Are Millennials And Associations The Oil And Water Of Today?

Migraine Barbie has Snapped!

It’s an association migraine of the worst kind.

The tension is as thick as a dense fog. It’s at an all time record threat level. It’s like mixing oil and water.

Some try to label this tension as one of two traditional categories: threat or opportunity. Others say it requires more than identification.

This dynamic tension is not temporal. Nor can it be relieved with aspirin or the massage of forward thinking strategic planning.

It is the evolving model of how member-based advocacy organizations engage constituencies and attract sustained resources.

It is disruption to the capital D!

Disruption: Evolving Models Of Engagement And Support

In April 2011, The Monitor Institute released Disruption: Evolving Models of Engagement and Support: A National Study of Member-Based Advocacy Organization. The study of 259 national member-based advocacy organizations with annual budgets of more than $1 million focuses on sustainable advocacy in a Web 2.0 world.

Their findings are a snapshot in time. The story continues to unfold rapidly.

The Perfect Storm For Disruption

Nothing is settled about how even the most relevant and impactful advocacy organizations engage constituencies or attract resources. ~ Disruption: Evolving Models of Engagement and Support.

It’s the perfect storm for disruption:

  • Web 2.0 technology enabling social networking
  • Profound demographic and generational changes linked to and leveraged by the new technologies.

In short, Millennials are adopting and embracing new social technology tools that enable new ways to self-organize around social, political and cause issues.

Three Critical Findings

Here are three critical findings.

1. The benefits of traditional membership are not adequate to engage Millennials.

Millennials are simply not as interested in joining traditional established member-based organizations.

They don’t care about being identified as a member. The value proposition is not clear to them. And they don’t align quid pro quo with the traditional benefits of membership.

As nonprofit’s most loyal members retire and leave, organizations struggle to recruit and retain a new generation of supporters.

Membership as we know it is a myth of the past. It is not going to serve us well going forward. ~ Disruption: Evolving Models of Engagement and Support.

2. Millennials participation is more sporadic and activity or event based.

Millennials apply Facebook, Twitter and more to self-organize and participate with others around the issues they care about. Millennials want to influence and act on their own or with groups of friends.

Members of the past were happy to pay the organization to influence and act on their behalf. The expectation has shifted.

3. Traditional nonprofit methods do not inspire Millennials to give.

Whether it’s their time, energy or money, Millennials give in response to an event or issue. They tend to be one-time givers.

The association’s traditional methods of recruiting volunteers and donors do not connect with Millennials.

Next Steps

Associations need to accelerate the transition to online and new media by coordinating across silos in marketing, fundraising, member engagement and media relations.

Now is the time of disruption. Now is the time for experimentation. Now is the time for collaboration.

How will the evolving external context (tech advances, aging Boomers, down economy, etc.) affect the ability of member-based advocacy organization to be effective and garner needed support? What does strong continued reliance on conference revenues or foundation funding or high sponsorship or (insert your thoughts here) mean for the relevance of advocacy organizations?

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  1. Chris Roffe says:


    The first finding is spot on.

    About a month ago I attempted to join LinkedIn group for a very specific segment of industry that I am part of. It was an Association that I was not even aware of, but LinkedIn had suggested it to me as a group I may like due to a couple of my direct connections being members.

    The group was small, less than 200 people total, and I thought it might be a nice discussion board to ask questions and help answer them as well. I sent my request for membership to the moderator and awaited word back. The response I got back a few days later was shocking to me, it was little more then a form letter stating that I was not allowed to be part of the group unless I became a member.

    This was my response:

    Thank you for the information.

    You may want to list that membership to the LinkedIn group is limited to actual **** member’s; LinkedIn was recommending that I join the **** group and the landing page does not mention membership being closed to non-**** members.

    To be honest, this was the 1st time I had heard of **** and thought it was a LinkedIn based group, your response below made me aware of **** being an actual association. You may want to consider updating the copy on your LinkedIn landing page to educate people about your association and noting that the group is closed to non-members. It feels like a lost opportunity to educate potential members, you could have a closed sub-group within the existing LinkedIn group for actual members and may want to consider this for growing your membership as opposed to shutting doors before explaining the value of your membership -as this may be a persons 1st experience with your association.


    Chris Roffe

    I am sharing this example in the hopes that organizations and associations can learn from my experience as a potential new member who believes in Web 2.0 and uses Social Media to qualify the value of who and where I choose to spend my resources.


    p.s. A few days later the group amended its LinkedIn group information to include a short sentence about the group only being open to association members.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks for sharing this great example! Associations, read It and ponder.

  2. Wish I had some words of wisdom, but all I can say is YES to each of your points. I agree and, frankly, I don’t know what the answers are, and even if I did, I’m not confident that 99% of associations would be up to the task even with a clear plan that would work. I just feel that association execs hear/read this stuff but the people at the top are coasting on the current model and there’s no incentive for them to change things now. I think, unfortunately, the wake up call will be when membership and conference attendance starts to plummet, and by that point, it will probably be too late.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      So true: “…the people at the top are coasting on the current [association] model and there’s no incentive for them to change things now.” Good point and how to change that is a difficult one for sure.
      Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Excellent insight into one possible flaw with the research. I wonder if enough GenXers are joining organizations to replace the Baby Boomers that retire. For me, I joined nonprofit associations early in my life so I saw the value of membership. Now I question that value as the model has shifted. Will be curious to watch to see of GenY ever see the value of traditional membership. I will say that faith organizations are struggling with the same thing as young people abandon traditional faith models. Those organizations are seeing a severe demise.

  3. Jamie Notter says:

    I agree completely with the disruption and challenge to the association model. I also agree there are some elements of the millennial generation that are going to be a challenge to associations. But I at least want to raise the warning flag of “life stage” on some of these issues. Gen X were painted as “not joiners” too when they were young. Then finally a researcher compared their join rates to Boomers (when they were young) and found a higher percentage. But all generations have lower join rates in younger age groups. And remember too that there are tons of millennials, particularly compared to X, so a lower join rate still may yield an increase in membership or participation as they get older.

    Again, I DO think associations are in trouble for the reasons mentioned, but I’m not sure if it’s actually millennial-specific.

  4. Emily Breder says:

    Good points on all fronts. People don’t need associations as much to represent their interests anymore, since they have the great equalizer: Web 2.0.

    I work with this daily, as I’m involved with two non-profits that are attempting to bridge the gap. One is a large group that is seeking continuance and asked me to head-up the rehab of their website and communications. I came up with a comprehensive plan that incorporated new media, new marketing, engagement policy and a more open communication platform.

    Admittedly, the learning and adaptation curve on this is high, and the response within the membership has been sluggish. It’s understandable, but new members coming on board are not going to feel very motivated to work on the organization’s behalf if they step into a vacuum, which is disappointing for everyone.

    But, if there’s a motivated membership, there are ready solutions. Like you said, people these days give and participate based on events and not the organizations. I’ve had a lot of ideas on how to do this and maximize efforts.

    It can be done!

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