For as long as I can remember, tennis has been one of my favorite sports. I played from an early age and eventually taught lessons during my summers off in high school. For some, the long hot days, sore muscles, and constant running back and forth may have been exhausting. For me, it was an invigorating activity that required strategy, skill, and patience. Today, I still get just as energized when a tennis match is on TV, and on weekends, I still love to pick up my racquet and head to the courts.

Over the course of my career, I’ve found that a comparison can be drawn between tennis theory and membership theory. When I first started researching membership engagement trends in the early 2000s, I observed that older generations (mainly Baby Boomers) valued membership strongly, having been raised to believe that belonging to an association was a key stepping stone in the journey to adulthood.

Many Boomers I studied shared a similar experience: start your career, join an industry organization, and earn your seat at the table by continuously investing in your membership.

It seems like a recipe for success, right?

…Maybe not. At the same time, our research suggested that younger generations were less inclined to join membership organizations. Interest in membership was waning, but why? The turn of the 21st century ushered in major social, economic, and political shifts in our society. Coupled with significant technological advancements, a rapidly changing world swayed young people’s interests, including what they wanted out our their membership experience.

The broader data we gathered presented a shocking trend: across the board, 20% of members (younger members) were pushing their associations to rethink and modernize their membership models. They were posing the following questions to their associations:

When was the last time you reviewed your membership demographics?
How current is your value proposition?
What am I going to get out of my membership if I join your association?

These questions prompted discomfort and pushback from more seasoned, established members, which made up the remaining 80%. Their response to the younger community?

If we’re pouring resources into engaging younger members, how will we keep our current membership engaged?
How do we engage younger members without alienating our more seasoned members?
What types of problems will this create?

What emerged was a tug of war between the 80% and 20%, and as expected, the majority ruled.

The former were resistant to updating their membership model, and the latter was left feeling excluded and silenced by their associations. The hierarchal structures and old-fashioned traditions that remained started to drive this demographic away from associations, and as a result, many organizations experienced significant membership decline.

Today, I’ve seen a shift in these trends that indicate we are no longer dealing with an 80/20 disparity – data suggests that these numbers have evolved into what I call “the 60-40 rule.”

Across the board, around 60% of members are loyal, but contemplating retirement and therefore, terminating their membership. What was once a stable population is no longer as secure as they once were. The remaining 40% (that was once only 20%) of members are continuing to push their change-making agendas and committing to their membership a bit longer than they had in the past.

You may be thinking, how does this all relate back to tennis?

In tennis, there are two sections of the court where you will have the biggest advantage – the first being the baseline, where you have the power of observation and the ability to hit groundstrokes. The second is at the center of the net, where you can effectively stop most shots and defend your side of the court.

There exists, however, a third section of the court which is referred to as “no man’s land” and it is perhaps the most dangerous territory to be in. Located between the service line and the baseline, you leave yourself exposed and defenseless if you end up in this part of the court. The 60-40 rule I mentioned earlier doubles as a recipe for your association to end up in its own no-man’s-land position.

Extensive disengagement and flattening or declining membership trends signal that an association is nearing a 50-50 mark. This number should alarm association leaders because it means that both halves of your membership are in jeopardy (50 being satisfied, 50 being dissatisfied and likely to leave). It wasn’t that long ago that we were at an 80-20 disparity. It wasn’t a great place to be, per se, but most members were happy. Although new members’ voices were getting louder in the association world, they were squelched fairly quickly by the stronghold that older members had on the larger community.

We are seeing that the 40% has been slow to grow because the majority still rules.

The latter 60% indicates that turnover is taking place (career and membership-wise) and that the majority of voices are getting smaller, leaving them more susceptible to leaving. The trend I observed over two decades ago still exists: while new ideas and younger generations start to populate associations, there is a direct correlation with the loyal members will decrease substantially.

Awareness of this phenomenon is important, but taking action guarantees that your association doesn’t near the 50-50 mark. It’s time to get to the net or to the baseline and put yourself in a more advantageous, competitive position. To accomplish this, your organization must have a succession plan in place that ensures your association will continue to thrive in an ever-changing environment. The solution is threefold: be inclusive, build community, and welcome fresh ideas and perspectives. With those three components in place, you’ll be acing the membership game in no time.

If you’re ready to learn more strategies to elevate your organization, reach out to us! We’re here to help associations like yours thrive.