Attracting young members and staying relevant: How associations can successfully overcome their major challenges

“Staying relevant”, “ensuring continuation” is what most association leaders will answer when asked about the major challenges facing associations today. Motivating young people to take an active part in non-profit life seems to become more and more difficut. Board positions tend to be filled with the usual suspects, who are still willing and able to shoulder the workload. But when even these veterans retire from association leadership, they leave big shoes to fill.

And yet, non-profit work can be extremely profitable, especially for young people. You can strengthen the image of your field and leave a lasting mark in your area of expertise – both nationally and internationally. Non-profit experience can also boost your CV, not least because of the invaluable network association leaders develop across national and institutional borders. Experience in organizing congresses and conferences not only demonstrates commitment, but also leadership and administrative skills, which can be key to professional success.

But how do we convince the members of the Generation Y of these benefits? After all, this generation is notorious for adhering to a strict work-life balance and its digital communication habits are often hard to grasp. At the same time, Millennials are said to be in search of meaning and fulfillment in their lives, which can be a great chance for non-profit associations.  Use these methods to attract your future association leaders:


1.    Consider contracting a professional Association Management Company (AMC)

An Association Management Company (AMC) can significantly lighten the workload of association leaders. The appointed Association Manager works with your board members and can handle all administrative duties for them: member relations, website, finances, meeting planning and congress organization. The Association Manager relieves the board members in a way that allows them to focus exclusively on tasks they are good at and enjoy doing, such as designing the scientific programme or networking for sponsor acquisition. Another major advantage of an AMC is that it already has its own office. This saves associations money on rent, IT and other infrastructure and staff costs. An additional benefit is that information and knowledge are stored at one central point and can be passed on to future generations at any time.


2.    Communicate directly with potential young leaders

If your website doesn’t yet have a section dedicated to trainees or students, it is high time you set one up. In this section, you can place information on university and further education and post job ads. Add events to your event calendar that are especially relevant to younger people or those studying towards a degree in your field and consider actively taking part in such events to promote your association. Many universities hold job fairs at which you can represent your association with a booth. This gives you the advantage of often being the only “neutral” body on site, while most other booths will probably be staffed by companies and for-profit organisations. Have attractive printed or online information materials on hand that can be distributed to the participants.


3.    Establish educational events for the next generation

Think about how your hard-won expertise in your field can benefit those that come after you. Where could you start to win young members for your association?  An increasing number of associations hold educational events especially for young people, for example to prepare young physicians for their qualification exams or promote up-and-coming scientific research. Many training courses are held in remote and idyllic settings and put a particular focus on networking and mutual motivation next to educational content. If the participants aren’t association members yet, they usually join during the registration process if you offer significantly lower registration fees for members. Due to the relative popularity of such training courses, this can lead to a large-scale membership expansion on the part of your association. Other associations focus on undergraduate students by giving them free access to their annual congresses and offering sessions especially for students. As you can see, there are various options available for various target groups.


4.    Open your board up to the young

In order to recruit young members to your association, you should give them many and early chances to get active. Create a position in your board that is then staffed with a graduate or PhD student or trainee and allows them to network with higher-ups, take an active part in association matters and represent their group on the inside. Depending on its financial health, the association can also offer to bear some or all of their travel expenses to support young leaders’ participation at board meetings. Put your new board members in charge of communicating your association’s activities to their peer group via a mailing list or a blog – digital natives know best how to reach other digital natives. Make sure to keep your former board member involved after their term has ended, for example by opening up higher positions at a later point in time.

These steps will certainly lay the foundation for more fresh blood in your association or society. However, they do not guarantee success if you don’t follow the most important rule of all: Listen. Talk to young people in your field; find out what motivates them and what is important to them. If they are expected to take over one day, they should also have the opportunity to put their own ideas into practice as soon as possible. Let yourself be inspired and start carving out the future path of your association together. This is how you stay relevant.