Associations

Your Niche Is Your Pitch

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January 17 @ 9:15 am CST

With the NFL playoffs just around the corner and the Superbowl only weeks away, football fans are more energized than ever, eagerly anticipating how their respective teams will perform and whether they will take home that coveted championship title. My family supports the Minnesota Vikings, but I was part of a Chicago Bears household growing up. Not a football fan? Maybe there is another sport or team you support. Sports teams provide us with electrifying energy, excitement, and a sense of belonging.     We all want to be part of a winning team.    I want you to think about the following scenario: what if your favorite team added other skill sets to its repertoire? For example, if the Bears or Vikings suddenly announced they were also going to play baseball, volleyball, or some other sport in addition to football, they likely wouldn’t have the same value to their fans. We support specific teams because we consider them the best at their craft, not because they do it all.    Membership associations aren’t much different. Your members will typically join your organization because you provide something others don’t.     That one thing that sets you apart from the rest is your “niche” and is the secret to long-term, sustainable success.    Unfortunately, when challenges arise, many associations tend to overcompensate by trying to be accessible and available to everyone by offering too many services. This reaction leads to confusion, frustration, and burnout amongst your board and members alike. Associations in these situations quickly lose focus of their niche and, ultimately, their purpose. What many organizations don’t realize is that there is money to be found in niches. By carving out an area of expertise and being the ‘go-to’ resource, you will attract more members, and thus, more funds.   In today’s marketplace, your organization needs to offer access to something of incredible value to eliminate your competition. To help find your niche and maintain it, I recommend regularly…

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A Prescription for Your Mission

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January 17 @ 9:15 am CST

When you’re feeling unhealthy, oftentimes you will seek the advice of a physician or medical professional. You share your symptoms, receive a prognosis, and are given a prescription to remedy what is making you feel ill. This same process can be applied to your organization – and doesn’t require a trip to a doctor’s office!   How do you know if your organization is truly healthy?   To start your organizational health “checkup,” I recommend looking at your membership succession plan. If one doesn’t exist, now is the time to put one in place! An effective membership succession plan and a NextGen membership pipeline are integral to your organization’s survival.   I encourage you to think about where you would like to see your organization in five years (or even ten or twenty!). What services and experiences do you envision providing your members and how will you continue to engage younger generations?   We no longer live in an era where knowledge and wisdom are solely passed down from elders to young people.   Today, our society has more access to education, information, and technology. As a result, every generation now has a wealth of skill sets and experiences to share and absorb with one another. Never before has so much teaching and learning happened simultaneously, and it is important to identify whether that is taking place in your organization or not.  “Aging out” is a common condition that ultimately means younger generations of members are not being engaged and little to no membership succession planning has taken place. I have had firsthand experience with organizations that had to close their doors because they “aged out.” All too often, it is because they were unwilling to let go of traditions or accept and implement new ideas.   If you want a future for your organization, you must engage those who will carry you into the future. Regularly conducting temperature checks to gauge the average age of your members, board members, and overall community within your organization can help you identify how diverse your organization really is. A lack of diversity typically results in…

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Why I started a campaign to save the associations – and why you should care

January 17 @ 9:15 am CST

It was a cold day. Snow flurries were swirling in the air. Our hands and faces were red and raw from the cold, and we wondered for a moment whether we should just call the whole thing off. It was 2017 and membership decline was experiencing a downward trend — especially among younger generations. Associations everywhere were questioning their value propositions, relevance, and futures, and some were taking considerable hits in revenue or forced to close their doors. Our firm had long researched membership engagement behaviors and trends and I’d spent the past decade consulting with association leaders on the values of younger generations and what they expected from a membership experience. Our clients were able to turn the tide and achieve growth, but many associations were still struggling. Emboldened to help the associations struggling to engage the next generation of members and ‘save’ them from continued decline, we decided to ramp up our efforts. Outdoors on a very cold day in 2017, our team filmed a video titled Save the Associations, encouraging associations to be intentional about their outreach to young generations. In the years that followed, the effort gained momentum. We released an ebook under the same title featuring case studies and best practices, and launched a Save the Associations web show featuring interviews with association executives. All the while, the challenges associations were facing were becoming increasingly difficult. Political conflict, social change, workforce shifts, and advancements in technology were challenging associations and their members in unprecedented ways. Here and now — exactly three years after our team filmed that video — a global pandemic has forced the world to shelter-in-place and work-from-home and associations have been catapulted into a crisis response situation. Whether they are representing front-line workers, organizing efforts to help their communities, recovering from revenues lost to event cancellations, or trying to adapt to a remote and technology-reliant workplace — every association in every country has been disrupted. Our team quickly…

