Market To Market: Tapping Into The Association Market


Membership-based organizations, from associations to nonprofits to clubs, exist for all kinds of reasons. Some provide knowledge and resources to professionals in a specific field or industry. Others unite members around a particular cause or interest. 

According to the IRS, an association is “a group of persons banded together for a specific purpose.” Whatever the purpose, one thing is certain: Associations are more valuable than ever to their members. 

During the pandemic, almost half of association members (44 percent) say it has become even more important to be part of an association, according to Personify’s report, “The Journey Ahead: The Future of Associations, Nonprofits and Events.” The report also shows that nearly all association members (93 percent) find value in belonging to an association. 

In the United States alone, more than 60,000 associations provide education, advocacy, networking opportunities and other professional resources, according to the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE). Of the 57 million adults who take formal courses or training each year, more than 69 percent complete these courses from a private business or professional association. These numbers show that despite a tumultuous 2020, associations continue to serve their members well.

Just as members are vital to associations, so are employees. For an association to grow, it needs resilient employees who are empowered to do their best work. 

According to ASAE, more than 200,000 professionals work at associations across the U.S. In 2019, promotional products sales to for-profit and nonprofit organizations, including associations, totaled just over a billion dollars, making the category eighth in the top 10 markets, according to PPAI Research. 

In the past year, association employees have dealt with massive levels of disruption in their jobs. Nearly one-third of U.S. nonprofit organizations eliminated positions or suspended operations due to the pandemic, according to a report from the Unemployment Services Trust. In the year ahead, associations of all sizes and types can focus on employees’ well-being and look for ways to better support their workforce. 

While association employees carry out the organization’s day-to-day tasks, association board members oversee the bigger picture—and they have been busier than ever through the pandemic. 

Two-thirds of board members say their time commitment to board service increased by 50 percent or more in 2020, and about one in five say they doubled or tripled their board service, according to a report from Marsh and McClennan and the Global Network of Director Institutes. 

Their biggest project when meeting in the (virtual) boardroom? Responding to short-term and long-term changes amid the pandemic. More than half (56 percent) say this is their top priority, followed by ensuring the success of virtual meetings (39 percent) and responding to new regulations (39 percent). 

Most board members (89 percent) feel they succeeded in helping their association respond to the COVID-19 crisis as it unfolded. Their challenge now is to work with association management on current pandemic-related issues while looking ahead to what a post-pandemic world looks like for members and employees. 

Amid last year’s many challenges lies a silver lining: an opportunity for creativity and innovation in associations. From recruiting and nurturing members to supporting employees and board members, promotional products can help associations progress through the pandemic and beyond.  


Today’s association members—especially younger members—want customized interactions and experiences. Three in four Millennials and Gen Z’s expect associations to understand their needs and expectations, according to Hum, the first association intelligence platform. 

Associations that send irrelevant messaging and fail to provide tailored experiences risk losing members who don’t see the importance of belonging. By using promotional products to connect with members in more meaningful ways, associations can add value and build loyalty.   

Associations can also use promotional items to build awareness and drive participation in virtual events. While members of many associations are accustomed to annual mega-events, the pandemic has created an interest in more frequent, smaller virtual gatherings. 

Community Brands surveyed more than 1,000 association members and found that 85 percent say virtual meetings and conferences are a top membership driver. More than half (65 percent) cite continuing education as a primary reason for membership and 33 percent place a high value on the certifications, training and credentialing their association provides.


When members can’t collaborate in person, associations can bring networking and continuing education opportunities to them. These are some of the most helpful ways to connect with members virtually, according to a study of association members during the pandemic:

92% Providing online networking

89% Providing online continuing education

88% Communicating through social networks

87% Allowing members to renew/pay dues online

87% Allowing members to earn certifications online

87% Providing online training

87% Offering virtual events

85% Communicating via an association website

85% Sharing information via a blog or online publication

84% Offering live chats

84% Hosting webinars/webcasts

84% Sending emails/e-newsletters

84% Communicating via mobile app

83% Using online forums

80% Running job boards

78% Providing online advocacy

77% Hosting town halls

Source: Community Brands’ study, “From Disruption to Opportunity”


Associations have deep roots in the U.S. According to ASAE, the first American settlers followed British traditions in forming guilds to support each other’s work and lifestyle, and to address common challenges. When French statesman and author Alexis de Tocqueville toured the U.S. in 1830, he marveled at how the new nation was succeeding due to Americans forming associations.  


