Given the trends of declining association membership and flagging interest among the newest generation of attorneys, generational research and management consultant Sarah Sladek understands the concerns among association leaders about the future of their groups.
Still, she is optimistic.
“I’ve seen associations that have been able to turn the tables,” she says. “But to do that, you have to create a new approach to community.”
One example: the American Osteopathic Association. Faced with many of the same challenges that bars confront, the AOA ditched its hierarchal, experience-heavy leadership approach and went cold turkey: Every committee, board or decision-making entity is now required to have at least 30 percent of its members be people with five or fewer years of experience.
“You’re infusing young talent and perspective into the association,” Sladek says. “But not only that, you’re naturally creating this collaborative environment, because you’re literally seating young people next to very experienced people, and that fostered new dialogue, new ideas, new relationships. It infused innovation into the organization and created natural mentoring and cross-learning.”
The result? Overall membership growth—not just across younger members. “It breathed new life into the organization,” Sladek adds.
Another example, she says, is the National Environmental Health Association, whose leader addressed a detached internal culture by creating new ways to interact and work together. Teams were created and encouraged to take risks with new concepts, while the leader created a “think tank” made up primarily of young members (and nonmembers) that focused on industry trends and new ideas.
Within a year, membership grew and the association hosted its largest conference in history.
“Leadership is key. It has to start at the top, and they have to be willing to say it isn’t working and to do something different,” Sladek says. “These leaders simply took time and carved out a format to allow young people to have a voice, and they were willing to listen to some of the young voices.
“It seems simplistic, but it appears to be the gateway to all kinds of change, if you’re willing to get out of the hierarchal mindset and ask yourself, ‘Are we truly serving every single attorney in our community, or are we exclusive toward a particular type of attorney? Does every attorney feel like they belong?’”