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Young People Aren’t Joiners … Or Are They?

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January 17 @ 9:15 am CST

“Young people today just aren’t joiners.” How many times have you heard someone make that statement? It’s often used in frustration, accusing young people of being unreliable and unwilling to follow in another generation’s footsteps. It’s easy to point fingers and blame ‘kids these days’, simplifying it down to a generational stereotype — a pre-existing condition which repels young people from joining any membership organization. ‘Young people aren’t joiners’ is a frequently used answer, which means it’s the easiest answer. But it’s not the right answer. It’s true the decision to join an organization is accompanied with more consideration and scrutiny than in years past. From employers to faith-based groups, service clubs, and professional associations, people no longer connect to organizations simply because it’s what they are expected to do. There is a myriad of reasons why this happened, all tied to major social shifts, including but not limited to shifts in education, parenting, technology, demographics, politics, and economics. The bottom line? How we engage in and build community has changed and continues to change. So has the concept of ROI – return on investment. In 1994, associations experienced their first encounters with noticeable membership decline. At the time, Gen X was entering the workforce and when they didn’t immediately transition into membership, they became the first generation of non-joiners, referred to as slackers and the ‘what’s in it for me generation’. Regrettably, not much has changed since then. Membership decline has sustained, and I still hear leaders blaming young people for the organization’s impending ruin. If young people aren’t joining, there’s a reason why. At the core of our being, all people want to belong. We all need and want to be in community with others – and we all want to join a community supportive of our needs and interests. My years of research prove young people are joiners. However, they are seeking new and different ways to engage, and many organizations have struggled…

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How to Bring Belonging Back

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January 17 @ 9:15 am CST

Early in my career, I was recruited to sit on an association’s board of directors and given the opportunity to spearhead a priority initiative for the organization. I was thrilled and jumped at the opportunity to take on such a prominent role. Imagine my disappointment when I attended my first board meeting and the initiative was tabled. The next several meetings I attended, the initiative continued to be backburned. It wasn’t long before I found myself feeling frustrated, unappreciated, and overlooked. My admiration for the association and passion for the project waned. I felt like I no longer belonged. Feeling like we don’t belong is a feeling we can all relate to, yet many organizations are struggling to foster a sense of belonging – and have been for quite some time. We know this to be true because most associations have reported declining membership trends for the past decade, just as employers have reported declining levels of employee engagement. And here and now, the workforce turnover is so massive, this era is being referred to as the Great Resignation. Belonging by definition means two things: ownership and a secure relationship. We feel like we belong when we’re invited to actively contribute and share our opinions and ideas, and we are listened to, respected, and positively encouraged. In the late 1990s, belonging began to transition. From workplaces to membership associations, the same trend was observed: Young people were less likely to join/stay/engage/renew. In other words, young people were less likely to feel like they belong. Why the sudden shift? And why have so many organizations struggled to re-engage young people? I’ve spent a lot of time researching this trend in an effort to find the answers. The answer is quite complex, but here’s the condensed version: The shift in belonging is a direct result of significant social change and the era during which younger generations have come of age. Young people are wary of forging connections and…

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Tired businessman sitting near declining arrow

Is your Membership Declining?

