Can Mentoring Programs Bring Younger Members to Your Association?

By Association Adviser staff • June 24, 2016

Are younger people just not as interested in affiliating with organizations anymore? Does the ability to conduct their lives effectively online mean that people no longer need the physical support and networking opportunities that large organizations and associations bring? Or are associations simply not engaging young members effectively enough?

Back in 2013, the enterprise software company Sage surveyed more than 11,000 small- and medium-sized businesses in 17 countries to assess their attitudes about business mentoring. More than 90 percent of respondents said they recognized that mentoring can help them succeed, but only 28 percent were currently mentoring or being mentored.

With this in mind, Horizons, the Australian coaching, leadership and mentoring consultancy surveyed almost 4,000 business leaders, consultants and executives in professional associations in the U.S., Canada, Australia and India in 2015 to get their take about three key areas of mentoring and career development:

  1. Member recruitment challenges. Many associations are finding it increasingly difficult to attract younger members. Do you agree this is a growing problem in the industry?
  2. Career development and mentoring are the top values young professionals seek from their workplace, but most believe their employer doesn’t do enough. Therefore, do you think that mentoring should be a key focus of associations to attract younger members?
  3. Program implementation. What are the challenges of implementing a large scale mentoring program?


Mentoring answers the question of what a seasoned association demographic could offer younger professionals looking for unique value. LilTweetablesSmall

Finding and working with a well matched mentor adds hugely to the value of a young person’s membership. LilTweetablesSmall

Know the time, resources and costs required to implement a successful mentoring program before attempting to roll it out. LilTweetablesSmall

Difficulties attracting younger members

Nearly seven out of eight (87.3 percent) respondents agreed that attracting younger members to their associations and organizations is a growing problem. Their explanations included the costs of membership, employers not allowing younger/newer staff to participate in associations and lack of awareness of the benefits derived from industry association membership.

I don’t think this is a new problem. I think it is a problem any group has as it ages… the leaders (older members that are now running the organization) suffer from lack of momentum, changing to keep up with the time. To keep attracting new members, organizations need to ensure that young people have a voice (not a squeak).
Executive Director (U.S.)

Another oft-cited factor dissuading young professionals from joining associations is the belief that they can easily obtain professional resources and network on their own through the Internet. As one association professional from Canada pointed out, “Young professionals may be more reliant on organic networking that they can partially direct through social media outlets…and social media didn’t really exist when most associations were created.”

Finally, survey respondents suggested that millennials are hesitant to align themselves with those they believe to be in an older, out-of-touch demographic. What could a seasoned but stuck-in-the-mud older professional offer a younger professional looking for unique value and resources? LilTweetablesSmall

This is where mentoring programs step in.

Professional mentoring as a strategic way to attract younger members

When asked if mentoring programs should be a key focus for attracting younger members, the overwhelming answer was YES. More than 94 percent of respondents agreed that associations should adopt mentoring as a strategic change to attract young people.

I absolutely believe focusing on mentoring would provide significant positive results to young people. Associations – as well as employers – can benefit from these relationships especially as they provide a pipeline for industry-specific workforce planning.
Director of Career Services (U.S.)

Mentoring can help businesses and associations remain relevant to younger people by giving them a personalized way to develop their professional and career-related skills. Mentoring is a long-term benefit; mentors and mentees can potentially develop a professional relationship that lasts beyond the defined program length.

Mentoring fosters the acquisition of new skills and knowledge from a trusted source. Other studies show that millennials look for companies that have training and development programs because they value an employer that invests in its employees.

Mentoring programs can be a competitive advantage for associations of the future

As many aging committee members retire and baby boomers leave, a new focus on engaging young, ambitious and connected professionals can be met by implementing mentoring programs.

Mentoring programs work for all parties. When Sun Microsystems compared the career progress of 1,000 employees over a five-year period, they found:

  1. Employees who received mentoring were promoted FIVE times more often than people who didn’t have mentors.
  2. Mentors were SIX times more likely to have been promoted to a bigger job.

Word gets around. When mentoring programs are successful they attract new people to an organization, create sustainable culture of achievement and reduce the loss of talented employees who drift to other organizations that better engage them.

