An Old-School Method for New Member Engagement

When one association saw an influx of new, younger members, one of its primary engagement tactics was decidedly traditional: committee volunteering.

Taking notes is a good study habit because the act of writing makes whatever information you’re writing stickier. You’re more actively interacting with the information, so it’s more memorable. Associations know that the same principle is at play with new members: Get them more actively involved, and their membership experience will be more memorable.

The American Neurological Association kept this in mind last year when it opened its membership eligibility to a whole new swath of the neurology field. In 2013, ANA removed a strict, 140-year-old (!) set of requirements and a lengthy application process that had effectively limited its membership to veteran, tenured academics and instead opened its doors to anyone with a faculty position in neurology at a medical school in the U.S. and Canada.

The Decision to Volunteer found that young members are more likely to see the benefits of volunteering than older generations.

The change brought an influx of new, often younger, members (about 300, out of 1,880 at year-end 2013) and new perspectives. Accordingly, the association needed to adopt some new engagement efforts to onboard these new members; three of these methods are shared in “Rules of Engagement: New Members, New Energy,” in the May/June issue of Associations Now. In my view, the third strategy, “get new members on committees,” is the most important, and, as ANA Director of Education and Member Services Jessica Smith says, it showed the greatest positive effects shortly after the change.

“We have quite a few committees, and the committee work is a lot. The annual meeting programming is extremely scientific, so their participation in our interactive lunch workshop committee or our faculty development committee or our scientific programming committee is critical to the success of the meeting,” Smith says.

Integrating new, younger members into committees created a mix of voices that had been lacking before, Smith says. The neuroscience field is enjoying a boom in technological innovation and research advancement as of late, including more than $100 million in funding through the Obama administration’s BRAIN Initiative. That’s raising the game for academic neurologists at all levels, making it all the more important for ANA to be, as ANA Executive Director Victoria Elliott, CAE, ┬áput it, the “place for the people right in the middle of this amazing revolution to meet and interact and to help move this medical revolution forward as a group.”

When ANA’s committees met at its 2013 annual meeting, people noticed a change. “We received really, really positive feedback at our annual meeting, which was really kind of early in the process for us last year,” Smith says. “Folks walked away from that meeting feeling like ‘I wasn’t really on board with changing the membership criteria, but I see the benefit now.’ We had a past president come up to us and remark on the positives he saw coming out of the meeting.”

Many associations seem to view involving a new generation of members as a new, mystifying 21st-century challenge, but it’s hard to miss the fact that committee involvement is a rather traditional solution. Maybe it shouldn’t come as a suprise, though, that it still works. ASAE’s 2007 study The Decision to Join found a clear, positive relationship between volunteering and a member’s likelihood to recommend the association to a friend or colleague. And, in regard to younger association members specifically, The Decision to Volunteer (DTV) found that they are more likely to see the benefits of volunteering than older generations.

I’m a strong believer that the type of volunteering offered to young members is crucial, too. It has to be meaningful work. If I’m offered a choice between joining a group for young professionals or joining a planning committee for a particular association function (event, publication, education, etc.), I’ll take the latter. I’d rather not just be lumped in with other young pros, fenced off in a separate little play area. I want to be doing some real work for the association. And DTV says I’m not alone: In that study, “I can do something for a profession or cause that is important to me” ranked as the most important reason for volunteering in associations, and that was true for all generations.

In my own experience, shortly after I began at ASAE, I got involved as a volunteer for Association Media & Publishing, and I’ve worked on its conference committee for about five years and served as a judge for its annual awards competition several times, as well. The way I got involved was pretty simple: Someone asked me to. And that offers a final thought on why ANA saw the positive effects of involving new, younger members on its committees. Again in the DTV study, the direct ask was found to be the most common way volunteers at associations found their way into those roles. But, disappointingly, younger members were much less likely to be asked.

That’s an easy thing to fix. ANA did it. It gave its new members the opportunity to get involved in a meaningful way, and it saw the benefits. It’s a nice reminder that engaging young members doesn’t have to be that hard.

What sort of volunteer opportunities do you offer your younger members? And how to you try to get them involved? What has their impact been? Please share in the comments.


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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