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January 17 @ 9:15 am CST

In December 2020, Wild Apricot, a company that helps small membership organizations grow by providing tools and resources, released their 2020 Membership Growth Report. In this report, the group speaks to tactics and strategies to help organizations increase their memberships. They learned that 68% of organizations surveyed have had difficulty growing their membership; 25% did not grow at all; and 11% shrank. Wild Apricot turned to our expert, Sarah Sladek, CEO of XYZ University, with several questions about their findings. Here are Sarah’s responses. ‘Why are so many membership organizations struggling to grow?’ I’ve been researching membership engagement trends for 20 years and the simple fact is, membership decline occurs when associations aren’t responsive to the needs, interests, and expectations of their members. When membership decline first made headlines, there was this widespread belief that people aren’t “joiners” anymore. The reality is, we’ve experienced numerous social disruptions in recent decades, and these disruptions have directly influenced shifts in buying behaviors, communication preferences, and values. How members engage in associations and what they want from their membership experiences has changed — and will continue to do so. Change is a constant now. Unfortunately, many associations have held steadfast to tradition, resisted change, and backburnered innovation. They forgot they were membership associations and stopped putting their members’ needs and interests first. ‘What do you think membership organizations need to do in 2021 and beyond to remain relevant?’ First and foremost, know what members need, want, and expect. To stay relevant and valuable, associations must understand their community’s needs and what behaviors and deliverables will drive future success. This requires surveying members and opening up channels for ongoing feedback and dialogue. I’d also urge associations to deploy a diversified membership strategy that relies on the introduction of new revenue streams, outreach to engage new audiences, and being intentional about bringing new voices and skillsets into the association’s decision-making roles. Going forward, it will be critical that associations serve the…

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How to Cultivate a Sense of Belonging

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January 17 @ 9:15 am CST

Early in my career, I was recruited to sit on a board of directors and asked to spearhead a priority initiative for the association. I was both humbled and ecstatic to take on such an influential role. Imagine my disappointment when I attended the first meeting and the initiative was tabled. During the next several meetings, I was informed the initiative would continue to be delayed. Suddenly, I felt like I was on the outside looking in. I felt like I didn’t belong. At some point, we all experience the feeling that we don’t belong. It’s a feeling we can all relate to, yet many organizations struggle to foster a sense of belonging among their members and employees. Belonging by definition means two things: ownership and a secure relationship: We feel ownership when we actively contribute and share our ideas and opinions; and We feel safe and secure when we’re listened to, respected, and encouraged. In the late 1990s, belonging began to dissipate. From workplaces to churches, service clubs to country clubs, associations, and non-profits, the same trend was observed: Young people were less likely to join/stay/engage/renew. In other words, young people were less likely to feel like they belonged. Why the sudden shift? And why have so many organizations struggled to re-engage young people? Society is hyper-aware and focused on inclusion right now, but simply including people is not enough.  I’ve spent a lot of time researching this trend in an effort to find the answers. The answer is quite complex, but here’s the condensed version: The shift in belonging is the direct result of significant social change. Young people are wary of forging connections and emotional ties. They seek positivity, security, and respect. They are careful about who and what they trust. Young people are less willing to wait for organizations to create a place for them to belong, and more likely to hold organizations accountable for their actions (or inaction). For far too…

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How to Deal with an Organization in Denial

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January 17 @ 9:15 am CST

A year ago, President Trump was under fire by experts and pundits for being in denial about the seriousness of the pandemic. In the early weeks, the President referred to the virus as a hoax, refused to issue a federal stay at home order, and hesitated to fully utilize the Defense Production Act. Unfortunately, leadership denial isn’t exclusive to presidents or pandemics. Henry Ford’s denial ended up costing the company a whopping $250 million. Model T sales were declining, yet Ford dismissed the figures because he suspected rivals of manipulating them. One of his top executives warned him of the dire situation and Ford fired him. When he finally decided to make a new car, Ford shut down production for months and the company lost its lead in the market. Denial is a prominent problem among leaders, and it can lead to serious consequences. I was thinking about the power of denial recently while facilitating a meeting with a company’s leadership team. Even after presenting data to indicate irreversible decline unless the company changed course, the team struggled to see the problem. Their conversation immediately turned to a quick fix, which was the equivalent of throwing a rock into a raging ocean. Solution aversion is a powerful barrier to organizational change. Research indicates the majority of leaders rely on the ‘ostrich’ response to change, denying or ignoring the need to change until something forces a response. A popular meme, which features a cartoon dog surrounded by flames, captures this sentiment perfectly. The caption says: This is fine. There’s brain science and social science involved in our responses to change, but the bottom line is this: When the path to a solution seems too overwhelming or difficult, we prefer to avoid it. From backburnering a diet to avoiding a tough conversation, the struggle is one we can all relate to in our personal lives. Likewise, in the workplace leaders will downplay the importance of investing in a…

