As our population ages, so does the membership of most nonprofits
and associations. We know that, intellectually, yes, but the real impact can
sneak up on an organization: One day, you’re humming along just fine —
and the next, planning a major event, you look around for volunteers
and realize that your pool of active members is shrinking.
Have you been doing any “succession planning” to avoid that sudden shortfall?
Who will step up,
in your nonprofit, as those older members begin to step down?
Cause-and-effect of an aging membership is shown very clearly in organized sports. And that's not surprising. After all, many sports associations
operate with a structure that’s defined by age as much as by skill, at
least in the amateur ranks. And if fewer youngsters get involved at the
earliest entry level, there are fewer players to move up to the higher-profile
competitive leagues that drive public support for the sport, and thus
less incentive for new players to come into the organization… It’s the
proverbial “vicious cycle” with a downhill slide.
But what about other types of not-for-profit organizations?
Professional associations, shared-interest groups,
volunteer-driven community service groups, and a host of other
nonprofit organizations are facing similar issues with an aging
membership, declining recruitment, and shrinking volunteer pools — each
group in its own arena, and each with its own particular challenges for
Friends involved with arts organizations say they’re seeing
the effects of an aging membership in lower turn-outs for meetings,
less active participation in exhibits and other special events, and —
no doubt a sign of these tough economic times, as well as of declining
activity from senior members — a drop in the money coming in to the
organization through event registrations, studio fees, and membership
dues. (Some of the older members of a local writers' group are dropping back from “professional”
to lower-cost “associate” membership level, for example, and scaling
back their volunteer roles to match.) Meanwhile, younger members of the arts community are simply not signing up in the same numbers as the earlier generation, yet they’re badly
needed to take up the slack if these groups are to remain active.
Industry groups and professional associations may have an
edge, in some cases — if there’s a clear professional advantage to
membership (group insurance discounts, networking opportunities,
insider information, lobbying power, and so on). Smaller groups may
struggle with this, especially if the industry itself is in a downturn.
(We’re seeing this in our local beekeepers’ association, for example, as
the bulk of members are creeping up on retirement age with too few
younger ones coming on board to fill their vacated roles.) Lower
membership levels can mean a professional association is not only less effective in its lobbying efforts and limited in its reach, but it
may also have less ability to negotiate the very benefits that attract many of its members in
the first place — again, a vicious cycle. And that can
lead, over time, to a group’s extinction.
Meanwhile, new start-up charities have a double challenge, it
seems to me. They’re trying to generate support and build a membership
from zero, with all the challenges that other charity groups face — but
without the track record, the public profile, and perhaps a certain
“cachet” that more established groups may have on their side in
recruiting new members. Would it make sense for a start-up to direct its
efforts to recruiting a youthful membership to begin with, knowing that
it, too, is likely to be affected by the aging membership issue in the fullness
For self-help communities and support groups, it might be
argued that the recruitment challenge is not always quite so pressing,
as membership is tied closely to need for support? (I’m thinking here
of a local Alzheimer’s support group, for example: members stay on as
long as they’re in need of the group’s services, and, sadly, there’s no
shortage of new members when every day brings a new diagnosis and
another family in need of support.) But is this natural membership
renewal reflected in the pool of volunteers, the “interested others”
who are so urgently needed to keep the programs running? My guess is
that an injection of youthful energy would be welcome there, too.
So, here are two questions that nonprofits of all types might want to take a moment to consider:
- Do we have a “succession plan” in place, to ensure the long-term strength of our membership?
- What steps can our nonprofit take, to attract younger members?
- How can our programs be adapted, in the short term, to work more
effectively with an aging membership and/or smaller volunteer pool?
Odds are that these or similar questions will crop up at our
nonprofit board meetings, again and again, in the tough months ahead.
Please share your own particular challenges (and hopefully, your
success stories!) in the comments below. What’s your nonprofit’s
strategy to ease the long-term effects of an aging membership?