Designing New Opportunities for Millennial Members

On the heels of new research on millennials that illustrates some potential areas of concern for associations, we take a look at how AIGA, the professional association for design, is adjusting to changing membership demographics and needs.

A new generational study from the Pew Research Center had quite a few people talking recently.

Among several positive findings such as this generation’s relative economic optimism, several of the data from the report, “Millennials in Adulthood,” indicate there could be tough times ahead for associations.

Here’s a few of those findings and how they could impact membership organizations:

  • Millennials are not as trusting as other generations. Only 19 percent of those 18 to 33 reported that most people can be trusted, while 40 percent of boomers, 37 percent of the Silent Generation, and 31 percent of Gen Xers said most people could be trusted.

“Boomers look to associations as trusted institutions and sources of information,” social media and community manager Maggie McGary wrote in a recent blog post. “Millennials, not so much, which will greatly ramp up the challenge of attracting and retaining them as members, in my opinion. I think membership is a lot about trust, and if millennials are coming from a place of generally not trusting, that could be a significant challenge for associations to overcome.”

  • Millennials are not as likely to align with institutions. About half of millennials do not identify with a political party and, as a whole, are less likely than previous generations to be affiliated with any religion. Could this lack of attachment translate to associations?
  • This generation is facing more economic challenges than previous generations.  Millennials have higher levels of student loan debt, poverty, and unemployment combined with lower levels of wealth and personal income than the two previous generations. When deciding what to spend their hard-earned income on, where do membership dues rank in the minds of millennials?

While these findings, and the subsequent questions they pose, may represent potential areas of concern for associations (there are also plenty of reasons why millennials DO join associations), they may also offer opportunities.

For example, faced with outside competition and disrupters that so many associations are currently confronted with, as well as a growing base of young members, AIGA, the professional association for design, decided it needed to make some changes to adapt.

“In the spirit of creative disruption, we realized that if we were going to be relevant in the future, we had to make a dramatic change in who we are so that we can grow,” said AIGA’s Executive Director, Richard Grefé, while speaking at ASAE’s Great Ideas Conference this month.

Having launched a new tiered membership structure in August 2012 to reach a wider, more diverse audience, the association also realized it needed to be responsive to the growing younger population of designers.

“Our membership is kind of like the profession as a whole,” Grefé said.  As the number of designers graduating each year continues to grow, so do the number of younger AIGA members.

To begin its evolution, the association tried to get a better idea how it could best serve its members, including those young designers. So it conducted member surveys and asked its 67 chapters to conduct focus group activities with members at a local level. One assignment, for example, asked members to write AIGA’s obituary. “We could see what they missed and what they valued,” Grefé said. While another activity asked members to write a Yelp-type review of the association.

Out of those exploratory exercises, AIGA learned a lot about what the younger generation in its 67 chapters felt, said Grefé, who added that one of the biggest takeaways was the need for the association to provide opportunities for designers to help solve problems and create social change.

“What we now realize looking forward, based on all these things, is we’ve got to continue to work with the designers who see design as having a hand in social impact,” Grefé said.

How does an association provide such opportunities?

One way AIGA is doing this is through a new partnership with the Federal Emergency Management Agency in which designers would help disaster-stricken communities “imagine” recovery.

For instance, should a disaster or emergency strike somewhere in the country, FEMA could call on a designer from one of AIGA’s 67 chapters to help local residents envision what recovery would look like by leading and facilitating meetings.

It’s a way to get designers up there right next to community leaders and helping to facilitate change, Grefé said.

How is your association responding to shifting member needs? Let us know in the comments.


Katie Bascuas

By Katie Bascuas

Katie Bascuas is associate editor of Associations Now. MORE

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