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gen z, generation z,

How Cancel Culture Will Change Your Organization

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January 17 @ 9:15 am CST

Given the opportunity to time travel, would you choose to visit the past or the future? I was participating in a virtual happy hour when this question popped up. Some experienced professionals jumped in, sharing moments in history they wanted to visit. The conversation was bubbly; people were happily caught up in their imaginations of what it would be like to experience a bygone era. Then a student from Georgetown University spoke up, and just like that, the mood shifted. “I want to visit the future”, she said. “I want to visit the future to see how much damage has been done by the actions of our society today.” Gen Z (1996-2009) are the teens and early 20-somethings who have become largely renowned for holding up the mirror to society, forcing us all to take a closer look. Under  their watch, the concept of cancel culture has been trending for most of the past year, which has become a polarizing topic of debate. Regardless of age or experience, feeling ignored drives  people to disengage, quit, protest, and cancel. The process of ‘canceling’ usually goes like this: A public figure or organization does or says something offensive. A public backlash, often fueled by political views and social media, ensues. Then there’s call to take away their cultural cachet, whether through boycotts or disciplinary action. Cancel culture has been referred to as a mob mentality, encouraging lawlessness, censorship, and the erasing of history. It’s also been referred to as a long overdue way of holding people accountable for propagating racist and sexist ideas, toxic behaviors, and making unethical, immoral decisions without any regard for others. Although it started as more of a political debate, cancel culture has now moved into the arena of generational debate. In 2019, the OK boomer meme and videos were an attempt by Gen Z to ‘cancel’ the generations that came before them. OK boomer was meant to be cutting and dismissive; a snarky…

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Why They Quit: How To Retain Young Talent

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January 17 @ 9:15 am CST

As vaccines are being distributed, there is hope the worst of the pandemic is nearing an end. But if research is any indication, another kind of crisis may just be heating up. As SHRM defines it, a “turnover tsunami” is brewing, with more than half of employees surveyed planning to look for a new job this year. Employers were experiencing high rates of turnover prior to the pandemic. In fact, voluntary turnover had been steadily rising since 2010, and was cited as a chief global concern by both the UN and World Economic Forum. When the pandemic hit, quit rates reached their lowest level in nine years – and now they’re bouncing back. Just this week, I’ve heard from three executives lamenting the loss of young talent. The fact remains that professionals under the age of 39 account for more than half of all voluntary separations. Why? Increased employee turnover is the outcome of a shift in workforce needs and values, and it’s a shift that is here to stay. This is a topic I’ve researched a great detail and the answer is quite complex. In brief, here are two reasons why young professionals are three times more likely than other generations to quit: Inclusion We’re observing an ever-widening gap between twentieth century managed organizations and twenty-first century raised workers. Young professionals don’t understand the management processes and hierarchies common throughout the past century. These generations have only known a world powered by innovation, collaboration, globalization, instant gratification, knowledge, acceptance, and access. They struggle to comprehend why decisions can’t be made on the fly, why they can’t have a seat at the decision-making table, and why it’s always been done ‘that way.’ Stability Millennials came of age during the Great Recession-the worst economic decline our country had experienced in 70 years. Gen Z has come of age during the most disruptive         decade in history. These experiences have shaped the career trajectories of young professionals in more…

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