Membership Q&A: Don’t Leave Us!

photo of zebras on grassland

What’s the #1 reason a long-standing member would not renew?

As Dr. Theodore Woodward of the University of Maryland School of Medicine taught his med students in the 1940: “When you hear hoofbeats, think of horses not zebras.”

For our purposes, that means start with the obvious: Did that member switch careers or retire?

If so, you may have to chalk this one up to “forces beyond our control,” and let that person go.

If not, however, you potentially have a problem – a big one.

First of all, to quote Sohini Baliga’s and my recent whitepaper, Steal This Idea!:

Let’s say you get a new member who joins on the last day of early-bird registration for your annual conference and picks the “membership + member registration rate” package. Your conference is in Seattle, and he lives in Seattle. At the endof the next year’s renewal cycle, with your next conference coming up in Boston, you notice that he’s lapsed, so you put him back into your lead cultivation cycle.

Let’s say you also have a member who’s been with you for 15 years. She holds your professional certification, has presented at some of your events, is a regular contributor to conversation on your white-label social network platform, and served a three-year term on one of your committees. At the end of next year’s renewal cycle, you notice that she’s lapsed.

What happens next?

Far too often, she goes back into your lead cultivation cycle but otherwise doesn’t receive any sort of special attention.

Those two members are not equally valuable to your association, and treating them as if they are is disrespectful of the investment that the second member has made in your association. With the first member, it’s reasonable to infer that he joined to attend your meeting because it was local and that was all he was looking for from your association. He should go back into your lead cultivation cycle but otherwise probably doesn’t merit additional reinstatement efforts. But that second, long-term, highly involved member has earned the right to more attention. Her departure should trigger alarm at the highest levels of your association and direct, personal outreach to find out why she left and whether the association can do anything to reclaim her. The first member took your association out for coffee and realized you weren’t a match. That happens. The second member has basically served your association divorce papers. You should find out why.

Increasing numbers of my clients are reporting problems retaining mid-career professionals. These are people who are settled in their careers but not yet nearing retirement. They’ve often earned whatever credentials are available for their industry (whether those be undergrad or graduate degrees or certifications or other types of non-degree credentials). They’ve invested a decade or more building their professional network. They may NOT be interested in traditional modes of volunteering, spending years working their way laboriously up the association committee ladder with the goal of putting that “prestige” committee chair or board of directors position on their LinkedIn profile and resume.

And, frankly, a lot of associations are not serving them well.

Assuming it’s not due to outside forces like leaving the industry, members lapse because what you’re charging exceeds the value of what you’re providing.

It’s tempting to rationalize this trend as, “Well, it’s just GenXers, and there were always fewer of them anyway – smaller generation. We’ll just recruit more early-career Millennials to make up for it.”

Two problems with that thinking:

  1. The oldest Millennials are about to turn 35. In other words, they’re rapidly approaching “mid-career.”
  2. They don’t want the same things your Boomer members did at their mid-career stages.

What do those experienced professionals want?

There is no one answer, which is why you need to put in the time and effort NOW to find out what’s going on with them, what their current professional challenges are, and what goals they have yet to accomplish. GenXers are likely to be happy to be your guinea pigs and will give you the space to develop an experimental mind-set and approach, which will position you for success with the larger generations coming behind as they reach career maturity.

Photo by Johann S. on Unsplash

What Should Associations Do to Bridge the Education to Employment Gap?

If you’ve been persuaded by the information I’ve shared about The Association Role in the New Education Paradigm the past few days that we do have a large-scale problem that associations are uniquely equipped to address (and I hope you have), the next question is: where do we start?

Shelly and I have some advice to offer:

  • Adopt a strategic approach (which is generally good advice for just about any problem)
  • Conduct ongoing and in-depth workforce analysis (and we have some specific tips how to do that)
  • Clearly define actual competencies needed (stop the “degree as proxy” madness!)
  • Clearly define career pathways
  • Familiarize yourself with new learning technologies
  • Professionalize content delivery (no, it’s not OK to rely on volunteers for everything all the time – you may have to pay some people)
  • Consider certification
  • Create effective alliances (you don’t have to go it alone)

Not sure what that would all look like? Remember that we also provide case studies of associations doing good work in these areas:

  • HR Certification Institute
  • Maryland Association of CPAs
  • National Association of Licensed Practical Nurses
  • Ohio Society of Certified Public Accountants

Find out more about how to do good while doing well in addressing this critical socioeconomic issue by downloading your free copy of The Association Role in the New Education Paradigm at, no divulging of information about yourself required.

