As Demographics Shift, Refocus on Who’s a Member

An aging membership, or one that lacks diversity, could be a sign that it’s time to make big structural changes to your association. For the American Truck Historical Society, that meant refocusing on who the organization should serve.

In recent years, the American Truck Historical Society has been facing a consistent and troubling trend: Its membership is literally dying out.

“Like many societies in the field, ATHS is faced with an aging demographic,” says Executive Director Laurence Gration. “In 2017, we lost 132 members; 128 [were] due to death.”

In part, the challenge is embedded in ATHS’s mission: The association has traditionally served owners of big rigs that date back to classic trucks popular in the mid-20th century. That’s not a style of truck that’s popular with younger collectors, which means the organization hasn’t attracted a new generation of members.

So ATHS took a hard look at some fundamental definitions.

“The refocus of the society is on asking: What is a truck?” Gration says. In answering that question, ATHS placed “a special emphasis on the role vans and pickup trucks now play, with the objective of attracting younger people who can relate better to these vehicles.”

The shift is partly economic. Commercial-style trucks require major investments of time and money to keep operational, and not everyone can afford to support an interest in historic trucking if the field is limited to big rigs.

So earlier this year, ATHS added new categories of membership for owners of vintage vans and pickup trucks. By opening the door to small-truck owners and hobbyists and giving all members the same level of access to member benefits, Gration says a new, more level playing field has been created for members to engage outside of the organization’s legacy ownership categories and groups.

The new strategy has already helped recruit new members and reorient ATHS for the future.  “We’re changing the guard, so to speak, in what our organization represents,” he says, “and in doing so, we’re finding new value that we can bring.”

Focus on D+E+I

Aside from an aging membership, ATHS also is addressing diversity, equity, and inclusion issues in an organization that Gration describes as “old, white, and male.”

“I think less than 10 percent of members don’t fall into that category,” he says. “At our annual conference in June, you could actually see the issue quite clearly.”

But the changing demographics of vintage truck collectors are apparent in other places the community congregates, including in ATHS’s Facebook group, which is open to member and nonmembers alike.

“We know that the majority of the trucking industry is male, but there are also many women who we can see [on Facebook],” Gration says. “But currently, we don’t have a single woman who serves on the board. We need to do a better job to recruit women and also reach across the aisle to partner groups.”

One such potential partner that ATHS is reaching out to is Women in Trucking, an organization that’s already at work bringing gender diversity to the trucking industry.

Gration hopes that the new D+E+I focus will make ATHS look and feel like an entirely new organization five years from now.

“It would be wrong just to target young people with our new membership strategy,” he says. “What we must do is look to the future and represent the array of collectors that make up the entire community.”

Does your organization have demographic or diversity challenges that may be holding you back? What have you done to address these issues? Post your comments below.

A series of toy trucks from a 2018 American Truck Historical Society event. The society, which focuses on real trucks, has added categories for different kinds of trucks in recent months. (Anthony/Flickr)

Tim Ebner

By Tim Ebner

Tim Ebner is a senior editor for Associations Now. He covers membership, leadership, and governance issues. Email him with story ideas or news tips. MORE

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