For associations, finding and working with a well matched mentor adds hugely to the value of a young person’s membership. LilTweetablesSmall This well networked demographic will then spread the word, making attraction and retention of millennials more effective.

Challenges of implementing a professional mentoring program

Professional mentoring programs are not simple to implement and run, however. Respondents to the Horizons survey said their biggest barriers to implementing mentor programs were setting up an appropriate structure, supporting that structure and its resulting culture, finding the manpower to run a mentoring program and finding the time to run it effectively.

Trying to determine the value proposition for both mentor and mentee, allocating staff to supporting a program, developing a program and recruiting volunteers and mentees are all sizable pieces for us which we are trying to navigate.
Senior Manager (Canada)

Smart associations plan their program budgets far in advance and may not be able to fund a mentoring program as soon as members would like to have it, no matter how highly desirable a benefit it could be. Some associations may be hesitant to introduce a mentoring program because of the staff and material costs involved, especially if such costs could require raising dues. While some associations may be able to fund mentoring programs from non-dues revenue or from reallocating funds from less popular programs, those will not always be options.

Horizon survey respondents also cited lack of leadership support as a barrier. Without the full support of leadership, a mentoring program will struggle to get the resources it needs to fulfill its purpose. The administrative work needed to plan and deliver a robust mentoring program is significant, and it’s a challenge to get funding for programs whose ROI can be hard to quantitatively measure. For instance, how do you measure personal satisfaction derived from becoming better equipped in your career, or the increased membership value that comes from getting to know a fellow member one-on-one?

Finally, finding people willing to commit to a relatively time-intensive initiative such as mentoring can be difficult on both the staff and participant side. Many association staff wear several hats to begin with, and asking them to wear yet another hat can be daunting. Especially for larger programs, managing a mentoring program is similar to managing volunteers, and keeping everyone engaged and invested can be a full-time job.

When it comes to participants, both mentors and mentees are often too busy with their jobs, families and community organizations to fully engage, or to sustain their involvement after they begin. This unfortunately frequent scenario leaves the mentor/mentee without a partner. Some would argue however, that more potential mentors would make the time to counsel young member if they truly understood the benefits of mentoring and to treated it as a priority:

Solutions to mentoring program obstacles

“Onboarding” participants in a way that makes them want to commit to the mentor-mentee relationship for the length of the program — and beyond — will do wonders for getting your program off the ground. Get mentors excited about sharing their professional wisdom with the next generation, and get mentees hyped to soak up knowledge that a seasoned mentor can offer. Onboarding could be done through a mix of online and offline meetings, materials and experiences, but most organizations that have conducted successful mentoring programs agree that at least part of the onboarding and mentoring process should be done in person. Face-to-face meetings are still an effective way to engage, exchange ideas, and build relationships.

Mentors would have to understand and value the concept of mentoring, while the young members need to appreciate the effort being made by the mentors.
Education/Franchising Management Executive (India)

Setting expectations for the entire mentoring concept can also help retain participants. Knowing up front the time and effort expected of a mentor or mentee can help avoid recidivism later on in the programs.

On a related note, setting your association leadership’s expectations for the benefits of a mentoring program can help mentoring take root in your association. When leadership becomes aware of the return on investment available from well-run mentorships, it will be more willing to release the funds necessary to implement such a program.

Turning to mentoring program finances, if associations think creatively about resourcing their mentoring program, there is potential to break even or make a small profit in addition to non-tangible benefits such as increased membership value. Associations can ask mentees to pay something for their participation, which gives them a bit more “skin in the game” and hopefully results in better program participation. Secondly, associations could find a corporate sponsor to partner with them through the mentor program – a very positive type of sponsorship for corporations.

When planned and implemented thoughtfully, mentoring programs can give the unique member value proposition associations strive to offer and younger professionals often weigh before joining or renewing with a professional or trade association. LilTweetablesSmall Mentoring can benefit both mentors and mentees by offering a framework upon which to build strong, mutually beneficial learning relationships.

Has your association run a mentoring program? What are some of the lessons learned through running one? Leave us a note in the comments below.