Infusing Growth, Engagement and Connection into Nonprofit Conference Planning Across Multi-Generational Membership

Written by Bryan White

Chief Growth Officer, Bostrom

Most associations will eventually experience a demographic shift in their membership. The long-time “Legacy” members, who also make up the majority of the association’s membership, eventually start to retire from their professions. This only presents a problem if the association is not continually innovating and adapting to entice the new generation of members.

The Illinois Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ISHA) is going through this transition now. The membership is comprised of long-time Legacy members and new college graduates entering their profession. Both demographics are well represented, so ISHA is now faced with the struggle of appealing to everyone. Replacing programs, services and processes to attract new professionals into the association could alienate your long-time members. So how can an association balance these changes—but also innovate and adapt?

ISHA started with its quarterly newsletter, which needed a lot of help. The ISHA Newsletter was a black and white print document with no images, that simply included association updates in every issue. It did not appeal to new professionals entering the field, so the ISHA staff and leadership worked together to develop a content-driven publication and brand. Through those conversations and efforts, The ISHA Voice was launched in July 2018. The ISHA Voice is a 50-page quarterly publication that includes professional content, photos, news and information. It now has an identity, and it is a resource for members to help further their professional development.

The positive feedback received from the membership and the overall success of The ISHA Voice created momentum. If this change was well received, why not keep the ball rolling? With the 59th Annual ISHA Convention on the horizon, discussions immediately centered around innovative ways to inject new life into the conference. Here’s what ISHA did:

  • The conference program undertook a much-needed upgrade. A conference brand, look and feel were developed, and that brand carried through to a newly developed marketing plan.
  • The conference program was no longer mailed to registrants, it was available online pre-conference, then in print onsite. This was a significant cost savings.
  • A conference mobile app was developed, which allowed attendees to receive real-time updates regarding programming during the conference.
  • A Welcome Reception, held on the tradeshow floor, on the opening night of the conference was a new addition. This not only gave attendees an additional opportunity to network with their colleagues, but it answered vendor requests to increase foot traffic in the exhibit hall.
  • The ISHA Cocktail Reception was traditionally held immediately following the Annual College Bowl. It was a formal event that included a pianist, harp player, and ice sculptures. With a College Bowl as the lead-in to this event, the event was poorly attended and only catered to the long-time members of the association. So in 2019, the ISHA Tailgate Party was organized. The Tailgate Party hosted schools throughout the state exhibiting at tabletops, a DJ, backyard BBQ eats, yard games, and bars. The event was set up in the foyer next to the College Bowl, so attendees and students walked directly into the Tailgate Party at the conclusion of the College Bowl.
  • Speaking of the College Bowl, ISHA hired a company to officiate the event. They delivered a high-energy game show approach that encouraged crowd participation and interaction.
  • The ISHA Honors Luncheon, a ticketed event where members received their association awards and the association business meeting was held, was experiencing declining attendance. The declining attendance was a result of the event running concurrently with education sessions. It was also not enticing to new professionals that didn’t have a long-standing history with the association. The luncheon became the Honors Breakfast in 2019. Moving it to a breakfast ensured that it did not compete with any educational programming. ISHA also hired a keynote presenter, Deaf Ninja Warrior, which was approved for one credit hour of continuing education. The result—the breakfast sold out. 250 tickets sold versus 47 the year before.

ISHA was able to do all of this in a very short period of time with minimal financial investment. The money saved on postage alone (by not mailing the conference program to registrant’s pre-conference) was enough to fund these new initiatives. A mailing still went out, but it was a promotional mailing that went to 2000 members and 5000 prospects, opposed to a 58-page conference program mailed only to members—so ISHA was able to cast a wider net and include prospects while reducing cost.

All of this was done in an effort to bring new life to the conference, and make it more enticing to new professionals entering the field. It’s also important to note the balance—the goal is to not alienate a segment of membership. So even though a mobile app was created, the printed conference program was still available. If the association demographics are slowly shifting, your innovation efforts must move at the same pace.

You’ve probably heard the phrase, “adapt or die”. Every association will need to adapt in order to stay relevant to the changing demographics of their membership. ISHA is a great example of this adaptation being executed. It just requires leaders willing to take the risk, and some creative thinking.


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