National Watermelon Association – Save the Associations Vol. 7

The National Watermelon Association is the oldest single fruit commodity association in the U.S., and for nearly a century it was run solely by volunteers. In 2005, the association realized that to overcome stagnant membership and the impending workforce crisis, it had to bring in professional staff. That year, Bob Morrissey joined as Executive Director and has not only created new programs for the younger generations, but he has been considering those generations with every foundational change that has been made.

Future Watermelon Farm Leaders

“I started by reading as much on Gen X and Gen Y as possible,” shared Morrissey. He first read Sarah Sladek’s book titled The End of Membership As We Know It. “The topic launched us to focus on the near future, and how we could transform an association with four generations involved into something renewed that would be viable, sustainable, and growing into the next couple of decades,” stated Morrissey. He didn’t want to be too aggressive as he didn’t want to scare people off, but he also knew the association needed to evolve fairly quickly.

One result of this effort was the creation of the Future Watermelon Farm Leaders  (FWFL) program. This young professional program is focused on giving members the opportunities they crave to further their careers and their industry. These future leaders speak and work at the national convention, take part in the association’s varied committees, and network with industry professionals. “They are the future and they are engaged,” said Morrissey.

The program has been well received, which is why it is about to enter into a new phase. Recognizing farming’s crucial role in feeding the world, Morrissey shared that “with the average age of farmers today [being] over 58 years old, it is vital for us to embrace the younger generations to continue that respected trade and to lead our association.” In the new version of the FWFL, members are going to have the opportunity to engage with the industry on every level. Proposed plans include:

  • ‍An annual trip to Washington, D.C., to learn about lobbying.
  • Visits to companies along the industry supply line to understand the behind-the-scenes work.
  • Invitations to attend the bi-annual board meetings.

Innovation at Every Level

For the last decade, the National Watermelon Association has focused on enhancing its member and potential member offerings. In addition to the creation of the FWFL, the association has increased food safety initiatives; its Washington, D.C., involvement; and member education opportunities.

It has also opened communication channels by adding a wide array of digital media offerings. The association now has a digital magazine, social media channels, and a convention-specific website and app.

The National Watermelon Association knows the importance of listening to its members. Starting in 2019, membership will no longer consist of regional and national joint membership. A two-year study found that 55-60% of national members were not engaged on a national level because they owned local businesses. By separating the memberships, local members who want to stay local will feel that local relevance; members who want a national involvement will benefit from their national engagement. “Choice is a good thing, and people like to make their own choices when they can,” shared Morrissey. The study also revealed that while this change will decrease the number of national members, revenue is expected to increase through its engaged members. “We are not worried about total membership numbers per se, as our research shows that our national effort will actually increase revenue, which is a huge positive.”

Advice for Other Associations

If you want to bring change to your association, Morrissey suggests looking internally for help. “You cannot, and should not, go it alone. You will need partners,” shared Morrissey. He suggests identifying board leaders who are willing to speak up and who have the necessary patience to work through the process. “Rome was not built in a day; it will be a slow process.” Taking your time to gain partners and to follow a methodical process of listening and learning will position your association for future success. Morrissey exclaims, “Your association will be so much better for the effort.  All the Best!”

If your organization is struggling, now is the time for action. Register for our newly developed courses specifically designed to help membership organizations more effectively engage and retain members.