How to Engage Association Members and Volunteers

We hear frequently from professional associations and civic service groups about challenges with member attrition, attraction and participation, particularly with younger audiences. The common thread, whether a national association for medical professionals or your local Rotary Club, is that roles are shrinking and members are thinking, if not outright asking: "Why should I participate? What value does this group provide?"

Today's younger professionals are not attracted to extracurricular programming unless it boosts business, enhances individual performance or serves the greater good. For dedicated leaders, stepping away from work is unlikely if one of those three needs is not met.

For volunteer organizations, lagging participation might be a bit of a surprise, particularly with a growing millennial workforce that is passionate about volunteering. According to the Millennial Impact Project, 73 percent of Millennials volunteer for a nonprofit organization with more than half motivated by their interest in meeting likeminded volunteers.

So with a growing and passionate workforce, why are some membership and volunteer roles dropping? It's mostly because our employers demand an increasing return on investment and we all feel like we have less flexibility. Therefore, we make daily choices between outside opportunities and our commitments to work, family and friends. Most will say that they just don't have the time.

Association leaders should beware that time excuse. According to the book "Race for Relevance" (Coerver and Byers), "When a member says I don't have time,' it's an indictment of the value of the proposed activity or project." People will make time for a compelling service project or for a seminar that enhances their business skills. They will volunteer for a program that they know has a real impact in the community. They will support a rally that changes the business landscape.

So, how do we build membership in our industry leadership groups-and get our members to commit the time to our programs? How do we attract volunteers and participation in our community service organizations? The answer lies in three focal points:

Value - It is critical that organizations take a hard look at the programs and services they offer to their constituents. Meaningful programming with clear benefits must be at the core of service delivery. Monitoring member perceptions and understanding what they value and then flexing to meet those needs should be the number one priority. Jeff De Cagna, FRSA, FASAE says that, "Over the next few years, the business model conversation is the most important dialogue you and your board will have, bar none. Having the right conversation will help identify compelling opportunities to create and deliver new value to your association's stakeholders."

Program Delivery - Breaking away from work to attend a rubber-chicken lunch or a boring exhibit hall is the last thing a business professional seeks. Compelling programming must match with member needs and deliver in ways that fit their changing work schedules. Easy access to captivating online tools that truly engage, connect and inform are not luxuries. They are expected. Consumer tastes for on demand content-where and when they want it-is spilling over into business. For example, video updates, podcasts and on-demand training and educational programs offer flexibility where and when a participant schedule allows. Organizations must experiment, research and try new delivery mechanisms that truly engage beyond what is expected.

Communications - There is no excuse with today's technology tools for members to be unaware of programming or topical issues. Mobile, social and other interactive technologies can truly engage members on the fly all day without requiring breaks from the boardroom or operations center. Websites must be jam-packed with relevant content that supports, informs, educates and connects members. Only in that way will they enhance their abilities and receive the value they expect. Educated members WILL be engaged members. And, for community service organizations, mission progress and accomplishments must be recognized and celebrated at every turn to retain participation and support. LinkedIn is a great tool for all of this, and we can help you make yours the best it can be.

These issues must be part of ongoing strategic programming. Stagnant programs-something you've done for more than a few years-are likely the enemy of the value proposition promise you make to your members.

What do you do to understand your members and to provide value? What are some ways your organization has created compelling programs that improve employee & member engagement? How are you using technologies to communicate and engage? Tell us your stories.