Associations Adapt to Survive: Professional Groups Cope with Changing Demographics and Evolving Member Needs

Article excerpt

Professional associations have a reputation for being averse to both change and risk, but they have started to look ahead and almost start from scratch to attract more diverse members and retain the ones they have.

"Most of the models that education associations labor with are long in the tooth," says Gene R. Carter, executive director of ASCD. "Today, you need to constantly think ahead and put your energies forward as opposed to reinventing the past. Change will happen whether you are ready for it or not."

Twenty years ago, a "play it safe" model worked just fine. Most associations had solid membership bases that renewed without much urging, they held large and successful annual conferences, and they produced a rich array of print publications. Today, however, shifting demographics, the lingering effects of the Great Recession, and rapidly evolving technology mean that an "if it's not broken, don't fix it" mindset no longer applies.

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"An economic recession forces you to make changes," says Daniel A. Domenech, AASA's executive director. "You take a hard look at all you do, and you develop an organization that's lean and mean."

Many associations had to reduce staffing during the Great Recession that began in 2007. For example, the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) cut its then-staff of 55 roughly in hale NAESP also took the unusual step of selling half of its three-story, 19,500-square-foot headquarters in Alexandria, Va., to AASA in 2011. Patrick Murphy, senior associate executive director of administration and finance for NAESP, estimates that sharing the building saves his organization about $100.000 per year.

No more "slice and dice"

In her 2011 book, The End of Membership as We Know It, Sarah Sladek notes that a baby boomer turns 65 every eight seconds. To fill the membership gap as people retire, associations need to recruit younger professionals who often have different attitudes about joining associations.

"They seek and demand a return for membership," says Sladek, "including tangible member services, high levels of accountability, identifiable career advantages, a sense of professional community, and opportunities to serve within the associations they join."

Associations are learning to adapt to the changing demographic tide and, for the time being, seem to be doing so successfully. According to data released in 2012 by Marketing General Incorporated, more than half of the associations surveyed experienced membership gains during the past 12 months. Only 29 percent reported decreases.

Still, meeting member needs has become more challenging as diversity grows both ethnically and in terms of age. "In the past, we could easily 'slice and dice' demographics and get a good handle on member needs," says Bob Farrace, director of communications and public relations for the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP). "Today our membership has become just as complex as the various ways of delivering content."

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The changing demographic patterns have ramifications for the programs, products, and services that associations offer. For example, half of NAESP's members are baby boomers, says Executive Director Gall Connelly. The association is constantly examining how to continue effectively serving them while also developing new services to engage younger members from generation X. It has, for example, established a social networking program that includes 10,000 followers on Twitter. And it has added a new series for early career principals in Principal magazine.

Personalizing PD

Just like schools, associations are exploring ways of providing more personalized, convenient learning experiences for members. The traditional modes of professional development--printed journals, books, and massive, multi-day conventions--are evolving. …