Although the number of these organizations has grown and are still viewed as relevant to members across generations, many are struggling the attract and retain membership. The problem is multidirectional—these organizations are struggling to connect with the current generation of younger, potential members, and the potential members are struggling to understand the value joining professional organizations brings them. The challenges and solutions rely on understanding how generational and class differences, and membership offerings, impact how people view these organizations.
One disconnect appears to be generational. Boomers and older generations considered membership in professional organizations and associations a professional obligation. But studies of generational factors on membership organizations indicate that is not the case for younger generations. Now, many potential members appear more interested in what the organization can do for them, failing to understand or value how their membership comes with being an active contributor to their profession and supports broader organizational objectives. And organizations appear to struggle with how to offer something of value to their often segmented market. For example, younger generations who make up the largest segment of active-duty military personnel are looking for products and resources that can help advance their careers while older members may just want to stay aware of what’s happening in their profession. Compounding this is the communication disconnect between older and younger generations. Far too often, organizations and associations have been “late to the game” in engaging membership audiences with modern communication channels—primarily through social media channels. Furthermore, there is some confusion regarding membership: Is an organization for active duty or retirees? Officer or enlisted?
Another disconnect is “class” related. Historically, professional member organizations have consisted of a heavy officer membership. As the professional “class” of the Sea Services, they have traditionally valued the professional benefits and networking opportunities these organizations provide. Today’s enlisted force is more educated and informed and have been developing the attributes of the professional class. Organizations such as Chief Petty Officer Associations (CPOAs) value and rely on a solid foundation of senior enlisted networks that organizations can use to their advantage. However, like it or not, there is a perception that many of these organizations do not provide enough leadership opportunities for, and are not leveraging the benefits of, a solid base of enlisted members. A quick scan of organizational leadership positions, newsletter and magazine interviews, and conference keynote speakers reveals they are primarily flag and senior officers. So even today, those enlisted looking at the professional military organization (PMO) from the outside still tend to view it as for officers. Furthermore, traditional rank structures serve as an impediment to communication and broader involvement.
Conversely, when organizations do invest in enlisted outreach, many enlisted professionals appear uninterested and opt not to join, subscribing to a general perception that service-affiliated professional organizations are solely officer organizations. Or, rather than champion existing organizations, enlisted-focused member organizations such as the Non-commissioned Officers Association (NCOA) or the Fleet Reserve Association (FRA) were chartered to cater to an enlisted constituency. Although well-intentioned, this approach only served to redirect potential enlisted membership away from well-established professional member organizations, missing opportunities to leverage enlisted membership to increase their effectiveness. This is changing, enlisted membership in many organizations is slowly increasing and many organizations are starting to understand this and reach out. But to what extent are lingering mental models limiting the involvement and influence of this new cadre of potential members?
Consideration also must be given to governance structures. Professional organizations require resources to meet their goals and objectives and the boards serve to secure these. Senior board members bring well-established connections with and access to sources of revenue and donors, which are crucial to many organizations. But younger board members who may not have these relationships could help develop and shape communication strategies, membership models, and member benefits to appeal to younger members. What good is a multimillion-dollar bank account if you are providing no real value to your membership or your impact is non-existent? Unfortunately, a general review of the membership of the board of directors in Sea Service professional organizations will reveal mostly retired flag or senior officers and perhaps one or two retired, and very senior, enlisted representatives. And, just because a board’s membership may have one or two senior enlisted members does not mean all enlisted members are represented equally—generational representation on boards matters as well. Board membership should reflect the many values and perspectives of today’s Sea Service. Organizational leadership should evaluate what effect lack of diversity has on organizational effectiveness.
Closing the Gaps
There are several things that can be done to improve both the membership and effectiveness of these organizations. First, they must invest time in learning how people find value in their organization. They should frequently communicate the value of membership and how membership supports the organization and profession it represents. More important, they should critically evaluate if they are offering what members are seeking while recognizing what each generation of membership values. For example, younger members are focused on establishing their careers and professional reputations, so they desire the job opportunities and professional development resources. Older members, however, find value in industry information and the feeling of professional responsibility the community fosters. Current and potential members are reading PMO newsletters and magazines and see what action they are taking, and evaluate the mission statement to determine if what the organization offers matches what it does. PMOs must consider how to adapt messaging to change perceptions that they are solely officer or retiree-focused. Sometimes members see or hear nothing until their membership fees are due. They must stay engaged and connected with their members beyond renewal pitches. They should emphasize how they serve as an alumnus for their constituency so that all members feel encouraged to give back to, and strengthen, their profession.