The Association Advantage

Yesterday, I mentioned that associations have some inherent advantages in bridging the education to employment gap for the audiences we serve. What are they?

  • Direct connection to employers
  • Experience with certification and credentialing
  • Market opportunity provided by our non-profit status
  • Experience with non-traditional students and learning environments

You can find out  more about how Shelly Alcorn, my co-author, and I think associations can leverage these unique skills by downloading your free copy of The Association Role in the New Education Paradigm at, no divulging of information about yourself required.

Disruption in Education

What are some of the forces impacting education in 2016?

  • Incorporating technological advances in the classroom
  • Decreasing public funding
  • Increasing class sizes
  • High-stakes testing in K-12
  • Exploding student debt
  • Decreasing on-time college and university graduation rates
  • Scandals in for-profit education
  • Skills gaps and lack of agreement on the purpose of higher education
  • Disconnection between learning outcomes and required workforce KSAs

These forces combine to produce the statistics I cited yesterday: while more than 73 million young people, worldwide, are unemployed, in the US alone, 32% of employers can’t find qualified workers.

Shelly Alcorn, my co-author, and I believe associations are uniquely positioned to help address this gap. I’ll share more about how later this week, or you can find out now by downloading your free copy of The Association Role in the New Education Paradigm at, no divulging of information about yourself required.


The Perfect Storm

I’d like to share some sobering statistics about higher education and employment:

  • In the United States, students graduate from college with an average debt load of nearly $29,000.
  • Total student debt in the U.S. is $1.23 trillion and rising.
  • 47% of college-educated workers under 25 work in jobs
    that do not require a college degree.
  • Worldwide, 73.3 million people under the age of 25 are unemployed,
    representing 36.7% of total global unemployment.
  • In the United States in 2015, 32% of employers reported
    struggling to find qualified workers.
  • By 2020, 65% of all jobs in the United States will require some
    form of postsecondary education or training.
  • By 2020, the shortfall of postsecondary-educated Americans will
    approach 20 million.
  • 47% of jobs in the United States will be significantly impacted by artificial intelligence and automation within the next decade.

Over the next week, I’ll be blogging about and sharing excerpts from The Association Role in the New Education Paradigm, the eighth white paper in the ongoing Spark collaborative series.

Written with Shelly Alcorn, CAE (Alcorn Associates Management Consulting), the white paper reviews research on the disruptions currently affecting both K-12 and postsecondary education, talks about the future of a workforce impacted by skills gaps and automation, and details what Shelly and I believe to be inherent association advantages in being part of the solution to this significant global socioeconomic problem.

The white paper also features sidebars by Tracy Petrillo, EdD, CAE, Chief Learning Officer, EDUCAUSE (and recent recipient of ASAE’s Professional Performance Award), discussing Competency-Based Education, and by Polly Siobhan Karpowicz,MBA, CAE, ASAE Research Committee, on new research the ASAE Foundation is undertaking in this area.

We also share case studies of organizations doing excellent work preparing their audiences for the future of employment:

  • HR Certification Institute
  • Maryland Association of CPAs
  • National Association of Licensed Practical Nurses
  • Ohio Society of Certified Public Accountants

The white paper concludes with practical advice for associations that are eager to get started reshaping education, the employment market, and lifetime learning for the professions and industries you serve.

I’ll be blogging more about the white paper this week, but in the meantime, download your free copy of The Association Role in the New Education Paradigm at, no divulging of information about yourself required.

And don’t forget to check out the other FREE Spark whitepapers, too:

Review: When Millennials Take Over

“Every 20 years or so, a new generation enters the workforce, and the rest of us, quite frankly, freak out about it.” 

Cover Image - When Millennials Take OverI recently had the opportunity to read a review copy of When Millennials Take Over, a new book by Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant designed to help us get past the freak out and to a “ridiculously optimistic” view of the future of work.

Their basic thesis is that the environment in which our organizations operate has changed – we have to move faster, with less hierarchy and more sharing of information, and learn how to be digital native institutions.

Sounds hard, right?

