A Startup Strategy for Building a Millennial Membership

With lobbying as the primary member benefit, will young people join the newly launched Association of Young Americans? Founder Ben Brown is optimistic and taking an entrepreneurial approach to the tall task ahead.

Conventional wisdom in associations says that lobbying is a critical activity and yet difficult to define as a tangible benefit of membership. Conventional wisdom also says young people are difficult to recruit and retain as members.

The only thing harder, then, would be the two-fer, selling young people on the value of lobbying. But Ben Brown is going to try, anyway.

Associations Now reported last week about the launch of the Association of Young Americans, a startup nonprofit that Vice aptly dubbed “an AARP for millennials.” Brown, 26, is founder and CEO of AYA, which, while still in its most nascent stage, has big aspirations founded on a simple premise: Everyone has lobbyists except for young people. So, why not?

This doesn’t work with 30 million Facebook or Twitter followers. It only actually works if you become a member.

Of course, countless nonprofit activist organizations court the young generation and advocate for causes that the young strongly support, but few if any engage young people based on their age primarily nor adopt a membership model to do it. Brown says he sees room for an “umbrella” group for the cohort old enough to vote but too young to become president. And he chose membership both for practical reasons—because offering benefits can drive recurring revenue—and, more important, strategic ones: “It gives members ownership of the organization,” he says.

And “ownership” is the best way to understand how AYA intends to jiu-jitsu lobbying into a driver of membership for 18- to 35-year-olds. Rather than trying to fight the perception of lobbying as a tool of special interests, Brown aims to pose that as an opportunity for young people to take advantage of—by joining, at just $20 a year.

“Because we’re starting from ground zero, something we are going to be very deliberate with in our messaging is that this actually only works if you join,” Brown says. “Unfortunately, this doesn’t work with 30 million Facebook or Twitter followers. This idea doesn’t work if you like it and agree with the vision and agree with what we’re trying to do. It only actually works if you become a member. It only actually works if you support it.”

While AYA’s tangible membership benefits are still thin, Brown says he hopes to introduce a range of discounts for products and services of particular interest to young people. But he also plans to offer members tools and opportunities for engaging in the political process.

“We think that our lobbyists, for the Association of Young Americans at large, can act as a conduit between elected officials and our members,” Brown says. “Even though we can’t get all of our members to DC into a room with a congresswoman, there’s no reason we can’t engage our members in the conversation, driven by a lobbyist or guided by a lobbyist, and we think technology will play a really key role in that.”

Policy positions, for instance, will be staked out via regular member surveys—an effort, again, to give members ownership over lobbying as a benefit.

The big question, of course, is will they join? For any number of reasons, professional societies and trade associations have difficulty engaging younger members, but Brown is nonetheless optimistic. He cites research that says millennials are more willing to volunteer and donate to causes than they are typically given credit for, and he hopes AYA will connect with under-35s in a way that other organizations don’t. (Those over the age of 35 are welcome to join, though their policy preferences won’t be factored into AYA’s lobbying strategies.) “It’s important to talk about what young people want to talk about, not what you want them to talk about,” he says.

To discover what young people want to talk about, AYA has begun in “soft launch” mode. Membership is currently in the “low hundreds,” and the focus is on messaging and members. Brown’s early career experience was in startup development, and he’s adapting the lean startup model—which guides organizations to learn quickly and adapt quickly—to the AYA launch.

“You can think of the Association of Young Americans as this lobbying organization trying to get millennials into this big complicated entrenched system, but I’m really looking at it as a startup and trying to bring some of these tools that have made a lot of companies very successful,” he says. “It’s why we’re doing the soft launch. It’s why we’re getting the word out and why we’re testing it, and why we’re talking to our members about all sorts of stuff. So we can learn, and so we can adapt, and so we can be successful.”

In a political climate as feverish and unpredictable as 2016, now may be just the right time for AYA to build its base and test its appeal. Little is likely to happen on Capitol Hill between now and November, which gives AYA some time to get ready to “hit the ground running” after the election. Right now, though, “the early strategy is to tell as many people as we can, and to really refine our messaging and refine what we’re talking about,” Brown says.

What do you think about the challenges of recruiting young members and engaging them in lobbying? How has your association tackled them? What advice do you have for the fledgling AYA? Share your thoughts 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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