Behind the Scene
by Randy Limbird
Editor & Publisher, El Paso Scene
I was recently invited to a local arts organization meeting to hear and comment on their “strategic plan” for the next few years. Among their goals were to gain new members and in particular attract younger members, and also to increase their profile in the community.
It hit me how much nearly every organization I have been a part of has faced similar challenges. I’ve been on the boards of a local church, a bicycling club and a performing arts group, and they have more in common than you think.
Since the 1960s, when social and civic groups in America were at their peak, membership has fallen by half. This overall phenomenon was best described in Robert Putnam’s landmark 2000 book “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.” The title itself refers to one example: People used to primarily go bowling as members of a league; now they bowl much less, and when they do, they go with family or friends but not in a league.
In his book, Putnam cited a number of factors. The rise of technology has led to greater individualization of leisure time — we rely on devices to entertain us and not so much spending time with other people. Social changes have led to fewer people willing to commit to becoming members of any organizations.
I’m part of a bicycle club whose membership has dropped by more than 50 percent over the past 10 years. It used to be that a club was the easiest way for people to find other cyclists to ride with. With social media and cell phone texts, it’s just as convenient to find and establish smaller groups of riders who fit your speed and distance preferences. So more people are riding, but in smaller groups.
That’s typical of trends for so many organizations nationwide. Younger people in particular don’t relate as well to larger, institutionalized associations. So service clubs, recreational groups and volunteer organizations typically have grown grayer and grayer, and as people drop out, fewer newcomers replace them.
I don’t have great solutions for these trends, but I’ve learned that the one thing that doesn’t work is trying to do business as usual. Here are a few suggestions:
• Don’t waste time giving answers to questions that people aren’t asking. Younger people rarely seek organizations to belong to. They still want to learn things, participate in activities or serve causes. So provide opportunities to learn, participate and serve, but don’t demand commitment.
• Embrace technology and social media. If your organization has speakers, create a video and share it on YouTube or other platforms. You’ll be surprised at how many more people you can reach. Don’t rely on one method of communication — some people like email, some prefer texts and others prefer Facebook posts.
• Don’t’ be afraid to re-invent yourself. Maybe your organization will become a network of smaller groups, and that’s OK. If you’re primarily made up of senior citizens, don’t waste a lot of time and energy trying to pull in much younger people. Figure out how to serve the needs of your older membership, and grow by getting their friends to join.
• The organization’s methods may change, but not the mission. Do whatever it takes to instill your passion in the next generation, whether it’s about art, sport or helping others.
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