Fortunately, the Millennials, the generation born between 1982 and 2004, can help us. Although GenX is currently the largest segment of the workforce, within the next three years, the Millennials will be taking over. And that’s a good thing. As Notter put it during a recent book release event sponsored by ASAE: “The goal is not to ‘deal with’ Millennials but to learn from them. It’s not that Millennials are extra special or have all the answers, but they’re a ‘secret decoder ring’ to help us understand and adapt to these changes.”

Notter and Grant have identified four key capacities that they believe will drive the future of business:

  • Digital
  • Clear
  • Fluid
  • Fast

Digital expects widespread customization and personalization, which includes staff as well as customers and members, and continuous improvement. Going digital is not just about how much you spend on technology (although most of us ARE underinvesting); it’s also about developing a digital mindset, in which you design around the needs and convenience of your audiences (both internal and external), even if that makes things harder for the organization.

tl;dr: In the era of Amazon and apps, your old excuses for 20 years outdated tech and processes won’t fly.

Clear demands information at everyone’s fingertips. Millennials have always had the “why” explained to them – that’s how they were raised. The great thing about this is, when our organizations share more information in a more transparent way, we dramatically increase both the speed and the quality of the decisions we make.

Fluid requires us to break out of our silos, not to the point that there’s no hierarchy at all (Google tried that and found it didn’t work), but to the point that teams are flexible and ad hoc, and different people get opportunities to lead based on their skills match with the project and task at hand. That means that EVERY person needs to know what your organization’s key performance indicators, that is, the keys to success, are.

Fast is the end result of all of these. As Notter and Grant point out, not everything needs to be ultra-fast all the time – there is still room for institutional knowledge and deliberation – but speed is important. As Grant observed at that same book release event, think about how quickly you dump a smartphone or tablet app that doesn’t work as expected. We need to move faster on idea generation, creating rudimentary prototypes, gathering information, and improving/scaling, pivoting, or killing those ideas as appropriate.

tl;dr: Don’t do another member survey! And don’t make decisions about what to do based on the HiPPO (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion). Create a Minimum Viable Product, and decide what happens after that based on actual data about whether people buy and use it, and what they think about it.

The book makes an excellent companion to Notter and Grant’s earlier Humanize. But where Humanize was a bit heavier on theory, When Millennials Take Over focuses heavily on the practical, sharing detailed case studies of four organizations who exemplify the authors’ four key capacities:

The American Society for Surgery of the Hand, a small membership organization that still manages to invest well in technology, personalize and customize, learn from experiments, and incorporate results-only work environment principles.

Menlo Innovations, a software firm that is so transparent about information that they’ve invented their own resolutely low-tech project management system so that every person knows exactly what every other person’s top priorities are and where they stand on achieving those goals. This lets teams that are ahead of schedule know immediately who needs help and offer it without the intervention of boring project status meetings or project managers or complicated negotiations over email. Menlo even invites clients into the office on a weekly basis so they can see first-hand what’s going on with their projects and make more effective decisions about their own budgets and priorities.

Quality Living, a rehab center for people recovering from brain and spinal cord injuries, that understands the importance of shifting decision-making authority and action to the individuals and groups who are best equipped to be successful in a particular situation, no matter what their official place in the organization’s hierarchy. That might mean that someone very “low level,” who is closest to the patient and her needs, values, hopes, and dreams, directs care for that patient across the entire team of more “senior” people.

Happy State Bank, a community bank operating in Texas, that is able to make good decisions almost absurdly fast thanks to their laser focus on caring and relationships (not exactly traditional for financial institutions). As Notter is fond of pointing out, trust enables speed, and that’s exactly the environment Happy State has created, not just among staff but between staff and customers.

Ultimately, this is about all of us – Boomers, Xers, and Millennials – working together for the good of ourselves, our organizations, and our customers/members. We take turns leading the change:

For every Luke Skywalker (Millennial), there is always a need for an Obi-Wan Kenobi (Baby Boomer), and even an occasional cynical and independent Han Solo (Generation Xer). We know it is cliché, but we’re all in this together.

When Millennials Take Over is available in Kindle and print editions at For a limited time, the Kindle edition is only $0.99 (that is not a typo), or you can download a chapter as a preview for FREE.


Next-Gen Membership

I recently had the opportunity to be interviewed by the nice folks at Naylor for Association Adviser TV. One of the questions they asked me to address was: What are the top three things that an association can do maintain the value proposition for the next generation of membership?

