ROI is the primary motivator. The study’s authors explain how this might shape association membership marketing: “[P]romoting membership to younger professionals should be an affirmation of their professional identity, whereas promoting membership to older members should emphasize the availability of desired tangible benefits.”

Overall, the study supported the link between tangible benefits and member satisfaction, so it’s a reminder that “what’s in it for me” is a strong motivator in the decision to join. But the finding about young professionals adds some nuance to our collective understanding of “what’s in it for me.” In most discussions I’ve seen, “what’s in it for me” is equated with tangible benefits and direct return on investment: knowledge gained, money saved, and so on. This study, though, broadens the scope of “what’s in it for me” to include more symbolic benefits like identity and affiliation.

Maybe young professionals in your industry do conform to the me-generation stereotype, or maybe they don’t. But you won’t know if you don’t ask. This study highlights just one association, but, if nothing else, the fact that it plays against conventional wisdom is a solid reminder to survey your own members, just to be sure.


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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