Two Ways to Attract Generation Z Into Your Member Ranks

Gen Z is looking to engage and make a meaningful impact. But with research showing they have little trust in institutions, getting them to join associations is a tough challenge. To make some headway, associations must understand what benefits they’re looking for and even turn to nonmembers for insights.

As Generation Z continues to enter the workforce, it’s no surprise that associations are looking to attract these young professionals into their ranks. But to effectively do that, it’s important to understand what they value and need from associations.

“Right now, there’s a disconnect between associations and Gen Z,” said Jon Berbaum, president of Highland Solutions. “We’re seeing a decline in membership engagement from young professionals.”

In 2022, Highland Solutions examined this trend by conducting a series of interviews with three segments of young professionals—members, former members, and nonmembers—from associations representing different industries.

“We found that Gen Z-ers are looking for a community and want to give back but aren’t sure if they want to do that with an organized institution,” he said. “They are more likely to be suspicious of associations.”

With that understanding in mind, Berbaum shared reasons behind these trends and how associations can respond by meeting young professionals where they are.

Understand the Why

According to Highland’s data, associations are less relevant for Gen Z-ers than they are for previous generations. The underlying values—benefits, social connections, and alignment to purpose—all resonate with young professionals, but the landscape has changed.

“The digital revolution has vastly increased how young professional can meet these career-related needs,” Berbaum said. “We found that they often source information, training, mentoring, and peer connections through channels outside of associations.”

As modes of social connection have shifted in recent years, young professionals are building relationships outside of networking events.

“There are many asymmetrical, alternative spaces for social connections,” Berbaum said. “Young professionals are choosing to join free chat and video apps like Discord or Slack. They might turn to Reddit with career questions instead of association channels.”

When they do join associations, they might be interested in a few specific benefits rather than a holistic value package.

“We found that young professionals are often looking for something targeted. They may want access to one benefit, like a benchmarking study, then leave afterward,” Berbaum said. “It’s like subscribing to a streaming service to watch your favorite show and then canceling when you finish the series.”

Nonmember Voices

To get ahead of this challenge, associations should reach out to young professionals. However, Berbaum recommends talking to nonmember Gen Z-ers.

“Talking to your own young members is essentially a consumer panel of people who already like your product,” he said. “You want to listen proactively to young professionals who are not members.”

Try to approach these conversations with an open mindset and a desire to understand new perspectives.

“It’s easy to think that once Gen Z-ers get older they’ll understand the value and start to join associations, but that’s not always the case,” Berbaum said. “Listening to their lived experiences can help associations begin the journey of meaningful adaptation for a younger generation of professionals.”

Berbaum recommends asking young professionals about the methods and tools they use to solve their career needs, rather than asking why they aren’t members or their opinion of the association.

“Understanding what they are choosing and why is really important information to begin to reimagine where you as an association might go and how you can adapt,” Berbaum said.

By listening to outside voices, associations can then begin to look at their current offerings and imagine how to retool them to meet the next generation’s needs.

Berbaum suggests reviewing three major categories—functional benefits that help professionals in their careers; social connections, such as networking; and alignment to a mission for the greater good and industry.

“We may need to find new ways to create social connections, retool our benefits, and redefine our purpose so that they are more relevant for all our members, especially young members,” he said. “It’s a big change, and something we continue to grapple with.”


Hannah Carvalho

By Hannah Carvalho

Hannah Carvalho is Senior Editor at Associations Now. MORE

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