Looking at Association Membership in Another Way

18th November 2022

For her first contribution to Boardroom, author, speaker, strategist, and futurist Sarah Sladek gives a refreshed perspective on association membership and tackles the concept with the mind of both a sociologist and a demographer.

Work as we know it isn’t working. High turnover. Increased conflict and generational tug-of-wars. Retirement waves. There’s more disruption and disengagement at work than ever before. 

Why should membership organizations concern themselves with workforce trends? Because workforce trends influence membership trends. The two are undeniably intertwined, yet workforce is rarely addressed in membership research and often treated as something else entirely. 

Meanwhile, resignations and retirement waves continue to destabilize membership communities. 

In an era of disruption, it’s easy for leaders to become transfixed on navigating the present and miss key market shifts and trends reshaping the way members measure value or define community. This is an unfortunate misstep with unfortunate outcomes. 

To start the process of shifting course, here are three workforce trends I see directly aligned with, and capable of influencing membership engagement behaviors for years to come. 

  1. Ownership vs. Access

For centuries, society valued the concept of ownership. Possessions were symbols of status – cars, houses, land, and jewelry. The general idea was to work hard, save money, and acquire more money to buy more stuff. 

Then, in 1982, the migration to access began with the arrival of the home computer. Since then, what’s treasured most is 24/7 access to assets via technology. 

For decades, many employers and associations merely dipped their toes into sea of opportunities opened by technology. Then COVID-19 happened and the demand for access skyrocketed when the world shut down and catapulted everyone into a tech-reliant environment. 

Despite the 40-year shift towards greater access, some leaders re-opened after the shutdown and began to push for a return to the past. This is creating controversy and divide. Undoubtedly, the organizations demanding a return to the office or veering away from virtual will be viewed as change-resistant and exclusive and will struggle to keep pace in this access-driven market. 

Consider the membership model in and of itself. Most associations use a model which asks members to pay dues for an entire year. This is an ownership approach – invest into a membership, paying for it in full and in advance. 

In the past, members were willing to wait for access to events, information, and community, but in an access-driven market the last thing members want to do is wait for anything. Associations that continue to operate with an ownership mindset will find themselves under increasing pressure to deliver value and will struggle to keep members engaged. 

Members expect on-demand, 24/7, ready-access to products, services, networks, and experiences, and to be part of a community that serves a global and remote audience. The association of today is expected to be accessible to all, always.

  • Loyalty vs. Belonging

“They have no work ethic. Kids these days aren’t reliable. They’re quitters.” 

As with the transition to access, the transition to belonging has been bubbling up over the past several decades and hit a place of no return during the COVID-19 outbreak. 

For past generations, the contract of work implied companies would reward loyalty with progression and pay. However, this arrangement began to break down in the 1980s. Downsizing, layoffs, and mergers reduced job security and the foundation of loyalty began to crack. 

In the 1990s, the concept of job hopping emerged. Young professionals began moving quickly from one opportunity to the next and this garnered them a reputation for having a lack of loyalty. But research told another story – young people were willing to commit when meaningful relationships were actively present. 

Fast forward to 2021. The Great Resignation becomes an economic trend as millions of employees voluntarily resign from their jobs, largely due to inflexible work arrangements, disengagement, and hostile work environments. 

Here and now, the message is clear. Belonging matters. Being included. Having a voice and a seat at the table. Accepted. Respected. No strings attached. 

Hierarchical models survived for centuries but are no longer relevant or sustainable. In the workforce, there is ample evidence companies with inclusive, diverse leadership are considerably more profitable than companies with homogenous leadership. Associations need to take note and reformat their boards to allow for the participation of members from all ages and backgrounds. 

When organizations focus on belonging and make efforts to make room for all, the disengagement and decline will subside. 

  • Legacy vs. Accountability

Associations were founded on the premise that certain rules needed to be followed and traditions upheld. Everything ran according to expectations, process, and hierarchy. Protecting the legacy was important. This controlled approach left little room for innovation or change. It also silenced the member voices.

Legacy-based thinking backs organizations into a corner, demanding shyness and conformity at a time when people are calling upon organizations for leadership and activism. 

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.

In the absence of leadership, people have raised their voices for change. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which has been tracking protests globally, reports that 110 countries have experienced significant protests since 2017. 

In fact, cancel culture, protests, boycotts, and walk-outs are more prominent now than at any other time in history, holding people accountable for propagating racist and sexist ideas, toxic behaviors, and making unethical, immoral decisions without any concern for others. 

Generation Z (1996-2009) are the teens and early 20-somethings who introduced the concept of cancel culture and became largely renowned for holding up the mirror to society. They will hold your association accountable. Expect it. They will also expect your association to hold others accountable.

The legacy mindset rests on its laurels and remains firmly situated in the past. In contrast, the accountability mindset takes a stand, ushers up a call to action, and prioritizes change.

In short, the future is rooted in accessibility, belonging, and accountability. This is what members want associations to provide, and what employees want employers to provide. Make it a priority to observe the trends, market indicators, and values influencing the decisions to join and engage. The future is being written now, and if you’re not paying attention, you just might miss it.

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