Global Association Performance: A Membership and Leadership Perspective

2nd March 2023

Author, speaker, strategist, and futurist Sarah Sladek has conducted research to evaluate the performance of associations worldwide, focusing on both membership and leadership perspectives. This marks the first research effort of its kind.

For the past two decades, associations have been challenged to engage members, with increasing numbers reporting flat or declining membership. Does the same hold true now? Did global pandemic change the outlook for associations? The Global Membership Health Study was conducted to answer these questions and more. 

Members and association staff representing 275 associations in 59 countries participated in the study in late 2022, conducted by Membership University and distributed in partnership with societies of association executives. This was the first research effort focused on assessing the state of association performance globally through both the membership and leadership lens.

Significant findings

The study revealed two significant findings: 

  1. The state of association health isn’t tied to geography. 
    Members worldwide reported similar membership experiences, and association staff reported similar trends and outcomes. Globally, associations are experiencing disengagement and decline. 

  2. Age diversity matters. 
    Associations reporting higher numbers of young members (under age 40) reported higher levels of membership engagement.

While some associations observed a spike during pandemic, the growth hasn’t been sustainable.

Here’s why: The data indicated decision-makers are, in large part, not aligned with member interests and needs. In addition, members reported lower levels of positivity and engagement in comparison to boards of directors and association staff and were considerably less likely to believe membership provides a return on investment. 

The only time a divergence popped up was when an association reported having a higher percentage of young members actively involved. 

If the solution to disengagement is, in large part, to engage young members, why aren’t more associations doing this? Because there’s a lack of understanding or prioritization.

In the 1990s, belonging transitioned. The trend seemed to pop up overnight. Suddenly, young people were less likely to join, engage, or renew. This shift occurred for many reasons, but it really boils down to these four factors:

  • Economic instability and rapidly changing technology influenced changes in the decision to join and engage. What younger generations expect, need, and value differs because what they learned and experienced during their formative years of brain and social development is considerably different than what previous generations learned and experienced. 
  • Most membership organizations were designed for the 20th century. Clearly defined processes, rules, and roles automatically create resistance to any variance, making it difficult to evolve.
  • Young people today forge connections based on trust with organizations that reflect their own views and values. They seek organizational cultures characterized by positivity, security, inclusion, and respect. 
  • Young people are less willing to wait for organizations to create a place for them to belong, and considerably more likely to hold organizations accountable for their actions (or inaction).

Recently, I worked with an association boasting its success in engaging young people. Closer analysis revealed just 25% of the association’s membership was under the age of 40. Moreover, young people weren’t permitted to serve in leadership roles. 

It’s not enough to invite people to sit in the room but refuse to give them any influence, power, or voice. Belonging ensures everyone’s insights, commentary, and perspectives aren’t just heard, but encouraged. 

Associations need to be committed to reaching at least 50% of members under the age of 40. Anything lower places an association at risk. The next generation is an organization’s only succession plan. There is no one and nothing else. The engagement of young people is critical to an association’s future success and its ability to innovate and remain relevant.

Sarah Sladek is a renowned thought leader and researcher of generational shifts, engagement trends, and change management strategies. She is the founder and CEO of XYZ University and Membership University, which recently launched a groundbreaking research initiative titled the Global Membership Health Matrix. In addition, she is the author of five books and numerous research studies, and host of the Save the Associations web show and Membership IQ podcast.

New needs

In this era of rapid change, entirely new skill sets, perspectives, and abilities have emerged. Each generation has something to learn and something to teach, which is why age diversity and cognitive diversity matter now more than ever. 

But that’s easier said than done. The next generation is a reminder change is necessary and unyielding, which can conjure up fears of irrelevance and feelings of defensiveness. The corresponding call for organizational change can feel daunting. It’s just easier to do more of the same.

However, the more-of-the-same approach has led to decline. There’s a reason why the Global Membership Health Study revealed widespread disengagement, except for associations with age diverse memberships.

The lack of age diversity in an association is not the result of a character flaw (i.e. young people aren’t joiners). Rather, it hinges on an association’s ability to create communities inclusive of new people and new ideas. Associations serious about engaging young people should take these tips into consideration:

  • Listen 
    Seek to understand how things look from the perspective of young professionals. What they want and expect from your organization is probably quite different from what established professionals want and expect. Listening is the first step toward building a relationship of trust and belonging. 
  • Create solutions 
    Make it your organization’s priority to generate new ideas and creative alternatives. Cognitive diversity and collaboration lead to innovation and community-building, and this can only be achieved by bringing people of various ages, backgrounds, and skillsets to work in community together.
  • Encourage feedback
    An environment where only the executives and board members have influence seriously hinders potential for innovation, problem-solving, and relationship-building. It’s imperative people of all ages have a voice.
  • Prioritize
    Professionals under the age of 40 are now the workforce majority. Their perspectives should be represented at every decision-making table and prioritized throughout the entire organization. 

Did global pandemic change the outlook for associations? Yes, and no. 

Members are seeking more access, stability, and collaboration in the wake of a global shutdown. But those needs have been there all the while, growing in urgency. 

The pandemic spurred a sense of hope; hope more people would realize the value of associations and therefore increase membership. And that may have happened. For a moment. 

But membership engagement isn’t tied to external forces. Recession, war, and pandemic have plagued countries for the past several years, but nothing has altered the desire to belong. 

As the study demonstrates, membership will continue to dissipate until associations succeed at creating communities of belonging for everyone — regardless of age.

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