If you’re a membership association or other non-profit, how do you get young professionals to join and participate? I had two separate conversations about this topic today — how can mission-based organizations recruit younger members as membership numbers (and revenues) decline? Read on for seven ideas.
Trend: Young People Aren’t Joining Professional Associations or Going to High-Culture Events Like Before
Young professionals today are less likely to join trade associations than their parents, but this recruiting problem isn’t unique to member associations. At the Whippany Railway Museum, I was one of the youngest volunteers, and I was the youngest board member by 20+ years. Within the arts (ballet, symphonies, opera, and art museums), donors typically skew older.
Brainstorming: 7 Marketing Ideas to Help Carolina Ballet Engage Young Professionals
After work today, I met with my friend Ashley to help her brainstorm ideas as she drafts a marketing proposal to get young professionals coming to Carolina Ballet. The 15-year old non-profit organization — based here in Raleigh, NC — tried a young professionals program before, but it didn’t perform as expected (no pun intended).
I bet you can think of even more ideas — here are seven we came up with in just an hour over coffee at Cup-a-Joe.
1) Recruit a core group of volunteers to kickstart the process. As I mentioned, Ashley shouldn’t have to do all the work herself. I’m one of nine board members for Refresh the Triangle. If I were to resign, move, or get hit by a bus, things can keep moving — there’s built-in continuity.
Boards can become too big, but at least initially, more people usually means less burnout. Get those enthusiastic pioneers and they’ll help recruit more people to make things happen.
2) Use a phased approach. I suggested recruiting 3-4 board members to form a core group to plan the young professional recruiting program and to recruit more volunteers. That way, Ashley doesn’t have to do all the work herself. For instance, it might make sense to defer something intensive like full-scale social media campaigns ’til after the board hits the 5-12 members mark.
3) Build a list from the very start. Tactical on its face, building a list of members and prospects has big strategic impacts if you don’t start doing it up front. To keep people coming back, you need a way to reach them. Email marketing can be a low-cost way to do that, but it won’t work as well if you haven’t been relentlessly collecting addresses.
The ideal is to integrate with your organization’s existing CRM system (e.g., Blackbaud’s Raiser’s Edge or Salesforce.com) to avoid duplication and data maintenance issues. But if the alternative is losing hundreds of email addresses while you wait months to get access to the main email marketing system, just set up a free MailChimp account (no charge if you have under 2,000 subscribers) and plan to sort things out later.
4) See what similar arts organizations are doing. For instance, I see BalletMet Columbus has a young professionals program that gives members behind-the-scenes access. Here in Raleigh, the NC Museum of Art has its Contemporaries program. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel.
5) See what dissimilar organizations are doing. For instance, while some churches struggle to stay open as congregants lose interest, move away, or die, other churches have found ways to get young professionals actively involved in what’s not typically seen as a high-growth sector.
The Carolina Ballet young professionals group wouldn’t have a religious focus, of course, but they can definitely get some marketing and membership structure ideas from how consumer-oriented churches target, recruit, and retain young members.
On a more secular bent here in Raleigh, the Carolina Rollergirls have an enthusiastic team of marketing volunteers — see what I learned in my interview with their former marketing director.
6) Understand that young professionals might not be as enthusiastic about the arts as you are. It may be about social and/or professional benefits, but that’s OK. The future board president (or committee chair, or however you want to define it) might not be a lifelong ballet enthusiast — s/he might be someone who wants to get involved in the community, and this happens to be where they want to channel their energies. Or perhaps the lead volunteers might have a mixture of skills and enthusiasm.
Something I’ve loved about my volunteer leadership positions is that I’ve been able to take on responsibilities well before getting them at my regular jobs — for instance, I was managing a team of six chapter advisors in New York several years before I had my first direct report at work. That benefit isn’t related to the non-profits’ missions but it’s definitely a valuable recruiting and retention benefit.
7) Avoid expanding too fast. Track ideas as they come up, but don’t try to implement them all at once or without a strategy. For instance, even if having separate social media channels for young professionals makes marketing sense (I don’t know if it does for Carolina Ballet; it depends on the overall marketing and communications strategy), wait ’til you have someone to handle it consistently. In Triangle AMA, we have two social media co-directors who trade off duties each week — that way, Clair and Gwynne are less likely to get burned out.
Likewise, it sounds like Carolina Ballet might benefit from a brief online “orientation” video for people who are new to attending the ballet — I’m thinking something that shows you don’t have to dress up in a tuxedo or evening gown any more, and some vignettes showing how there’s wine in the lobby and various post-show benefits for young professionals. But wait on doing video ’til you’ve recruited that core group of volunteers — to avoid burnout, you need people to run things before you start heavy promotions.
What’s Your Marketing Advice for Non-Profits Struggling to Recruit Young Professionals?
Be sure you’ve done the work to get the strategy right — whether it’s you or your agency — before you jump to tactics that might not match your goals. I don’t have a silver marketing bullet that will help every member association or non-profit solve their sales and recruiting problem, but I’d say it ultimately comes down to providing value and relevance.
Ashley has a lot of work ahead of her to create her marketing proposal and to get buy-in. But I’m confident that with a good plan and a core group of volunteers to handle implementation, Carolina Ballet will be successful in reaching young professionals.
Of course, chatting over coffee isn’t comprehensive like the in-depth strategy work the hesketh.com team does for mission-based clients, where we’d do user research, stakeholder interviews, and other important groundwork before creating a comprehensive engagement strategy. You can learn more about our approach to strategy at our website.
Question: What’s your advice to non-profits that are struggling to engage young professionals? You can leave a comment by clicking here.