  1. You must understand the difference between life stage characteristics and generational  characteristics. Are Millennials slow to join and participate in associations for generational reasons, or because the oldest of them are in their late 20’s and they’re just figuring out the whole job/career thing. There are lots of “generational experts” out there who will say they can answer that question for you. To my way of thinking, the gold standard is the Lifecourse Associates work of William Strauss and Neil Howe, and the answer, likely, is, “don’t freak out – this is a life stage issue.”
  2. That said, there is a generational problem on the horizon – the hourglass issue. I’ve written about this before, but the short version is that, while a much larger Millennial generation is coming, associations are going to have to figure out how to bridge the Gen-X gap between the large Boomer and Millennial generations. One way to do that is by keeping retiring members involved through mentoring, teaching, and fundraising.
  3. Finally, check your assumptions. Even the best generational cohort research consists of generalizations. To really know what’s going on in your industry or profession, you have to actually talk to your members and other audiences about their lives, experiences, needs, and preferences. Associations must shift from the mindset that we have to be 100% right and 100% perfect all the time to the start up mindset of “launch in beta, experiment, actively solicit feedback, learn, and iterate.” Regardless of generation, your members will cut you slack if you let them know what’s going on. Really they will.

What do you think associations need to focus on to remain vital resources for the next generation of members and other audiences coming up?


The Looming Retirement Crisis

No, I don’t mean the typical “Boomers haven’t saved enough!” wailing, although that’s certainly likely to be a problem. I mean the hourglass problem.

As in, there are somewhere between 72-79 million Baby Boomers, and there are a lot fewer Gen-Xers. I’ve seen figures ranging from 39-49 million, and I find it telling that while it’s easy to get a definitive answer to “how many Boomers are there?” it is not easy to get the same information on Gen-X.

Much like we hear today in regards to Millennials, in the early/mid-90s, associations were freaking out about Gen-X not joining. “It’s the damn Internet! Websites will be the death of us!” Uh, no. Turns out, it was mostly a life stage issue. As in, “I’m 25, and if you’ve seen Slackers, you realize that there’s a good chance that I not only haven’t settled on a career, I’m not even sure if I’m coming back in to THIS job tomorrow.” Sure enough, as Xers started to settle on careers, we also started to join associations.

But – and this but is important – we’re approximately 50% smaller as a generation than the Boomers that preceded us. What that means is that, even if we join and participate at the exact same rate at Boomers, associations are potentially facing a membership and leadership (both paid and volunteer) crisis.

But – and this is also an important but – it’s probably temporary. Coming up behind Gen-X is the even larger than the Boomers (80+ million) Millennial generation. Who are currently in their “I’m 25 and I’m not settled” phase. The good news is, due to various generational characteristics (like their team orientation, interdependence, connectedness, and community-mindedness), the future looks pretty good for civic and professional engagement, volunteering, networking, involvement.

So there’s probably no reason to panic, but associations are still going to need to bridge that gap created by the Gen-X waist of the hourglass. How?

Reach up, and reach down.

Plenty of associations are currently focusing on young professionals, with discounted or even free dues, mentoring programs, outreach, networking opportunities, leadership programs, educational programs, creating set-aside seats in governance for young professionals, reaching out to students in their professions or industries, career services, etc. And all that’s important. This is a generation that is likely to be more loyal and respectful of authority than their cranky Gen-X elders, which means bringing them in and giving them a place early is likely to pay good dividends.

The area that I see associations ignoring, though, is reaching up to retired and retiring members. They are a huge untapped resource for associations. Boomers are, generationally, people who will support things for the common good, at least far more so than cynical Gen-X. They are retiring more gradually and partially than previous generations. They are living longer, healthier post-retirement lives.

In retirement, or at least semi-retirement, they have some tremendous assets that associations can use. They have time, wide networks, and expertise. They also have less money than at the height of their careers, and less need to stay up to date on all the latest in their professions or industries.

How might that play out in keeping them engaged to help associations over the Gen-X dip, until the Millennial cavalry arrives?

Boomers make great mentors. Not so much to Gen-Xers (remember, we’re the “kids these days are no good” generation), but definitely to Millennials, who are just starting out in their careers and who are inclined to like, trust, and want to work with their elders. And they like to share their expertise in new technologies. Is your association running a cross-mentoring program to match experienced Boomers with early career Millennials, who can, in turn, help those Boomers learn tech?

