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Wanted: New Blood for an Aging Nonprofit Sector

Lori Halley 15 January 2009 2 comments

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 succession planning.

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 of time?

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?

Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Posted by Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Published Thursday, 15 January 2009 at 6:54 PM


  • Debra Askanase said:

    Sunday, 18 January 2009 at 1:01 AM


    Very thoughtful and timely post. Having worked for many non-profits, I have seen this issue. However, it isn't just the issue of aging, but of people committing less volunteer time in general, as their individual lives become oversaturated. There is no one solution, but a few ideas:

    1. Content: evaluate the work on the non-profit and ensure that it continues to be engaging and relevant to its stakeholders

    2. Membership: evaluate who the stakeholders are and reach out to new groups.

    3. Call to action: make sure there is always a compelling call to action

    4. Go where the members are to make it easiest for them: the local mall, facebook, the neighborhood listserv.

    5. Friends: people join because their friends do. Motivate groups of people to bring others into the organization, especially younger ones.

    A few thoughts...and I'm interested in others' thoughts as well on this very relevant topic.

    Debra Askanase


  • Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

    Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] said:

    Monday, 19 January 2009 at 8:38 AM

    Debra, thanks for those suggestions. The question of volunteer motivation has come up frequently in conversations with others online, recently, and what I'm hearing there suggests that you're right in identifying "oversaturated" lives as a big factor. Interestingly, good tips about what volunteers want/need from nonprofits are coming from posing that question directly to youth volunteers who say they are also feeling a timecrunch!

Sorry, this blog post is closed for further comments.

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