The longer an association has been around, the more difficulty it likely faces in growing its membership. In 2020, mature organizations (in existence for 10 years or longer) lost more members than young organizations (less than four years old) and middle-age organizations (six to 10 years old). Promotional products distributors can work with older associations to help them explore new ways of connecting with prospective members. Consider these growth stats:

12 percent of mature associations shrunk last year, compared to five percent of middle-age associations and three percent of young associations

Five percent of mature associations grew by more than 20 percent, compared to 11 percent of middle-age associations and 24 percent of young associations

Source: The 2020 Membership Growth Report from Personify Wild Apricot


Associations face various challenges in growing their membership. These obstacles rank at the top:

46% Difficulty reaching potential members

43% Not enough time

33% Not enough budget

28% Prospective members were not familiar with the association

Source: The 2020 Membership Growth Report from Personify Wild Apricot


More than nine in 10 members who attended an association’s virtual event found it at least somewhat valuable, and more than one in three said it was very valuable. When planning for future events, promotional products distributors can work with associations to incorporate a mix of face-to-face, virtual and hybrid events. When all events are deemed safe again, here’s what members and employees say they prefer:

37% of employees prefer virtual events

33% of both association members and employees prefer in-person events

33% of members prefer virtual events

32% of members prefer hybrid events

26% of employees prefer hybrid events

Source: Personify’s report, “The Journey Ahead: The Future of Associations, Nonprofits and Events”


By 2025, Millennials and Gen Z’s are predicted to make up 75 percent of the workforce. However, these age groups only comprise 20 percent of current association membership. With promotional products, associations can get in front of these professionals and promote all the benefits of joining. 

Source: Hum


When crafting campaigns targeted at association members, it helps to understand the reasoning behind their membership. For example, 40 percent of younger association members (25-34 years old) often join associations to access professional development, education or training. The same percent say they join to network and build professional relationships. 

For most (56 percent) older association members (age 65 and older), membership is a way to stay current on the latest developments and news in their field. About half (46 percent) say they join associations to stay informed on the latest research in journals and publications. 

Source: McKinley Advisors


More than one in three association members (39 percent) say they are engaging with their organization more often now than before COVID-19, according to Community Brands. Even if their employers didn’t pay for their membership dues, 74 percent of members would still renew. 



Nearly all associations (98 percent) get revenue from membership dues, but they also bring in dollars in many other ways. 

71% Donations

70% Sponsorship by local businesses

62% Events

33% Members’ store

24% Lottery/raffle contests

12% Seasonal fundraising activities

Source: The 2020 Membership Growth Report from Personify Wild Apricot


Visit to explore more than 35,000 local, regional, national and international associations. 


Ideal for construction-related associations, the Six-Inch Architectural Wooden Two-Bevel Ruler features two white plastic scales on the front and an all-wooden backside with scales printed directly on the wood.  

Woodrow Engineering Co.  /  PPAI 113309, S3  /


Delight new or renewing members with the Heathered Cooler Totewhich features a zippered main compartment, a mesh side pocket and a solid front pocket. A 28-inch shoulder strap makes it easy to transport to a picnic table or park. 

Evans Manufacturing, Inc.  /  PPAI 110747, S10  /


Treat board members to a healthy breakfast before an early virtual meeting. The Yogurt Topping Set includes granola with almonds, trail mix and raw almonds. 

Midnite Snax  /  PPAI 113793, S3  /


With a new inspirational quote and scene every month, the Press-N-Stick™ Inspiration 13-month calendar gives associations a functional way to stay visible and uplift members all year long.  

Crown/IMAGEN Brands  /  PPAI 113430, S10  /


Useful for association members and employees alike, the Crosby Gold Softy metal ballpoint pen features a high-end look with gold accents, trim and clip. A soft-touch rubberized finish sets it apart from other pens.  

Goldstar  /  PPAI 114031, S7  / 


Associations can show employee appreciation with the Perka® Wayfarer 24-ounce Stainless Steel Mug. This vacuum-sealed, copper-lined mug keeps drinks hot for 10 hours or cold for 18 hours. 

Logomark, Inc.  /  PPAI 110898, S12  /


Labels, stickers and decals can play a supportive role in engaging donors and increasing awareness for associations’ causes and programs. The two-inch circle labels are a perfect fit for adhering to swag bags, mail pieces and shirt packaging. Identify volunteers quickly with brightly colored three-by-four-inch rectangle volunteer stickers. The four-by-six-inch window decals can be used indoors and outdoors, and the low-tack adhesive makes removal easy for yearly updates. Labels come on a roll for handy application.

Label Works  /  PPAI 111141, S3  /


Audrey Sellers is a Dallas-Fort Worth-based business writer and a former associate editor of PPB. 

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