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Leaning Into Learning for a New Generation of Members With Rebecca Achurch

  • 5 Min Read

Discover what a changing membership might mean for your association and how promoting learning can help you deliver the value new members are looking for.


Membership demographics are changing. According to data from MGI’s annual surveys, 10 years ago, 92% of members were baby boomers and Generation Xers. Now it’s an even three-way split.

New generations bring with them fresh and different experiences, expectations and attitudes that associations need to be ready to embrace.

But where does learning factor in? What role can—and should—it play in attracting new members and supporting them as they move through their careers?

We had the opportunity to talk to Rebecca Achurch, PgMP, PMP, CSM, CAE, founder and CEO of Achurch Consulting, about these questions and more. In the first part of our conversation, we touched on topics including:

  • the broader impacts workforce transitions are having on associations
  • what younger generations are looking for when it comes to learning
  • how associations can use learning as a driver of growth and revenue

Advancing the profession is one of the top goals for associations. Where does learning fit into that picture, especially with a changing member demographic?

When you talk to associations, they’ll talk about the fact that they like to convene. What they’re really good at is getting their members together to have meaningful conversations and learn from each other.

But younger generations really believe in lifelong learning. As people talk about how we engage millennials and Gen Zers and take a page from the technology industry, I see associations thinking much more about their learning strategy—how they’re helping members advance in their careers, industries and workforces in ways that are more formalized than what associations have done in the past.
Rebecca Achurch, PgMP, PMP, CSM, CAE founder and CEO, Achurch Consulting

I think some of it’s that technology has allowed us to do that, and some of it’s that there’s generational demand. But I think it’s becoming more of a focus for organizations as they move forward.

Where does learning stand when it comes to being a catalyst to drive non-dues revenues? Are we seeing it become a significant line item of the business alongside membership dues, conferences, events, sponsorship dollars and other streams?

Learning needs to balance out the scale. Traditional associations usually talk about driving revenue through their annual conferences and membership dues. Yet as we all learned during the COVID-19 pandemic, sometimes there’s an imbalance.

I think they’re looking at learning to create a little more equilibrium among their revenue streams as a component that can create some stickiness and a different type of ongoing engagement. What’s interesting to me is that, again, millennials and Gen Zers are starting to push this.
Rebecca Achurch, PgMP, PMP, CSM, CAE founder and CEO, Achurch Consulting

Don’t get me wrong, I know boomers. I’m a Gen Xer and yes, I consider myself a lifelong learner. But the way technology and the world are changing so quickly, I need to think about skills development all the time versus at these set points in time. And I think that’s really the shift I’m beginning to see. To me, it’s a natural outcrop of what we need to do as associations in terms of providing value to our members.

I think it all goes together. There’s a balance of dues revenue, but for many associations that are looking to help upskill their membership, they have to begin to think about learning strategy.

Overall, how are broader workforce challenges shaping the role learning is going to play for associations?

Workforce challenges are real. Whatever your industry, we’re talking about substantial changes as older generations leave and younger ones take over. You really have to think about where these new individuals are and how they’re building their skill sets because their whole philosophy about upskilling is very different.

That’s why I think this conversation is so important. With this generational shift, we’re seeing attitudes changing.
Rebecca Achurch, PgMP, PMP, CSM, CAE founder and CEO, Achurch Consulting

I remember when I got the “alphabet soup” after my name, my husband thought I was nuts, but I was changing. I was one of those people who went from being in retail to a meeting planner to a technologist, upskilling and learning throughout my journey.

When people are not necessarily staying in roles for more than three to five years, there’s constant retraining that needs to take place. Those are real workforce challenges we need to think about, because we don’t have time to say we’re going to take 10 years to slowly develop this. There has to be a sense of urgency to making sure that skill development takes place, or talent will walk out the door.

When it comes to learning, what are younger generations looking for? What trends are you seeing?

I do see that a lot of the learning out there is traditional push-to-consume experiences, which can be a great thing. Having some passive learning is fantastic. But when you’re thinking about skills development for the next generation, remember that they’ve been active participants in designing their own educational pathways and deliverables. Again, their experience now is very different than what our experience was then.

One trend I’m seeing is the younger generations being much more immersive. They want to make sure they’re truly developing and demonstrating skills instead of just sitting there.

The second trend I’m seeing is cohort learning, so that people can have shared experiences and learn from each other at the same time. What I think is interesting about this is that it ties into something that I hear so many associations saying, which is that they want to create a community. They want their members to have meaningful connections—with each other and with the association.

How are associations uniquely positioned to deliver on the expectations younger generations have?

We always talk about community. Every association will, without fail, say they love to convene. So, what can you do to increase that connectedness? Maybe members spend six months learning online with each other before they get the chance to meet in person. That builds enthusiasm and excitement. It also enables members to create connections—friends, mentors, champions, confidants—that they can now go to for support.

colleagues collaborating over a tablet in an office

Real Advice to Help You Advance Your Association

You need to be able to focus on what matters—supporting your staff, delivering value for your members and charting the right course for your organization.

Learning by Association is all about helping you do that. Through conversations with industry leaders, gain expert insight into trends, opportunities, challenges, best practices and more.

Written by:

Haley Wilson

Haley Wilson is a Content Marketing Manager at D2L, specializing in the corporate learning space. She holds an Honours Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Guelph as well as a Master of Arts focused in history from Wilfrid Laurier University.

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