A New Age for Associations

Two men shaking hands at association conference April 25, 2024 By: Matthew Wheeler

The rules of engagement have changed: Are professional nonprofit associations a viable model in a multigenerational workforce?

Professional associating has changed as nonprofit organizations face struggles of sustainability and significance within a shifting workforce. In 2022, 47% of associations reported a decline in total membership. Recruitment results have been trying at best, with membership retention an even tougher sell for many leading professional associations. In some industries, conference and event attendance have not fully recovered from pandemic-level lows. The rules of engagement have changed, but with a modern multigenerational workforce in place, how can nonprofit leaders ensure the viability of the organizations they serve into the future?


Coming Together—Yesterday and Today

There was a time when you didn’t miss the conference. As a professional, it was the proverbially right thing to do: joining your professional organization and perhaps assuming a leadership role on the board of directors. It added relevance and trusted authority in one’s chosen field. Multi-day conferences were an opportunity to spend time with professional friends from across the miles in the hotel lobby bar. But things have changed. We have much to unpack in the way many professional associations still choose to assemble.


As we attended meetings and conferences, the opportunity was availed to engage with our peers and glean updates on tools and techniques, in addition to meetings with industry representatives offering products and services that would provide administrative benefit. We needed to attend the meeting, otherwise these opportunities would be missed. Much has changed since this era, as nearly all elements of the annual conference have been replaced by a remote or virtual option.


Technology has made it so that our time can be more optimally allocated to complete continuing education, network with peers, and expose ourselves to new industry solutions, all while making it home for dinner and homework. But given this trade-off for efficiency, what is the role of the professional nonprofit organization?


You Can’t Ignore a Changing Workforce

It can be fun to paint the picture of the grand conference gala days—many of us can still visualize it. An infrastructure was created based on the needs and preferences of the baby boomer generation, yet around three years ago, the workforce dramatically shifted. According to Gallup, as of 2021, 46% of all employees within the workforce are millennial or Generation Z.


The significance of this statistic is that, for the first time in our modern workforce, baby boomers have been replaced as the dominant generation, and much has changed in the ways that we conduct business. As the workforce has transformed, our association membership and applicable pools of potential members have as well. But many of our procedures within the nonprofit sector have not kept up with the changing workforce. The millennial and Gen Z preference for having information instantaneously available has not always been met by associations.


Engaging From a Distance, Albeit Socially

It is no secret; social media is a primary channel for communication preferred by many. Associations that have found successful forums for engagement on various social media platforms—be it Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, etc.—are likely reaching differing levels of a diverse membership. Yet as we dig deeper into our multigenerational workforce, we can see social media preferences emerge.


Many associations rely heavily on one or two social media platforms. Arguably, the preference of organizational leadership dominates which platform is utilized, as it comes down to what feels most familiar to those making the decisions.


As Association Studios suggests, social media success is tied to conversations. Associations need to offer conversation starters, and from there, enable peers to engage as they see fit and offer constructive replies elevating the dialogue. Further, different conversations should be prompted on different platforms considering the generational preferences and identified needs of each target audience.


Time Is Invaluable

One of the many nuances inherent to the new workforce is the need for work-life balance. According to Forbes, 80% of millennials consider work-life balance to be the primary determinant when considering employment. With that, the older model of a five-day conference and in-person training is a thing of the past. Efficiently managed presentation schedules, airport proximity, topped off with inspirational keynotes highlighting leadership and adversity overcome are all necessary conference characteristics for the young, aspirational workforce.


The flavor and offering of a conference must surpass what could easily be gleaned from a virtual meeting or course.  Multiple sources including Fortune have coined millennials the burnout generation given the ubiquitous expectation to stay always connected to work - even while attending business related events.  It follows that many younger workers seek disconnection from their professional lives when it comes to leisure time, which can diminish the desirability of a “fun” professional event when time is held at such a premium and scarce resource.  


Yet conferences and professional travel are not obsolete, they just need to be aligned with the values expressed by members of contemporary times. Multi-day conferences broken into approachable one or two-day clustered schedules are far more practical to a younger professional, particularly when they are hosted at venues with easy access to transit and travel hubs.


The essential takeaway for associations is the value that younger workers now place on time. They will make the investment to associate when their time is valued and seen as a premium to minimize time away from daily obligations.


Pivoting for Viability

As association leaders, we know the importance of flexibility and nimbleness. We learned the art of the pivot through the global pandemic, and that reaffirmed our skillsets as seasoned administrators who can weather a storm. Those of us still using the “but our association has always done it this way” playbook of our predecessors are the ones struggling to make ends meet, where the savvy administrator sees that our audience has changed. Accepting that the needs and preferences of today’s professional workforce are different is the first step in growing a purposeful organization.


We must respond to how our current and future members prefer to receive their news and information, complete professional development, and allocate their time and resources. Understanding the fundamental reason why things have changed will assist nonprofit leaders as they move forward and offer value to their members.


In Conclusion

Associations remain a viable organizational model—but we must accept that the rules of engagement have been forever transformed. Although we know that change can be hard, particularly among many seasoned members who deeply identify with their organization and their career of contributions, we must look beyond our constraints as a means of survival. It goes further than the need to remain viable and sustainable; it reiterates our nonprofit service space as the connection between the public and private sectors. Without a pivot, we are not fulfilling our organizational mission and charge—and at that point, what are we doing to further our calling as nonprofit leaders?


Matthew Wheeler

Dr. Matthew Wheeler, CAE serves as chief executive officer of the Wheeler Company, a California-based organization management and public affairs firm.