Boomer make great fundraisers. Retaining elements of their youthful idealism, they do believe in causes. And they have the time and networks to do some dialing/visiting for dollars, or even contribute themselves as major donors. What Big Idea projects does your association wish you had the funds to try? Who among your long-term members can help you get there?

Boomers have great experience and institutional knowledge. They can teach courses on key issues in your industry or profession, or even help prepare the coming generations for volunteer leadership roles in the association. Some might provide that expertise for free, and some might appreciate a little extra cash for developing and teaching high-level courses in your field.

What other ways can you think of to engage your “elder statesman” members to benefit your profession, your industry, your association, your membership, and your young professionals?

I think finding good answers to that question will be one of the major keys to association financial health in the coming decade.

From the Humanize chat

Wow, the #ASAETech chat on Maddie Grant and Jamie Notter’s new book, Humanize, was almost two weeks ago, and I’m just getting around to sharing my thoughts. Hey, #Tech11 had us ALL booked solid last week, right?

For those who aren’t yet familiar, the book is about transforming our organizations from a mechanized paradigm to a human paradigm by being open, generative, trustworthy, and courageous. I’m reading the book now and will likely have more to write about it as I progress, but for now, a few things struck me during the December 2 chat.

Lindy Dreyer made a great observation during the chat: being open is something most of us aren’t allowed to practice at lower levels, so when we move up in organizations, we’ve never worked that way before. I think she’s right, and it applies to the other key elements of being human in the workplace as well. Why do the bad systems perpetuate themselves? Because more experienced workers train newer workers and pass down “we have always done it (or not done it) that way.” This may present an opportunity, as un-mentored Gen-Xers move into leadership positions as the Boomers start retiring (some day). (That’s assuming any of us resist the lure of starting our own gigs long enough to be available for those leadership positions, of course.) We haven’t been as fully inculcated to being closed and opaque, so there might be a chance to break out of this pattern.

Maddie Grant observed that perhaps the reason there’s so much discomfort with social media in workplace is because it lights our passions, and we’re not comfortable with passion and emotion in the workplace. Of course, this immediately made me think of Joe Gerstandt’s work, and his fantastic “Fly Your Freak Flag”session at the ASAE Annual Meeting in August. The upside of forcing people to keep their passions out of the workplace is, obviously, things run more smoothly if everyone’s dispassionate. But there’s a downside, too:  you will NEVER get people’s best efforts if all your incentives point to smooth efficiency. Passion is messy, but it’s also where the juice for good ideas lives.

Jamie Notter provided my new favorite saying: “Proceed until apprehended.” It expresses the old “ask forgiveness, not permission” idea, but far more succinctly and elegantly. LOVE!

Finally, the closing keynoter at #Tech11 was one of the authors of the seminal 1999 work The Cluetrain Manifesto. As a result, I popped over to their website and re-read the 95 Theses (scroll down to get to them). Working my way through Humanize now, I realized: we’ve been saying the same damn thing for 10+ years.

Is anyone listening?

Idea Swappin’

This week’s Super Idea Swap at ASAE was great, as usual! We had lots of new faces – and plenty of familiar ones – and sessions with different topics than we often see.

I chose to participate in the session on diversity in the morning, led by Constance Thompson from the American Society of Civil Engineers, and Clinton Anderson, from the American Psychological Association. In the afternoon, I participated in the session on generations in the workplace, led by David Miles from the Miles LeHane Companies.

My top takeaways included:

  • When pairing up mentors and padawans, stop putting like with like (Asian man with Asian man, Latina with Latina, etc.), and look at people’s professional goals and who can best help them meet those goals.
  • Diversity is about how we’re the same and different. Inclusion is about using diversity to make us and our organizations better.
  • DJ Johnson shared two great tools: the diversity wheel and the concept of the diversity paradigm by Roosevelt Thomas.
  • If you don’t measure it, you can’t change it – getting data from our audiences is key to becoming more diverse as organizations, but we have to be transparent about why we want the information to allay people’s fears about sharing it.
  • We have to let people express the “who cares?” thoughts, since stifling those uncomfortable conversations helps no one.
  • Conflict is a sign of diverse voices, which, to a group that has been historically homogenous, feels threatening.
  • The decisions of a heterogeneous group take longer, but tend to produce better outcomes.
  • “Do you know next?”