Second, PMOs must appeal to officer and enlisted members equally, and broaden representation on boards to leverage the strengths and opportunities those potential members can brings. If they are truthful, and really desire to attract a broader member base, board membership, newsletters, and conference panels should diversify to include this large, untapped constituency of naval professionals. If organizations are not comfortable giving a board positions to less experienced enlisted personnel, they can implement a junior board of directors that is advised by the main board. This body will serve to represent their interests while providing the experience needed for them to eventually be able to fulfill the responsibilities of higher governance. And the enlisted community must be intellectually open to these organizations, especially the senior enlisted ranks where the focus tends to be on senior enlisted associations at the expense of their involvement in their warfare or technical community. In addition, member events should connect members across generations and help younger members overcome the awkwardness with attending venues of more senior people whom they want to learn from but may feel unable to approach.
Third, PMOs must learn to better connect with their target audience in their space—not only in the physical areas where they work such as fleet concentration areas, but online and through social media. Younger people want updates on everything, so social media use is a must. And, your message and information must connect. An occasional history story in your magazine or newsletter is good, but you also should strive to tell your membership the impact your organization is having and how the Sea Service or profession is changing. Furthermore, where venues are held matters. Big ticket donor events in Washington, D.C., are important, but get conferences, working groups, and panels to the places where the large populations of enlisted membership are.
Fourth, they should consider how they can adjust membership models and events to support new members. Although they are signaling a desire to attract a broader membership base, it cannot just be about the money that membership base can bring. Offer speaker panels that provide specific rating or community (engineering, ops, navigation etc.) training and updates that focus on how to improve leadership and management skills. Offer professional books at a discount and couple them with author talks. Coordinate forums where members can come together to discuss issues impacting material and operational readiness and then harness volunteer writers to draft articles for magazines and newsletters. There is a lot that can be done to better fulfill the younger generations’ desire to make a difference in their profession.
A concern often voiced by potential members is the cost of membership and events and a lack of understanding of what membership fees accomplish. This is understandable for younger members who may be more fiscally constrained. But senior officers and enlisted should easily be able to handle the cost. Perhaps some don’t understand that these organizations require capital to achieve their objectives and pay overhead. The cost should not be viewed from the perspective of what’s in it for me, rather what’s in it for the organization and profession. Understandably, most new members will not immediately sign up and pay for a life membership. They will start with a shorter obligation and if they find value, they will renew, perhaps for a longer period. And then, if they still stand by the organization and trust and believe in them, they will commit to paying a life membership. Membership with professional organizations comes with a fee, the benefits gained can greatly exceed the cost. Member events should be accessible and welcoming to all members, not exclusive or comfortable only to the board members, big donors and those who can benefit from the networking opportunities. Ticket costs should not be prohibitive to younger members and organizations should consider other ways members can contribute beyond attendance.
Finally, work to improve communication with the Sea Services or professional community to understand and explore how to better link membership and the professional development opportunities it offers to evaluations and promotion processes. Sea Service and professional community leadership should formally acknowledge the benefits the member and service can gain, encourage membership, and reward those who increase their professional competence through active membership. This incentive alone would be a huge catalyst to increase membership. Granted, there are legal considerations to manage, but most board members should have experience with how to properly maneuver within that space.
Professional and military/veteran service organizations are important. Successful ones provide advocacy and nurture communication across various stakeholders, enhance and celebrate member professional competence and influence, and provide a sense of community within their profession. For example, the U.S. Naval Institute has made “increasing its reach” a line of effort in their five-year strategic plan and hired a retired fleet master chief as the co-director of outreach. Similarly, the Surface Navy Association recently brought on board two retired senior enlisted to help attract enlisted naval professionals in the surface warfare community. Others should consider how they must adapt and change to stay relevant. These organizations must do better to understand the needs of and connect with their members, and young naval professionals must understand the value of these organizations and be open to joining and contributing. Organizational success requires involvement on both sides and when both are involved members benefit, the profession benefits, and our naval forces benefit.