About a year ago, the Wisconsin Society of Association Executives (WSAE) recognized they had a problem that many other associations experience as well. Their attendance to in-person events was consistent in terms of numbers, but very few of those attendees were young professionals. The Board had the foresight to recognize that this was a major problem. After all, they understood that young professionals are the future of their association and without their participation, the association faced challenges in years to come.
President & CEO of WSAE Michelle Czosek approached staff member Emily Viles about starting a taskforce in order to identify the shortfalls of WSAE in the eyes of young professionals. Emily then reached out to me to see if I had interest in helping her efforts and to co-Chair the taskforce together. We’ve been able to quickly gain steam and greatly increase participation within the association. Here’s the story of how we formed our YP taskforce and what we learned along the way.
Creating the Taskforce
One thing Emily and I recognized very early is that we were going to need help. And not only were we going to need help, we wanted help directly from fellow young professionals. From our active participation within the association, we were able to come up with a list of about 8-10 young professionals have shown interest in being an active member of WSAE. We knew by enlisting their help that we would have a wide range of experience. We were lucky enough that four of them were willing to become part of the taskforce immediately.
What is a Young Professional?
The next step, and possibly the most challenging, was identifying who we considered a young professional. Did we set an age limit and risk excluding a portion of our membership? After considering our options, we came to the conclusion that we would be purposeful in not setting any age limits to those who could participate in young professional events. By specifically not setting an age limit, we allowed anyone that considered themselves a young professional to participate. This was by far the best decision we made.
Those who you wouldn’t think belong in the young professional category, ruled themselves out for the most part. We also had people that might be a little bit older, but are new to the industry and have been participating and have brought a lot of value to our efforts. By setting an age limit, we would have ruled them out right off the bat.
We Can’t be the Voice for the Whole Group
One thing Emily and I knew right away was that we couldn’t pretend that our needs were the same as all young professionals. There are things that her and I wanted to get out of WSAE that possibly no one else needed and vice versa. We wanted the taskforce to represent the voice of all of our young professional members and not just those of a select few.
We held two open forum style meetings and invited any and all young professionals that wanted to attend with the sole purpose of hearing their wants and needs from WSAE. Truly, this part of our path was the most valuable to our cause. We were able to hear directly from about 20-30 young professionals of how we could help them get better value out of their WSAE membership.
“The WSAE Young Professional Taskforce’s purpose is to increase engagement among young professionals in WSAE through career development, education, and networking opportunities.”
At first, this may season like a pretty straight-forward missions statement, but a lot of thought went into it. We used the feedback that we received from our initial taskforce meeting with willing young professionals to craft our path for the group. This really helped us focus our mission on what our young professionals needed, and not just a generalized statement.
Built Our First YP Event Around Feedback
The time we took to do our research and learn what our young professionals needed led us to creating WSAE’s first ever young professional event titled “Paddles & Panels.” The event will feature two separate panels that consist of four panelists and a moderator each, creating a more conversational learning experience, rather than one speaker talking for an hour on stage. Our goal was to get three sponsors for the event and thirty attendees. Within three weeks of starting promotion we now have six sponsors and twenty-eight attendees.
6 Things We Learned from Our Experience
1) Young Professionals Want to Participate: Believe it or not, young professionals actually do want to participate and learn. There’s a lot of bad press out there about millennials and other young professionals simply not wanting to participate but that’s not true! They just don’t want to participate the same way past generations have.
2) They Want to Learn from Other Young Professionals: One of the most insightful pieces of information that we learned from this experience was the fact that young professionals want to learn from other young professionals. They find it difficult to learn from people that are in different stages of their career like Executive Directors and CEOs. They want to learn from their colleagues that have experienced things recently in today’s workplace.
3) Hold Events in Unique Locations & Do Unique Things: Young professionals don’t like the stuffy hotel ballrooms. Plain and simple. They’d love to interact and learn in an environment that is conducive to creativity. We’re holding our event at a ping pong lounge with space enough to do the educational piece as well as a unique experience that encourages interaction.
4) Panels not Speakers: Many of those who attended our two open forum meetings expressed an interest in the panel format rather than the speaker format. They mentioned that they can learn much easier if it’s part of a discussion, rather than someone standing on stage speaking at them. They feel the panel format allows them to be part of the conversation much easier.
5) Educational Events/Material Focused on Young Professionals: Having unique educational content is key to the success of any association, but it’s even more true when it comes to targeting young professionals. Don’t always assume that your younger members want to become CEOs or upper-management with lots of certifications. There is a large number of young professionals who would love to learn more about moving from entry-level positions to middle-management. Think about your content and make sure you have pieces that specifically address where your young professionals might be in their career.
6) Board & Leadership Approval is Paramount: Emily and I were very lucky during this process of starting WSAE’s Young Professional taskforce. We had the full support of the Board of Directors and our President and CEO. They told us to take the ideas we had and run with them. They even were able to give us a small budget to support in getting the first event up and running. If you want a taskforce to work in your association, you and your leadership must support their efforts from day one.