Thirty two percent of Sonoma Valley residents being 60 plus years old, it’s no wonder that the median age of member-based nonprofits in the Valley is increasing. But our member-based nonprofits, including service organizations and giving circles, won’t be able to sustain themselves if they don’t reinvigorate themselves and start discovering ways to attract a younger demographic. Some local nonprofits are doing just that—they are bringing in new members half the age of the existing members and experiencing an exciting period of growth and renewal.
One example of a local organization that’s thriving with a resurgence of new members is the Sonoma Valley Woman’s Club. Founded in 1901 by a group of 11 women, the club formed to beautify our parks and streets and improve the literary interests of the community. The Woman’s Club initiated Plaza improvements with the installation of trees, walkways, and a fountain; established and staffed the first library in Sonoma; conducted well baby clinics during WWII; helped with the restoration of the Mission San Francisco de Solano; and placed the El Camino Real bell in front of the Mission. In 1916, the club constructed its lovely clubhouse that it still occupies at 574 First Street East in downtown Sonoma. Today, the club raises funds to support local charities and youth. At the end of 2016, the club’s declining membership base comprised philanthropic-minded women in their 70s, 80s, and 90s. But in 2017, some of the newer members of the club, including club president (and Sonoma Mayor) Madolyn Agrimoni, decided to breathe some life into the club by launching a campaign to attract younger women to join the club.
With a goal to reach a membership of 100 women, the Woman’s Club is well on its way with 91 members already and more joining at every meeting. In a recent interview, Agrimonti said that women in their early 30s, 40s, and 50s are joining and “what’s so amazing is that they bring these fantastic skills of social media, so they’ve taken over our Facebook page, our eblasts, and newsletters.” Agrimonti said that one of the ways they are attracting younger women is by adding evening dinner meetings. Previously, all meetings were scheduled during daytime hours on weekdays, times that are prohibitive for working women and stay-at-home moms. They are now scheduling open houses, inviting speakers to their monthly meetings who resonate with a younger crowd, and encouraging new members to invite their friends to join. They are using social media to get their message out and engaging in community events, including the annual City Party and July 4 parade.
Another much newer local nonprofit, Impact100 Sonoma, also found itself in a situation of attracting an older demographic with minimal diversity. Impact100 Sonoma is a women’s giving circle that requires each member to make an annual gift of $1,000, of which every penny is contributed to a variety of Sonoma Valley nonprofits once a year. Although the membership surged from 110 members in 2009 to 304 members at the end of 2017, the leadership believed that for the organization to continue its growth trajectory, it must engage younger and more diverse women. As a result, Impact100 Sonoma launched the NextGen Program in 2017 as a way to involve women between the ages of 25 and 35 as members.
NextGen targets younger, working women who are looking for ways to further their professional careers, have an interest in philanthropy and civic engagement, live and work in Sonoma Valley, are available to attend Impact100 meetings, and willing join an Impact100 committee or participate in the grant review process. In return, NextGen members get their $1,000 membership waived for the first year. Removing the barrier of the cost of membership has proved to be an effective way for the organization to lower its median membership age and increase its diversity. The number of NextGen members is limited each year and applications are available at Impact100sonoma.org for all interested Sonoma Valley women.
Here are some additional ways to get younger people interested in joining your membership: (1) make sure your meetings are interesting to a younger demographic by making them interactive and fun; (2) eliminate some of your old traditions and rituals that might turn off a younger crowd–the practice of fining members for whatever reason doesn’t always set well with young members; (3) provide opportunities for networking and mentoring to help younger members further their careers; (4) use current technology and social media to reach the demographic you want to attract; (5) make every minute that young people spend with your organization rewarding–they lead hectic lives and don’t have a lot of time to waste; (6) be flexible in how and when they can get involved–young people have less control over their schedules than retirees; (7) keep your website up-to-date, easy to use, and be sure to respond quickly to online inquiries about membership; (8) keep your language current–say your organization delivers social change as opposed to saying you do service projects–and tell young people how they will make a difference in the community; (9) keep your event prices down–offer appetizers and free wine instead of a full meal if members have to pay for it; and (10) plan family-friendly activities to appeal to members with young families. For service clubs with weekly attendance requirements, allow members to participate in other ways that count toward attendance, such as service hours, training, or committee participation.
Just because Sonoma Valley’s population is aging, doesn’t mean that our member-based nonprofits have to settle for an aging membership base. It takes commitment, an outreach plan, and a willingness to reach beyond your usual practices to attract younger members, but the results will be well worth it. The more opportunities there are for multi-generational engagement among our Valley’s nonprofits, the stronger our community will be.
B.J. Bischoff is the owner of Bischoff Performance Improvement Consulting, a Sonoma firm specializing in building the capacity of nonprofit organizations and public sector agencies. She assists her clients with strategic planning, board and staff training, fund development, grant writing, and community relations. She is Past President of Impact100 Sonoma and serves as a Sonoma County Board of Supervisors’ appointee to the Sonoma County Portfolio of Model Upstream Programs Review Committee. Contact her at [email protected]