Saturday, May 17, 2014

The End of Membership As We Know It by Sarah L. Sladek

This was an interesting experience because I had an opportunity to meet the author shortly after reading the book. In fact, had WSAE not invited her to speak at one of its events, and had WSAE not asked me to lead a discussion group on the themes in her book prior to that presentation, I’m not sure I would’ve even read the book. At the very least, I suppose, I would not have jumped the book to the top of my reading list.

Sladek’s presentation at the WSAE event was good. And having her actually join the discussion table I was leading was a special opportunity I took full advantage of. But I must be honest. While reading her book, I found myself circling sentence after sentence and asking myself: “Is that really true?”

Want some examples?

Most associations remain entirely governed and supported by the Baby Boomer generation...

This comes right up front on page 5, and can be safely described as one of the foundational premises of the book. Let me paraphrase it this way. Associations were built by and for Baby Boomers. But Baby Boomers are beginning to fade away, and the associations they are leaving behind don’t appeal to younger generations. Follow the advice offered in this book if you want to transform your association into something that appeals to those younger generations.

I’m not denying that this isn’t a real issue for some associations, but what I find interesting is how much has changed in just the last few years. Sladek’s book was written in 2011, but from where I sit in the association space, much of it already seems outdated.

And this statement about the Baby Boomers governing most associations is a perfect case in point. It is certainly not true of my association, where Xers now make up the clear majority of people on my Board of Directors. I have to believe that my association is not unique in this regard. Increasingly, it is people of Generation X (those of us between 33 and 53 years of age) who are in positions of authority in the industries and professions around which associations have been built. But Sladek’s follow-up point to the sentence above seems to purposely obscure that fact.

...and few have or are developing strategies to cushion themselves from this massive exodus of board members, committee chairs, and dedicated volunteers. According to BoardSource’s Nonprofit Governance Index, only 2 percent of board members are under 30 years old.

Sounds awful, doesn’t it? But why the focus on board members under 30 (i.e., Millennials)? What does the index say about board members under 50 (i.e., Generation X)? Given the fact that most Millennials have not yet reached the point of primary influence in their industries and professions, why would we expect them to be on association boards? In the membership, yes, attending conferences, yes, leading committees, yes. But on the board? That’s not the case in my association, and I’m not viewing that as any kind of looming disaster. Not when the transition from Boomers to Xers has already been accomplished.

Here’s another.

Thanks to technology, people can easily find the people they want to network with and they don’t need your association to do it.

Really? Undoubtedly true for some people in some professions, but I know for a fact that there are still associations who bring together unique groupings of people at their events and in their forums. It may be easier to find and connect with a peer group online, but bringing business people together in a social environment in order to help smooth the edges off difficult business needs and opportunities is a kind of networking that associations can still uniquely own.

Here’s another.

After all, since their founding, associations have been largely focused on in-person deliverables. In-person meetings, workshops, conferences, golf tournaments, meals, handshakes, winks, and smiles have been at the core of every association’s existence. It’s how they’ve delivered value and customer service. What most associations fail to realize is that technology has the same capability.

This one I don’t even have to debunk. Sladek does that herself three paragraphs later.

Technology can never replace an in-person experience, but that’s not to dismiss technology as an insufficient tool. Quite the opposite! Remember this: What engages people online isn’t much different than what connects them in person. It’s entirely possible to communicate an experience, a brand, a smile, and a polite handshake through technology. It may not be the same or a better experience than the in-person experience, but think about how you’re using technology to engage, captivate--even tango--with your audience.

It’s a very mixed message Sladek is delivering here, so allow me to be a little more clear cut. In-person and online connections are two different things. Ideally, they can be made to complement each other, but there are things people can learn from each other through online interactions that they can’t through in-person gatherings, and there is a value in engaging face-to-face that can never be fully replicated in the online space. As an association professional, if you’re not clear about that distinction, you're not going to get the needed balance between the two right.

Here’s another.

In associations there are two types of members: givers and takers. Givers willingly pay their dues, volunteer their time, and give of their resources. Unfortunately, most of the givers tend to be from the Baby Boomer generation and are starting to retire their association memberships as they retire from work. Takers, who tend to be from younger generations, say, “I will show up if you can show me value.”

Like most phrases that pose two types of people in the world, I find this one to be true only in the broadest of stereotypical forms. Can you find “givers” among the Baby Boomers that are leaving associations? Yes. And can you find “takers” among the younger generations that are asking for tangible ROI from their association memberships? Again, yes. But look deeper and I think you’ll find “takers” among the Baby Boomers (who undoubtedly define their ROI in a different way than the younger generations) and you’ll find “givers” among the younger generations (who still see associations and the connections they offer as a boon to their professional development plans).

It was right about here that I began to question: Who is this book really written for? There’s a section in the middle that provides advice on how to build trust with people in Generations X and Y, and includes such groundbreaking ideas as listening to their point of view, being inclusive, encouraging their feedback, and allowing those youngsters to create their own solutions.

This began to tip me towards a certain conclusion. But the clincher came for me when Sladek started talking about the benefits of creating and engaging members in association-led online communities. After extolling many of their virtues, she begins the summary of her case like this:

The fact is, technology is here to stay. Stop fearing it and starting embracing it.

And that’s when it really hit me. The book--thought-provoking and conversation starting as it may be--isn’t written for association executives who are struggling with Boomers in their leadership who are preventing the association from adapting to better appeal to younger generations. The book is written for the association executive who is a Boomer, and who finds him or herself befuddled by all the strange new online pastimes of their kids and grandkids.

That’s clearly not me. But what’s more interesting is how much the market has changed in the three years since the book was written. In 2011, there may very well have been a lot of executives that needed to hear this message and who needed a guide to help them start addressing the problem of their dwindling membership. But from where I sit, looking around at my industry in early 2014, it seems like there are fewer and fewer people who meet that description.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at


  1. Eric –
    Thank you for blogging about my book! It’s great to hear Gen Xers comprise the majority of your association’s board. That’s something to celebrate, but that’s definitely not the norm. If it was the norm, I wouldn’t have a job as an author, researcher, and professional speaker on the generational topic.

    As it is, I receive inquiries from clients every week lamenting the fact they are unable to engage younger generations. I recently worked with an association experiencing its first membership decline in 70 years and I’ve worked with numerous associations with an average age of memberships hovering between 52 and 58 years old. The outlook for these associations isn’t favorable; it’s going to be very difficult for them to survive the next 5-10 years.

    Furthermore, numerous studies have been done in recent years that point to an aging trend among association memberships and association leadership. Your readers might be interested to also know the job sector of ‘membership association’ as defined by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has a median employee age of 48.6. This is the 14th oldest category out of 322 jobs.

    The point is, my book’s content isn’t outdated. I sincerely hope one day it will be, but there’s still considerable work to be done.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Sarah. I hope it comes through in my post that I did find your book interesting and thought-provoking.

      Maybe you can help me test my thesis. The associations that you work with--the ones that are having a hard time appealing to the younger generations--what is the generational mix among their staff executives? How many are Boomers? Xers? Millennials?